In late 1997, an extraordinary event occurred in Ottawa. That’s when most of the world’s nations came together to sign a treaty banning landmines. These products of modern warfare kill approximately 25,000 innocent people every year. Countless others are maimed.
We all have to worry about justice.
Ursula Franklin, Every Tool Shapes The Task
That 121 countries agreed to stop this insanity was remarkable in itself. But the way in which this treaty came about is a testament to both the power and the possibilities of citizen action.
It can also serve as an inspiration in the struggle to eliminate global poverty.
The anti-landmines campaign was initiated by two NGOs – Medico International of Germany, and the Vietnam Veterans Foundation of America. They were joined by hundreds of other groups, including a Canadian coalition called Mines Action Canada. These citizens’ groups successfully pressured governments to take action. In 1997, the anti-landmines movement won the Nobel Peace Prize.
This movement points to the fallacy of fatalism – the belief that individuals can’t do anything to change their situations, or to contribute to significant social change. Instead, it points to what is possible when people come together with the conviction – and the confidence – that they can make a difference.
During the past 25 years, this has been the approach of voluntary sector organizations. Not content to let the traditional power brokers – nation states and business organizations – sit behind closed doors, quietly making decisions that affect us all, voluntary organizations, including NGOs working internationally, became active players.
The anti-landmine movement points to the fallacy of fatalism – the belief that individuals can’t do anything to change their situations, or contribute to significant social change.
For example, the work of NGOs was critical in stopping the ivory trade and commercial whaling. And they pressured international financial institutions to re-assess structural adjustment policies that affect the poor in disproportionately negative ways. They also prodded multinational corporations to alter their indiscriminate marketing of pharmaceuticals and infant formula in the South.
A mainstay of the global movement against apartheid, NGOs continue to form the basis of the international human rights movement. And through time, NGOs have evolved a vision of development that involves the grassroots in policy making.
Working in these kinds of ways is an important step towards democratizing decision-making at the international level. “Citizen diplomats”, from Oxfam to Women’s Eyes on the World Bank, now work beyond campaigns that focus on what they oppose. Increasingly, they’re putting their energies into supporting alternative visions of development.
Women’s organizations, for example, have launched a campaign to make the World Bank adhere to the Platform for Action worked out at the United Nation’s Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. They’re pressuring the Bank to involve women at the grassroots level in policy-making. They’re also pushing the Bank to invest more in women’s health, education, agriculture, and credit.
There’s a lot to do. Many powerful bodies – such as the World Trade Organization – resist change, relegating critics to participating on advisory committees. And while pressure from women’s organizations prompted the World Bank to establish an External Gender Consultative Group, the Bank has yet to make any substantial changes that address women’s concerns seriously.
This is discouraging. But it isn’t surprising. Social change takes time. It also takes concerted effort from a variety of quarters on a variety of fronts. Government institutions, for example, are needed to facilitate and manage the democratic processes and structures of society. The private sector is needed to promote economic growth in ways that are both socially and environmentally sustainable.
And community-based organizations that help people define, shape, and negotiate their own development are essential.
Working with NGOs isn’t the only way to accomplish democratic development. Most NGOs are formally structured and have professional staff with on-the-ground knowledge and experience of these issues. Historically though, it has been citizens choosing to act together on issues that touch their lives that has given birth to sweeping political movements.
Both the women’s movement and the environmental movement, for example, created a groundswell in public awareness of the oppression of women and environmental degradation. People from diverse backgrounds came together, united by their common concerns. The resulting social power has created a political climate in which these issues can’t be ignored.
Governments and other institutions, for example, are now forced to address the concerns these groups raise. NGOs consistently support their efforts. And both movements consistently push the private sector towards new levels of public accountability.
A problem as huge and complex as global poverty can only be successfully tackled if each of these sectors is involved. But meaningful action on the part of any one of them depends on citizens being a fundamental part of the process. This involves Canadians re-discovering what it means to be responsible, active citizens.
In short, it depends on everyone participating in a redefinition of the political process.
Democracy isn’t a one-shot deal. Democratic institutions are only as effective – and as democratic – as the people who run them. The reality is that social, political and economic reforms won’t endure unless citizens become more involved in making policy decisions.
Citizens are capable of changing the course, not only of their own communities, but of their own futures. They’re also capable of helping to make that happen for others.
NGOs can promote citizen participation by setting an example. When they first became concerned with eradicating global poverty, NGOs sent money to the South to dig wells, feed children and support social movements. Today they understand that working democratically as partners in social change is essential.
Northern NGOs face the challenge of developing equitable relationships with the Southern groups they support. This means working together to determine how and where money will be invested. It also means replacing hierarchical power structures with egalitarian ways of making decisions. In this way, people at the grassroots level will be genuinely empowered to effect changes that improve the quality of their lives.
We, the citizens of Canada, face the challenge of taking citizenship seriously.
Vaclav Havel, the Czech President, argues that strong forces deliberately try to divert citizens from social concerns. Consumerism is by far the simplest, easiest, and most seductive diversion. “By nailing a man’s whole attention to the floor of his mere consumer interests,” writes Havel, “it is hoped to render him incapable of appreciating the ever-increasing degree of his spiritual, political, and moral degradation”.
But people who recognize the fundamental role they can play in shaping the world in which we live will insist on being involved in public policy debates. They’ll gather together, talk about the issues that concern them, and weigh the pros and cons of different kinds of political action. Then they’ll be in a position to make considered judgments.
Becoming empowered. Contributing to positive social change. Eliminating world poverty. These are achievable. But they won’t happen until people believe they’re possible – and then work together to make them a reality.