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COMM-ORG Papers 2006

Citizen Action, Knowledge and Global Economic Power:
Intersections of Popular Education, Organizing, and Advocacy

Lisa VeneKlasen & Darshana Patel

Just Associates


Naming the Moment:  What’s Wrong with the Big Picture?
Think Globally, Act Locally or Vice Versa?
    1.   Popular Education, Consciousness-Raising and Economic Policy
    2.   Bridges and Disconnects between Popular Education, Organizing and Advocacy 
    3.  Global campaigns: Winning vs. building?
    4.  Research Raises Additional Questions
Other Practical Questions and Going Forward
    Ideas for Followup
Popular Education Resources
Popular Economic Education Resources
Workshop Participants
About the Author


 From August 1-3rd, 2005 Just Associates, Action Aid International, and the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) -Participation Group co-convened a workshop to explore how to expand and deepen citizen engagement in order to make global economic policymaking more democratic and responsive to a people-centered sustainable development agenda. We were interested in how civil society organizations can make a lasting difference on economic policies and priorities—including trade, debt, structural adjustment, environmental and labor standards, and privatization—that affect rights, livelihoods and beyond. More concretely, the workshop considered ways of strengthening and bridging diverse economic justice strategies – ranging from advocacy and campaigning to community development, organizing and popular education – with a focus on the elusive task of building meaningful citizen[1] influence from local to global arenas.

The diversity of the participants, who approached the workshop theme from very different strategic, geographic and political perspectives, proved challenging.  Finding common language for core concepts in the conversation – like organizing, popular education, consciousness, economic literacy, advocacy, mobilization, citizenship and power – could not be taken for granted.  Each convening organization drew upon a different set of actors working on the workshop topics from different locations and viewpoints. For instance, AAI brought staff from Asia, Africa, Latin America and the UK, including country directors, program staff, regional campaigners and policy staff. Some have a community development perspective and others see the world from their global advocacy vantage point. Just Associates brought trade union activists and grassroots educators and organizers from the US and South Africa while IDS brought researchers working with and writing about civil society actors involved in global economic policy work as well as an Oxfam campaigner.    

The following questions guided our discussions during the meeting:

What are some of the ways that global economic power operates and what are the implications for local to global citizen organizing and economic justice strategies?  

What does our history and current practice in popular education, community and union organizing, advocacy and campaigning tell us about our work on global economic power?

What do the insights and lessons gained from looking at the intersections and disconnects between these political approaches and different forms of power mean to our concrete work?

How do we better ground our economic policy advocacy in a people-centered holistic approach to building countervailing power for an alternative agenda?

The following observations from the workshop conveners about prevalent challenges in our practice framed discussions. Although there was not full agreement with these characterizations, they resonated in the case studies and analysis during the workshop:

Trade-offs between campaigning, advocacy and grassroots strategies:  experience indicates that education that begins with local issues and combines critical questioning about root causes with organizing can be an effective way of engaging people to think about and take action on injustices produced by the global economy. Yet these grassroots political approaches seem to get lost and overtaken by an emphasis on policy or message-driven advocacy. Information-centered strategies tend to overlook the insidious way ideology shapes people’s sense of what’s happening and what they can do. In some cases, the analysis and information – though vital – can disempower local people and their organizations.  What can be learned from current and past practice that might enable us to better balance and combine different strategies at different levels?

Politics and lessons from popular education: What do we mean by ‘popular education’, particularly as it relates to demystifying and addressing economic power?  ‘Economic literacy’ is widely used to describe very different approaches to education geared toward different audiences and aims, ranging from simplifying basic economic terms to exploring economic roles in the home. How is education that involves critical analysis of local economic issues in relation to global economic agendas different than education that revolves around information about the global economy?  How is education embedded in longer-term organizing and political empowerment different than education in workshops or training initiatives that are not explicitly connected to a particular ‘struggle’ – in terms of content, process and impact? How do we overcome the apparent disconnects between popular education, consciousness-raising, organizing and advocacy when in the past, popular education often involved all of these things?

Finding the balance between people, politics and information: What are some of strengths and weaknesses of NGO-driven advocacy and campaign efforts with regard to deepening citizen engagement?  How do we build people’s voice and power when many organizing efforts are often carried out as tactical 'mobilization' in support of a campaign (i.e. turning out numbers regardless of whether the mobilized are aware of the political goals) and popular education is often seen as a set of techniques for interactive learning disconnected from political action or lacking in ways to help people grapple with political realities, including the ideologies shaping economic policy?  How to combine and carry out long-term organizing, education, awareness-raising and advocacy in the context of the changing global economy given the shifting roles and demands on governments shaped by the dynamics of neoliberalism?

The discussions around these questions at the workshop highlighted the tensions we all face as we confront these challenges from different roles and perspectives.  Given our differences, there was considerable but still inadequate time spent exploring key political assumptions underlying our views about strategies. Nevertheless, we clearly shared a commitment to building the voice and leverage of people who are marginalized by global economic power. The overall challenge going forward is how best to realize that commitment when injustice is felt locally and much of the power dynamics causing it are distantly global?

Naming the Moment:  What’s Wrong with the Big Picture?

We began our conversations with a brief joint contextual analysis to name some of the political, social and economic forces shaping our strategies in different.  Neoliberalism is a powerful and pervasive force, with many elements.  As the sole paradigm shaping not just policy priorities but also perspectives about development, it has clearly shifted the relative balance of power between the private sector, governments and civil society.  Transnational corporations have emerged as dominant actors worldwide. Two decades of liberalization, deregulation and privatization combined with increasing government indebtedness, have reduced the capacity and to some degree, sovereignty of many governments. While corruption continues unabated at all levels, even reform-minded governments find themselves squeezed between the growing demand for basic services and rights, and the conditionalities and demands of International Financial Institutions (IFIs), the World Trade Organization (WTO) and others.  Continued privatization of essential services like water and healthcare has neither expanded nor improved services in general, and only increased the cost in others. Much local-level and small-scale agriculture and industry has lost out to larger, often foreign, competitors. Given the mobility of capital, stable livelihoods and jobs are fewer and increasingly precarious. 

The emerging and shifting actors and interests that dominate global economic agendas and institutions present more elusive decisionmaking targets for civil society advocates.  These overarching political-economic trends overlap with others, such as US unilateralism, militarization, and religious fundamentalisms.  This panorama extends the contours of economic justice work beyond the question of policy reform to the more complex realities of how people’s lives, worldview and sense of their future have been shaped by these trends.  It is perhaps here, focusing on issues of ideology, fear, patriarchy and the challenges of survival that the work of promoting citizen engagement needs to look more closely.  Speaking “on behalf of people” or “for people” – as do many of the NGO advocacy efforts –  is simply not enough to generate the kind of citizen involvement necessary to produce the political pressure required to be heard and to negotiate alternatives.

Hopeful signs of political opportunity and change were also identified.  One the one hand, the “crisis” of the Washington Consensus[2]  -- while not yet translating into significant policy change – is a crack in the wall. Despite difficulties, people are using the internet to organize on a larger scale than ever.  Memories of organizing to disrupt global trade talks in Seattle before 9/11 are not forgotten.  The coordinated anti-Iraq war marches in February 2003 mobilized millions of people in dozens of countries simultaneously.  While it did not halt the war, it illustrated the possibilities of coordinated action.   The World Social Forum processes were identified by many participants as a promising alternative space for bridge-building and cross-fertilization among NGOs, social movements, North-South, and distinct agendas.  Similarly, the emergence of transnational social movements, like Via Campesina, were considered important. 

The big picture analysis began our discussions about “NGO-ization” and its implications for local to global economic justice work and citizen engagement in particular.  A number of participants discussed the difficult trade offs large NGOs face as they seek to scale-up the impact of their advocacy work.  While efforts like the Live 8 concerts and the Global Call Against Poverty managed to mobilize thousands, achieving a depth of engagement remains a continuing challenge. Some feel that such grand-scale efforts may contribute to the de-politicization and disconnects between organizing, popular education, advocacy and campaigning and between local realities and global strategies. 

Thus, our challenge is not just a question of not-so-new dominant actors and agendas shaping economic realities, but also a question of the extent to which our own patterns of work contribute to fragmentation and disengagement. 

Think Globally, Act Locally or Vice Versa?

Case studies about popular education, organizing, advocacy and campaigning grounded our discussions and provided a rich sense of the possibilities and challenges. 

1.   Popular Education, Consciousness-Raising and Economic Policy

Despite the often-used saying that “knowledge is power”, popular educators tend to be sensitive to the fact that knowledge can be as disempowering as it is empowering depending on how it is generated and used, and in what context. For example, complex information about economy policy, presented without reference to relevant experience can simply remind people that they, in fact, “know nothing” and that only distant experts can sort out the mess.  What’s worse, people who suffer the worst of economic and political inequality -- poor people, refugees, women, migrant and low-wage workers, and ethnic minorities – feel they are to blame for their predicament because “they’re ignorant”.  At the same time, sharp analysis and information is essential for understanding and engaging effectively.

The best of popular education attempts to address this internalized oppression by enabling people to question and unpack the myths generated by dominant ideologies using what they know from experience.  This is the process referred to as building critical consciousness.  Deeper analysis, new ideas and information are introduced as a way to better understand and begin to address people’s situation.  Popular education is meant to demystify the multiple dimensions of power and create a space for practicing and building alternative forms of power. 

“Popular education and organizing, if done well, are really the same thing.”

Global economic power presents a unique challenge to popular educators because its impact at the local level can be difficult to trace. Certainly local and national government and elites hold some responsibility for these problems, as well as colonialism, imperialism and patriarchy.  But there is also a distant set of economic actors, interests and agendas not only defining the economic priorities and possibilities, but also, explaining the world in a way that normalizes the inequality and poverty the current arrangement produces.  Increasingly educators and activists working on economic issues must gather accurate information that is often unavailable to people at the local level to help them understand economic policy and power dynamics well enough to develop sound strategies.  This involves an iterative process that systematically combines outside, technical knowledge with personal, experiential knowledge, helping challenge people to rethink their assumptions and actions.    

Lisa VeneKlasen gave a glimpse of some of the challenges of dealing with the ideological dimensions of neoliberalism in the context of Just Associates’ work with trade unions in the Balkans in partnership with Lisa McGowan of the Solidarity Center.


“I want to be a good shareholder”:

Lessons about consciousness and the global economy from Serbia-Montenegro

The “Economic Education for Action” initiative works closely with 15 labor educators and organizers belonging to unions that are affiliated with three labor federations in Serbia and Montenegro. The aim is to enable workers and their unions to gain more influence on the local to global economic policy processes and issues shaping their lives.

Part of the former Yugoslavia, Serbia and Montenegro are among the newly independent countries emerging from the devastating wars in that region over the last 20 years.  When the project began in 2003, people in this region were struggling to recover from the loss and dislocation produced by the war. Many people remained traumatized by the loss of family members and friends, their homes and jobs, and their cultural and historical connections to Bosnians, Croatians and others that used to be part of their country.  Equally jolting, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund were carrying out an accelerated economic restructuring process led by expert teams from Price Waterhouse and other powerful consulting firms. This created intense pressure on a barely functioning government that was still under the control by the corrupt behind-the-scenes forces associated with the brutal strongman, Slobodon Milosevic. Three-quarters of the loans that Serbia-Montenegro was receiving from the IFIs were structural adjustment loans as compared with the standard limit of just one-quarter.  It became clear during this project that this type of accelerated transition is increasingly common for post-conflict countries, thus taking advantage of the window of opportunity created by the temporary paralysis of people recovering from war who would otherwise resist.  The restructuring included a rapid privatization process affecting hundreds of small and large firms each month and the liberalization of labor and social policies.  In 2004, the unemployment rate hovered at 35%, corruption and political violence continued and workers were striking at the steel plant against their new employer, US Steel, who’d bought the plant at a rock-bottom price but refused to meet the workers’ demands for $10/day.    

 “Information provision about the global economy alone will not change or engage the workers in a way that helps them take hold of their situation.”

Against this backdrop of stark local economic realities so concretely shaped by global economic power, the union leadership and individual workers were struggling to figure out what was happening and how to engage. They blamed themselves for the state of the economy and unemployment.  Seasoned unionists with a sharp sense of politics and economics described themselves as “backward” and “ignorant”, and felt ashamed of the economic losses people were suffering. They hoped to learn about the “free market economy” so that they could “modernize” and “conform better to corporate culture”. They wanted “to be better shareholders”. In this context, the project coordinators were concerned that information about economic policy alone would only reinforce the myth that the economic policy choices people were enduring were “scientific” rather than a question of power and interests. 

The first step of the Education for Action project was to create a process where unionists could recover their rich political and economic understanding of the last ten years of their history.  Many of the participants perceived the market economy as “an inevitable force of nature”.  Through the process, workers constructed an in-depth analysis comparing the dynamics between the state, the market and civil society over time against key historical events. Gaining confidence in their own knowledge, they later produced a detailed timeline of privatization laws against the backdrop of economic downturns they experienced – using their cell-phones to call colleagues and friends who might provide more accurate information for its construction.  Within a short-time, unionists were working together in self-selected groups and individually to monitor, gather and weave together information about economic policy with what they knew about national and EU politics.  Information emerged that the EU and the US government had made the privatization of water and electricity a condition for accession and loans.  Moving beyond a narrow understanding of their interest solely as workers, unionists explored alternative economic and political ideas and hopes through consultations with family and community.

As this project continues today, one of the many challenges facing the increasingly active unionists is their own union leadership and structures that may not accommodate the activist and questioning nature of the labor educators.  Federation leadership are often invited by global and national policy actors in the Balkans to participate in policy “dialogues”, creating the impression that their views are being heard.  “Although we attempted to mitigate this inevitable resistance (to a more activist rank and file) at the top by carrying out short sessions with leadership and exploring the possibilities of linking the education to a larger federation campaign on water, electricity or another key economic issue,” Lisa explained, “it was clear that there were much more complicated obstacles blocking action.”[3]


Bobbie Marie, a long-time trade union organizer and popular educator from South Africa, traced consciousness work from the anti-apartheid struggles to the present, offering further insights about the invisible aspects of power. 


Race and class consciousness:
Lessons from anti-apartheid and worker struggles in South Africa


Bobby Marie shared his formative experiences with popular education in the anti-apartheid struggles.  Bobby learned about the transformative power of popular education as a Sunday School teacher at the age of 16 when he broke from the traditional teaching methods and had the students in more active engagement with ideas.  He was soon admonished for using these methods and was asked to use the more rigorous, rote teaching methods because they would teach the kids to follow the church. 

 “Education is about creating a space where peoples’ selves can emerge and they may do things that run counter to authority.”

In the 1970s in South Africa, the liberation movement was crushed and the apartheid regime was very strong.  In this political environment, a new student-led movement emerged that brought in ideas from Steven Biko and Black Consciousness that asserted that oppression not only operated in explicit ways but also resided “inside our heads”. Education and organizing efforts took up this challenge: “You’ve got whitey in your head and need to get him out. Only once the oppression was dispelled within ourselves could we be creative and create in our own spaces.” The movement spread rapidly.  “Within about 4 years, high school kids challenged language – the dominance of Afrikaans in schools. They asserted, ‘We will not learn the language of the oppressor. Culture was a powerful weapon in the way of the arts’”.  An important realization was that the problem in South Africa at that historical moment was about race, as much as it was about economics.   

In the 1980s, the movement was increasingly dominated by workers and trade unions.  Workers organized outside of the ANC and unions focused on building activist members rather than “managing” the workers.  In this highly politicized context, organizing and education were intertwined and unions created space for reflection as a form of organizing.  The energy and action generated by these education efforts had to do with the fact that they were located within a larger struggle and movement.  

Bobby concluded by pointing out that very little of this type of union organizing takes place in South Africa today because most of those union leaders are now in government and in ministries dealing with practical macroeconomic problems.  The focus of the unions has shifted to engaging and negotiating with government on macroeconomic and industrial policies. As a result, the education is technical, aimed more at helping workers understand policy compromises and choices rather than question them politically. _______________________________________________________________________

Participants shared a broad sample of popular education processes from around the world and reflected on how approaches evolve and work in different settings. Because of time these were not discussed in full but they deserve more attention to maximize the insights and questions they offer.  During the 1980s, ‘The Moment Project’ provided a space and process that allowed Canadian social justice groups fighting trade agreements to reflect systematically on their efforts, analyze the ever-shifting forces of power, and adjust their strategies accordingly.  Many popular economic educators adapt elements from the manual, “Naming the Moment”[4]

REFLECT, a well-known education process developed by ActionAid International to help people acquire basic literacy skills, provides opportunities for both analysis and action.  The processes and results vary from country to country.  In Nepal, Dalit women concluded that part of their discrimination stems from the fact that society assigned them the role of disposing of dead animals.  After convincing male leaders, their communities led a protest movement that won them the right to refuse this onerous task. However, in the process women were relegated to traditional roles behind the scenes of the organizing effort, a fact that only underscores the importance of addressing invisible dimensions of power and continual consciousness-raising. 

One participant noted how social movements in Brazil gained strength through long-term education, consciousness-raising and organizing processes begun in the 1960s that continue in different forms today.  In the US, the Highlander Center, a 75 year old folk school that was at the heart of union and civil rights struggles, continues to accompany poor and immigrant communities who are losing their jobs to globalization, helping them understand why and to fight back. Susan William’s story below outlines the gains and challenges of that process.  Highlander’s collaboration with communities in the 1970s and early 80s, undertaking a participatory research project on land tenancy, property tax and government services, continues to be a strong example of how local and expert knowledge can be woven together to develop a powerful campaign for economic justice.


As a community organizer and popular educator (“which are the same thing”) with the Tennessee Industrial Renewal Network (TIRN) in the US, Susan Williams worked with communities facing a wave of factory closings all over Southeastern region of the US in the early 1990s. 

Trained as a community organizer, I believe that people directly affected should lead. We as organizers were there to help but people can make a difference and that is how change happens.  In Tennessee, we were working on local issues which led us to work on global issues even though it was not part of our plan initially.  We took on this global work because this is where our work with community people led us.”

Describing a long-term organizing and education effort that ultimately came to confront the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Susan highlighted challenges of consciousness.  “Those who lost their jobs blamed themselves for their economic situation… People often feel intimidated by too much technical, economic information.  All of the workers came with so much knowledge rooted in their own experiences and it was important to validate it along with the more ‘expert’ knowledge…that we had to work hard to find and understand.”  She stressed the value of telling stories about how other communities had fought back, “to inspire people against a demoralizing situation”.  Each workshop was intended to give people a sense of agency and fresh ideas about what to do when they returned home.    

Union and community organizers understood that NAFTA would play an important role in the lives of workers and citizens.  As part of a larger popular education and organizing effort to help people understand how the political and economic system was undermining their jobs, the organizers arranged exchange visits between workers from factories in Mexico and those in Tennessee, where many factories had been shut down, often to re-open in Mexico.  “This was very sensitive work because of the tendency for people who’ve lost their jobs to blame the next set of workers rather than the company.”

Often, the exchange visits would take place between workers of the same factory that had closed in Tennessee and relocated to Mexico.  Through the sharing of personal stories and conversations about wages and working conditions, workers from both countries became powerfully aware that the economic system was not benefiting either side. Visits were structured so that the same workers kept going back and built on past conversations.  “People experienced a lot of pain and anger through these experiences…but it also gave them a sense of connection and solidarity that’s energizing.”

Organizers also brought workers from Canada to talk with US counterparts.  These conversations around NAFTA were taking place all over the US in local communities. Meanwhile, advocacy groups in Washington, DC that worked on campaigning and lobbying connected with these community groups and shared information

In the midst of these efforts, NAFTA was being secretly negotiated between the US, Mexico and Canada.  NAFTA was eventually passed through behind the scenes maneuvering. “We really did affect the political views of the people in Tennessee but in the end, the corporate machine came out and bought the votes of Congress.  It was visible and we all saw it.”  Talking about how the loss happened with the communities was an important part of the consciousness-raising work, Susan notes, “to help people understand how powerful the corporate interests are and what mechanisms they’ll use to win.”

Highlighting a crucial lesson from this experience, Susan explained: “We used so many people with so many different skills and types of expertise who were supportive, but the education and organizing successes were based on what the workers wanted to do. People who feel like they can do anything can do amazing things. It did not stop NAFTA but I think if we did this kind of work all over the country and we kept doing this with a movement-building perspective, we could have beaten NAFTA. If we really grapple with the disconnects of the power between Washington groups and US groups and community groups and labor groups, we have an ability to make a change.”  


The three presentations stimulated a longer discussion about how popular education methodologies have become increasingly formalized and delinked from organizing and from advocacy work. While popular education historically grew out of resistance struggles, there are many examples of it being co-opted for other purposes, including by revolutionary movements themselves.  Today, with the “‘technification” of change work, it is often reduced to a set of participatory techniques devoid of a deeper analysis of power and disconnected from a broader political process or vision.  Some educators and organizers have become disillusioned as a result, dismissing the importance of some of the processes and analysis associated with popular education.  How do those of us who serve as facilitators and educators revalue, refocus and rebalance our work to give greater emphasis to processes such as consciousness-raising and strengthening critical thinking?   And how do we validate different kinds of outside knowledge without overstepping boundaries as facilitators?

2.   Bridges and Disconnects between Popular Education, Organizing and Advocacy 

The cases above about popular education illustrate the potential, as well as the challenges, of popular education embedded in a larger political project.  In JoJo Geronimo’s presentation about his work with the largest US labor union during the last US presidential race, he described his attempt to negotiate a linked strategy within the union as an attempt to “win and build”.   As a long-time Filipino organizer, activist and popular educator JoJo draws on extensive experience and knowledge of the Philippines, Canada and the US and he pointed out some of the shared challenges across countries.  

How to win and build: lessons from union organizing around the US presidential election

“Unions are good at winning short-term campaigns but does winning campaigns build a social movement? What’s worse, does a narrow policy definition of winning undermine the potential for building movements?”
Ten months before the 2004 presidential elections in the US, Jojo describes how a strategy was devised by his union for helping elect the presidential candidate and defeat Bush. As a long-time popular educator, he wanted to link electoral victory with building up the trade union movement. He described “building” as supporting worker solidarity to raise class consciousness and ultimately create a broad-based organized political change effort. But the real challenge was how to create a process for people to question power and interests in a broader sense amidst the bombardment of simple messages around the immediately upcoming elections. “How would we defeat Bush but also talk about the broader right-wing social agenda and neo-liberalism during that process?”

Unions are seen as a progressive force for workers rights but historically, they have also sided with the US government’s counter-insurgency foreign policy; they’ve resisted women’s participation, and they’ve been racist and against immigrants. During the time of the 2004 elections in the US, the manufacturing job base had continued to erode, further stimulating anti-immigration sentiment and a growing conservatism among the working class.

In this context, Jojo described the union’s work in the state of Florida just a week before the elections. Organizers came in from out of state to set up shop without adequately coordinating with and supporting ongoing local organizing. Large unions hired campaign volunteers in key districts and paid between $40 and $70 a day. While the unions were attempting to “win” the state of Florida, community groups with experienced organizers and connections to people didn’t have the resources to “mobilize” and were sidelined.
In talking about the elections with union members, Jojo sought to emphasize the broader social and economic justice agenda, not simply questions of jobs and wages. He asked, “Why talk about a 3% increase in wages when housing costs go up by 20%? What is the use of negotiating for job security if the entire operation is contracted out off shore? What is the importance in talking about access to healthcare when the workers face racism in a workplace that makes them sick? Connecting these workplace issues with social issues – like racism and sexism – is crucial in achieving both goals.”

The troubling loss of the 2004 election to the right-wing nevertheless created some openings for rethinking long-term “movement-building” strategies among US union leadership. “Education can be a tool to give people the skills and commitment to carry out campaign tasks but often the education staff is sidelined in an organization primarily interested in winning – and winning has only to do with short-term legislative victories. While policy is critical, we need to broaden our understanding of winning so that winning and building are not at polar opposites. The vital link between them is a long-term vision.”

Participants agreed that concept of “winning” needs to be redefined to include and go beyond policy gains. Policy change, which is often a tangible success, does not necessarily mean or lead to broader social change or even guarantee long-term policy victories. Too often policy gains are reversed at a later moment because a counterbalancing power base has not been sustained. Policy is important but winning needs to balance the other tasks involved in building political clout, such as popular organizations led by the disenfranchised as well as allied organizations that can maintain those gains. Winning also needs to involve challenging feelings and structures of powerlessness and the ideologies that underpin them. These range from beliefs about economic systems and the causes of poverty to ideas about the role of government and whose rights count in society.
Popular educators and organizers at the local level and advocates at the global level face different challenges as they try to understand and balance engagement in these two realities, which can generate tensions. Because international and national campaign work often creates more opportunities for visibility and generates a sense, at least among professional staff, of being close to power, NGOs tend to invest more resources in lobbying and policy influence than education and organizing. Donors have exacerbated this imbalance by focusing on measurable outcomes in the short-term, specifically policy gains. As some groups have entered national and international policy spaces, there has been a tendency to focus strategies on presenting policy proposals and engaging in ‘civilized’ debates between NGO staff and policy-makers. The following example illustrates some of the challenges inherent in information and evidence-based advocacy with a weak link to citizen and union education and organizing.

Lessons from the Kenyan Sugar Campaign

 Ashish Shah, the Western Region Coordinator for ActionAid Kenya described the Sugar Campaign for Change (SUCAM) as an “advocacy experiment”, with many lessons about the importance and limitations of sound technical economic policy analysis in engaging citizens in political processes.  This effort began in 2001 and sought to better understand and respond to the growing poverty in the sugar-producing and fishing region of Western Kenya. 

SUCAM was not a “grassroots” body. The core team leading the project consisted of mostly professionals – academics, NGOs, an ex-MP - with the exception of one farmer. It did not envision itself as a “people’s movement” but rather as a “movement of ideas” led by individuals with technical knowledge and a strong commitment to the industry. “Our assumption was that good information alone would touch the psyche of farmers, which would motivate them to organize themselves.”  SUCAM would interview and consult farmers about their analysis and the points they would use to lobby Parliament.  Because the core team felt it did not have the legitimacy to organize, it used education as a means to spur organizing amongst farmers.     

When SUCAM began to gather information about the different levels of economic problems sugar farmers faced, they were struck by the fact that many farmers thought they were poor because their growing plots were too small.   While a majority of farmers in Kenya had more than 2 acres of land, which as certainly viable, they were faced with the neoliberal idea that only large 100 acre plantations were successful.  Clearly, the ideological myth that small-scale farming is not viable had shaped the farmer’s sense of themselves, despite their own past successes that contradicted that myth.  Farmers were also losing trust in the very cooperative societies that were supposed to represent them and were facing increasing costs of production and delayed payments.  At the local level, there were practical as well as ideological debates about what was happening to sugar farmers. 

Nationally, the Apex Industry Organization (the former Kenya Sugar Authority) as well as the Ministry of Agriculture operated through ad hoc political partronage.  Despite the claim to represent all farmers, the industry organization was comprised of powerful people, including many of the President’s friends, deliberately excluding the vast majority – the small farmers. “They worked to amass wealth for the government and the traders, not the farmers”.  With regard to sugar prices and protective mechanisms for the small-farmers, the problem was more with the regional trade system, COMESA, than the WTO.  Kenya was part of the common market for Eastern and Sub Saharan African states, and the zero tariff structure within COMESA was a big risk to the sugar industry. (Kenya is the only country in the world to have zero tariffs on sugar.)

SUCAM organizers recognized that farmers were facing so many problems that it was difficult to pick out a few that would really challenge the core of the issue.  Ashish described the scenario where farmers were bombarded with problems at all of these levels and felt daunted by them.   As farmers dealt with a problem on at the local level, they were quickly undermined at the regional level and had to suddenly address a new problem.  The reverse was also true.

“Imagine yourselves as poor farmers.  AAI says the Cancun WTO Ministerial is happening so sugar farmers focus their attention there.  While farmers are working at that level, the government eats up their space and so then farmers have to go focus on EPAS[5]. When they are looking at the national government, the G8 distracts… then corruption… then aid conditionality.  All of this keeps eating at people’s space because we’re not touching on the core.”

After talking with affected farmers, SUCAM organizers realized that farmers essentially did not have any influence over the direction the industry was moving.  The core team decided that the central problem was less about economics and more about governance, including lack of transparency and accountability of Apex and other industry institutions, lack of effective farmer representation, general government apathy toward the sugar industry, and many other factors.

Thus, SUCAM shifted gears to attempt to address the structural problems. 

“It would have been easy to lobby on the subsidies or the weighing at the local level.  But what is the issue?  The structural issues that came to us were that farmers did not have any space, no control over the way the industry was moving and if there is anything to do in addressing these problems, we have to work here first…. to change the power dynamics. We looked at the politics side of things to able to address the economics.”

With that move, SUCAM became more focused on the “movement of ideas” about governance, though still with little attention to engaging and mobilizing people.  “AAI staff in SUCAM came to recognize their own elite status and the fact that they themselves were distanced from farmers’ realities.”  Given their limited relationship and work with farmers, it was unclear whether the farmers’ would share their view of the priority problems. At the time, Ashish says he had little faith in the potential of popular education because he had seen it used only as a participatory learning methodology disconnected from political work.

“Popular education and citizen organizing can only take place if there is trust.  How can citizens trust the process of popular education if there is no consistency, relevance and follow up? The process of consciousness-raising must revolve around local contexts and gradually use that space to analyze wider issues that may not be apparent earlier on.”

Given the tendency to depoliticize and separate issues in technical boxes – e.g. economics-governance, SUCAM staff may not have seen that an effective process of educating and organizing the farmers around some of the hard-felt economic issues would likely have led to confrontations about who speaks for whom, who’s interests are excluded, and other governance questions.  And linked to this is the question: what role do outsiders have in organizing.  We had made assumptions about the existing farmers’ organizations and their legitimacy.  What happens when existing organizations have lost legitimacy – how does new organizing take place?

Ashish wrapped up with the following reflections:

“How can we talk about global democracy if there is no national democracy?  It seems that too much attention paid to making global democracy work without sufficient attention on national democratic processes will not guarantee change for poor citizens.  One of the core purposes of popular education must be seen as being a core part of the process of national democratization.  Popular education needs to become less abstract and more relevant to the psyche of citizens.  States will only challenge the global governance system if citizens challenge the state’s accountability.

“Each country has a different economic reality and context – and we need to promote and recognize these differences. We have to remind ourselves that it’s not only about north south anymore. It’s regional. Look at the competition and tensions between Uganda and Kenya over maize!  In this case, when we talk about another world is possible, and alternatives, we must not fall into the SAPS “one size fits” all trap!  There is no one alternative and alternative does not necessarily mean opposite. 

“In this way, good economics is not about ideology but rather about the employment of practical context-based evidence and theory for a particular context.  Bad economics is when means are confused as ideological ends, like liberalization and privatization. 

“SUCAM experiment has focused in a context where no farmer organization existed.  Our assumption then has been that the movement of ideas will at one point gradually lead to a movement of people driven and organized by people themselves.  Our reality has shown this is long term, and may not necessarily be true.  People tend to organize more during times of crises than times of peace.”

The Kenyan government may have listened to cane farmers if they were organized in a way to use their numbers as the largest constituency (the sugar industry supports 5 million people in Kenya).  “Economic analysis of alternatives is useless without the understanding and political power of citizenry,” Ashish concluded.

Bobby Marie compared the evolution and fragmentation of civil society as it seeks to engage in global advocacy to changes in automobile assembly and production over the years in response to globalization.  Before, several workers assembled a single car at a time, but today, since the car and its parts are produced and assembled in so many different places, only the designers have knowledge of the whole process.  The people making the car lose their creative connection to and ownership of the production process, and become a cog in the disconnected system.  Ideas and designs are only generated and shared at the top. Similarly, the policy advocate at the global level is the gatherer and keeper of knowledge about the whole advocacy process – the issues and agendas remain disconnected from the people and situations that are meant to drive or certainly, benefit from the change process. “The question is how do we re-ignite the energy, role and power of citizens, workers and people who are distant from the advocacy – structurally and methodologically?”

3.  Global campaigns: Winning vs. building?

Increased openings for civil society participation in policy processes have presented new opportunities for citizen groups to step into political spaces.  These “invited policy spaces” (see below) can heighten the tensions between NGOs – who may be closer to the inside – and social movements pressuring from the outside. In trying to respond to the fast-paced demands of these spaces some organizations end up excluding the poor and marginalized from participation and decision-making and replacing staff with experience in grassroots organizing and popular education with policy analysts.  

With economic decisionmaking fragmented geographically, the challenges surrounding global advocacy and campaigning – including issues of representation, constituency, disconnects from local realities and people – have come into stark relief in the last decade as NGOs have grown and become increasingly specialized.  Lisa McGowan shared reflections from the early years of the “50 Years is Enough” coalition, offering insights into how and what has changed about campaigning.

“All data is anecdotal” and other simple arguments to use with IFIs:
Lessons from the early years of the 50 Years is Enough Coalition

In the early 1990s 50 Years is Enough was created by a group of six environmental organizations that wanted to expand their advocacy aimed at the IFIs  from solely focusing on preventing destructive dam construction – an effort that had generated key successes around the world – to challenging structural adjustment policies, a core element of the IFI’s macro-economic prescription.  Over the years, this core group grew from 6 to 140 groups from faith-based, environmental, development and women’s rights communities in the US. 

Lisa McGowan and others from the core group argued that a key problem had to do with the disconnect between the DC-based, IFI policy makers, and the raw impact and realities of those affected by structural adjustment policies.  Lisa highlighted that the 50 Years is Enough campaign aimed to change the power politics behind the relationship between the US government and the IFIs, not just to change specific policies.  

Initially, the strategy focused on changing the US government’s role in funding the World Bank and IMF by persuading Congress to acknowledge the damage the IFIs’ policies and projects were creating, and to use the threat of withholding crucial US tax dollars as leverage.  While there were key allies in the Global South at the time, the strategy was fundamentally US-based, with a focus on getting US constituencies to pressure their representatives. 

The successes of the 50 Years coalition can be attributed in part to its purposeful use of media to bring the disastrous impact of these policies to the light of day.  Indeed, a sign of their success was the creation of a Public Relations department by the World Bank. Larger development organizations within the coalition, such as CARE and Oxfam, also used their power to challenge the World Bank’s reputation. 

Most importantly, the coalition placed the people most affected by structural adjustment at the center of the debate and decision-making.  Coalition advocates were often challenged by those within the World Bank and IMF to come up with an alternative to the current paradigm. Interpreting their challenges as political rather than about technical details, Lisa recalls when she and Charles Abugre from Ghana gave the easy response: “by investing in people, creating jobs and ensuring basic healthcare and education.”   When Abugre’s analysis was questioned by IFI staff as “anecdotal data” he responded, “All data is anecdotal.”

While structural adjustment has been an important battle for many economic justice advocates over the years, ultimately there has been little change in policy.  This is partially because of the inability to mobilize large constituencies to pressure policymakers continuously, despite important successes, such as the mobilization against the WTO in Seattle in 2001.   

Charles Abugre and Lisa McGowan’s responses to the IFI staff may be hard to imagine for experienced global advocates today who pride themselves on the soundness and depth of their analysis.  In an attempt to respond to growing pressure for technical arguments and positions, global advocates and campaigners, particularly in international NGOs (INGOs), have felt the need to build their expertise and areas of specialization, creating further challenges around representation and participation.

“INGOs can be either missionaries or mercenaries – located in between the undemocratic power sources at global level and the disenfranchised – they are the conduit through which each speaks to the other.” 

Specialization: During our discussions, staff from INGOS pointed out that overspecialization within these organizations deters the possibility of integrating a multi-dimensional approach to their work.  Staff have distinct professional skills and often do not see how their work connects.   In some cases, the campaigning department is far removed from the policy department, which is also divided into many different issue boxes.  Both are removed from program departments that support on-the-ground community development efforts with local communities and in some cases, social movements.  This “silo-ization” makes it very difficult for different parts of the organization to inform each other or work together. These institutional characteristics can also specifically deter the political use of popular education and organizing strategies in combination with policy advocacy both internally and externally.

Representation and Participation in Global Campaigns: Some challenges are both political and ethical and relate to how INGOs deal with issues of representation and participation as they move from local to global decision-making spaces.  Since economic policy issues are increasingly decided at a global level, INGOs have responded by working to influence and open up these policy processes.   While these organizations seek to act as intermediaries for those who are far removed from global policy, some INGOs are asking themselves how they can also ensure the authentic participation and voice of those they are “representing” – people marginalized by poverty and power.

In certain circumstances, direct advocacy by people living in poverty can be dangerous and raises other questions about representation.  For example, in some contexts and historical moments such as Haiti during the 1980s and 1990s, activists and popular educators at the local level were threatened and killed for their work in attempts by those in power to stop their organizing and activism.  What does representation and participation look like in such settings?

The promise of reaching large numbers of people through mass media and fast communication technology has also contributed to the displacement of local organizing and action.  Some participants commented that is has become much easier to produce “attention-grabbing media stunts” with celebrities than to organize and educate a base of support.  A constituency in this sense increasingly refers to the thousands who sign on to a petition or attend a big event.  Jo Fox’s example of Oxfam’s Big Noise Campaign presents some of the excitement and questions surrounding these large-scale efforts.

Oxfam’s Big Noise Campaign

As one of the senior campaigners in Oxfam UK, Jo Fox described the development of Oxfam's Big Noise to make trade fair, a global mobilization expressed as a petition drive that “calls on world leaders to change unfair trade rules that keep millions of farmers across the world in poverty.”  The petition has gathered more than 7.7 million signatures around the world, which Oxfam will deliver to world trade ministers at the December

2005 WTO Ministerial Conference in Hong Kong.  Despite the success in gathering the signatures, the experience has raised important questions.

Initially the campaign was highly centralized in the North and lacked a strong constituency.    Campaigners recognized, "we had to fight our tendency to control, dictate and impose our work" so that the campaign could grow organically within short time constraints.  For them, grassroots constituency work was a relatively new set of skills and was not part of the current organizational culture.  Six months into the campaign, it had failed to produce the desired "big noise" and Oxfam campaigners reassessed the design.  They developed some basic principles:

“One size does not fit all”: Campaigners asked themselves what issues were likely to resonate locally that reflect the unfairness of international trade rules.>

Work with diverse groups and alliances with existing constituencies that can be informed and mobilized at national levels.  This contributed to the important success of gaining a civil society voice at the WTO Ministerial in Cancun.

The campaign has mobilized supporters in 30 countries, including carrying out training of trainers and other skills-building efforts. It has also enabled governments and civil society to work more closely together around trade negotiations. While the campaign started out as Northern-based and did not have a Southern constituency, it has begun to “put down its roots” in the Global South. 

Jo highlighted some remaining challenges:

Jo’s presentation stimulated further critical discussion of global campaign work.  Some focused on a problem of images and messages.  Periodically, campaigns have objectified poor people and refugees, sometimes portraying them as powerless victims to provoke public outcry or encourage charitable giving.  This type of ‘branding’ has provoked conflicts with social movements and others over who gets to define the campaign agenda. Often these media campaigns rely heavily on images and messages that raise general concern about the issues but do not go beyond emotion to lead to a deeper questioning about the root causes.  How do we deal with participation and representation in this international context?

At the same time, the public visibility that global media campaigns lend to problems of poverty and injustice create valuable political opportunities for change.  Brian Kagoro, Africa Regional Policy Officer for Action Aid, discussed the strengths, uncertainties and potential of the Global Call Against Poverty (GCAP).

Reclaiming Space in GCAP

Brian Kagoro discussed the history of GCAP highlighting some of the over-arching political and historical questions surrounding it.    

“Is GCAP about creating global citizenship that equalizes knowledge and agency in the Global South as well as in the developed world?  Or is it like other campaigns before it that have often objectified people in the Global South through discourse loaded with pity and charity?

“Is this new ‘international’ focus on Africa simply a diversion from the war in Iraq?”

“Is the West ‘dealing’ with Africa and the democratization agenda because the abrogation of the ‘rule of law’ is a threat to the neo-liberal order?”

As for criticism of GCAP, some see it as a “corporate invited space in the sense that it is co-opting language from the corporate sector and imputing its own ‘constituency’.  Its use of celebrity figures in its strategy also has the potential to obstruct the activism of a truly critically conscious base.”  Power within GCAP between the INGOs involved and other types of civil society is unequal and has tended to marginalize social movements. 

However, Brian adds that one of the most striking achievements of GCAP is that it has put the issue of poverty back on the agenda since 9/11.  It has a presence in 70 countries and has created access to world leaders.  And while the GCAP agenda was initially limited to aid, trade and debt, through inclusion of other movements and groups, it has since expanded to include women’s rights, access to basic services, human security and accountability of national governance.

Despite the critiques, Brian stressed that GCAP has created a political space that must be filled by more social movements.  To this end, the big INGOs will need to commit to stepping back and letting it happen while continuing to invest resources. 

“GCAP must not build agency for the mere sake of doing it, but be at the center of a push for real social change.  Popular education can also play an important role in raising critical consciousness and engaging poor communities to be at the center of GCAP,” Brian suggested. 

Expanding Space for Analysis, Learning and Accountability: Given the complexities of coordination within shifting political dynamics, it is critical that NGOs of all sizes and scope assess and adjust strategies and relationships. Many INGOs may lack the learning and reflection space that permit their programs and staff members to interact, analyze and apply their learning to refine future action.  How can INGOs working on economic issues foster processes that allow them to reflect critically on their own power and actions in a creative and constructive way?  How do they share that learning and open themselves up to wider input from both colleagues in the NGO world and local communities and social movements? Similarly, how do they support efforts of organizing and education that do not bombard people with jargon-laden information but rather allow them to develop the skills and knowledge necessary to be effective in promoting their own agendas for social justice?   AAI has attempted to promote a more inclusive process of learning and accountability with NGO colleagues and community partners through ALPS – the Accountability, Learning and Planning System.  This pioneering system emphasizes ways that local groups can hold INGOs accountable and contribute their own analysis and ideas to INGO agendas and actions. While innovative and promising, its potential depends on NGO leaders’ willingness and abilities to invest in a creative process that allows for critical and constructive reflections.  This has proven difficult in practice and is a continuing challenge if INGOs are to fulfill their promise as institutions that are not only accountable to the poor but foster wider learning and knowledge.  Similar AAI efforts (with Just Associates) have focused on how to promote learning specifically from advocacy and women’s rights efforts through a three-year advocacy capacity-building and assessment project that is now coming to a close, and another to document illustrative cases of women’s empowerment and organizing. 

4.  Research Raises Additional Questions

The researchers who participated in the discussions deepened and expanded the analysis about global economic power and civil society responses.  Peter Newell, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for the Study of Globalization and Regionalisation at the Universtiy of Warwick (UK), shared some of the insights from his comparative research on civil society engagement in NAFTA, FTAA and Mercosur in Latin America.

Peter Newell’s research on Latin American trade agreements revealed that there were different kinds of rhetoric and approaches to the question of civil society engagement.  Nevertheless, some common challenges surfaced in these processes:

Despite many setbacks, Peter argued that the increasing formation and presence of transnational alliances, the product of careful strategic cultivation by many, is a promising development. 

Marjorie Mayo of Goldsmith University in the UK raised some of the issues gleaned from her action research about the complexities of building alliances between communities, minority groups, trade unions and NGOs. 

Marj’s  work explores the difficulties of building coalitions among community groups, trade unions and minority groups as well as the challenge of designing a campaign that is truly representative and accountable.  She discussed the insider/outsider challenge.  While it is important to bring outside actors into political processes so that new ideas are generated, there is also a danger that outsiders will impose themselves.  

As outsiders in community work, INGOs are seen more as “careerist, corporate and in the business of pushing their own agenda.”  Marj pointed to the Global Campaign for Education and Action Aid’s work with REFLECT as promising examples of how pulling back the urge for “INGO branding” can create more space for community level work and meaningful alliances across the local-national and global.

Naila Kabeer, Research Fellow at IDS, drew from her research on women in the global economy to challenge us to look more deeply at who gains and who loses from the global economy and to examine the strengths and weaknesses of traditional forms of organizing for dealing with such diversity.  

Issue of Place:  Women Workers in Bangladeshi Factories

Naila Kabeer gave a historical look at how women factory workers in Bangladesh are “placed” in the global economy.  She describes place not just in the physical sense but also as historical and cultural location.

Globalization and specifically, trade can create many links among people all over the world but does not eliminate the importance of these places.  In Bangladesh in the late 1980s, the export-oriented garment industry flourished, bringing Bangladeshi women into the global arena by the thousands.  These women workers, who were at one point discouraged from looking for work outside the home, became not only vital to this sector but also important breadwinners in their families.  This generated sudden international attention. 

Although the working conditions and wages are notoriously poor and women are vulnerable in the face of global economic forces they do not control, the change has nonetheless created a “social revolution” in Bangladesh by transforming the role of women in society and the industry itself.  While these women workers were not organized in trade unions, their place in the global economy induced the garment industry to comply with minimum labor standards.  As well, national legislation and courts tended to favor workers’ rights.  On a deeper level, there was also the quiet cultural revolution in a Muslim community where women were allowed to leave their homes to work in factories.   This profoundly shifted norms for these women by providing the option to go to work rather than get married. 

There are hopeful signs of how women working in a largely informal economy are organizing.  “The vibrant NGO culture in Bangladesh today has allowed different organizing styles to take place.” Neighborhood meetings of these women factory workers often happen in the evening and weekends, giving them a space to talk about their concerns on housing, health and other issues they deal with.   The Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) is another powerful example of women workers in the informal sector in South Asia who have organized for greater job security, protection and agency, and made connections with other informal sector women workers transnationally to press for changes in ILO conventions.

A Closer Look at Power:  Faces, Spaces and Levels

John Gaventa’s “Power Cube” framework below provided a constructive and nuanced approach for pulling together the distinct threads of our conversations through a dynamic understanding of how power operates. Questions of power have been at the heart of popular education and organizing approaches on economic policy issues.  While most advocates and organizers have an intuitive understanding of power, the interrelated dynamics of power are frequently not examined or reflected in strategies.  Power is often thought of as a negative concept:  power over is a zero-sum resource to control and dominate.  The pioneering work of Paolo Freire in popular education was aimed at enabling poor people to resist power over and tap into their sense of power.  Feminist movements have named some of these positive dimensions – power to act, power with others, and power within, and highlighted similar strategies of consciousness-raising and organizing to build these positive forms of people’s power.

John’s interest and work on power was stimulated by his work with the Highlander Center in the southeastern part of the US.  “Our work in Tennessee was controlled by big powerful companies. As a student organizer, I went in to ‘mobilize and organize’ people but I didn’t understand power.” 

Essentially the “Power Cube” presents some of the multiple ways that the voice, interests and leadership of disenfranchised groups are marginalized from participation in public decision-making and suggests the kinds of comprehensive strategies needed to negotiate their inclusion and begin to shift unequal power dynamics.  Just Associates’ adaptation of these ideas to advocacy, presented by Valerie Miller, provided an introduction to the more detailed cube.  Both Valerie and John cautioned that while frameworks can be useful in synthesizing complex information, they also can be misleading by focusing on certain aspects and inevitably leaving others out. 

The ‘Power Cube’: Power in Spaces and Places of Participation

 Faces of Power:  Beginning with the right side of the cube, a conventional understanding of power assumes that contests over interests are visibly negotiated in public spaces and addressed equitably.  Much of current advocacy and campaigning focuses on these visible faces and arenas of power such as polices, legislatures, government agencies, or court systems and emphasizes such strategies as lobbying, media, litigation and research and analysis. 

“But as our discussions have shown, power isn’t just about ‘winning’ but also, keeping other issues off the agenda – the mobilization of bias.”  Moving beyond the uni-dimensional view of power, “hidden power” is exercised when certain actors or issues are explicitly excluded from the political agenda and public decision-making processes.  By emphasizing the legitimacy of some groups and undermining the credibility and value of others, those actors and interests with power retain their privilege. Strategies to overcome these forces include combining community/union organizing, leadership development, movement building and participatory research – ways to build the organizational strength, legitimacy and voice of the poor and excluded. 

“Power is not just about controlling the agenda, but it also works insidiously to shape people’s perception.”  Invisible power is the internalized sense of powerlessness in the ways that were described in the case of the workers in Serbia – blaming themselves for unemployment – also in the case of small-scale sugar farmers in Kenya.  It operates through belief systems and ideology.  It is the most insidious because it not only works to control the agenda but also shapes people’s consciousness and understanding of their roles, needs and ability to act.  

“The current idea of the ‘weak’ or ‘failed state’ reinforces the notion of powerlessness at a societal level.  This expression of invisible power shapes the global discourse which blames the victim and legitimates the actions of NGOs and donors in ‘coming to the rescue’ and in some cases replacing these failed states.”

Strategies that strengthen people’s confidence in their experience, sense of rights, solidarity and critical thinking help overcome the mechanisms of invisible power.   This multi-dimensional power analysis underscores that to be successful in dealing with global economic power over the long-term, strategies focused solely on the visible arenas of decision-making need to be accompanied by strategies that also address hidden and invisible aspects of power. 

Spaces: Power can also be analyzed in terms of the different spaces in which decision-making takes place.  A closed space is one that is controlled by an elite group such as government officials and is not open to public participation.  Closed spaces continue to exist in many governments and certainly, in global economic policymaking bodies from the IFIs to the WTO.  Civil society often works to challenge and open up these kinds of closed spaces to create claimed spaces.  The well-known participatory budget work in Porto Alegre, Brazil is one of the best known and sustained examples of a claimed space.  Civil society also creates autonomous spaces such as the World Social Forum.  They provide groups with the chance to develop agendas, knowledge and solidarity without interference or control by corporate or government powerholders.  With growing pressure from civil society over the last few decades, policymakers at many levels have created invited spaces.  A select few from civil society are “invited” to participate in a policy process although the agenda and process remain in the control of the elites.  While such spaces offer some possibilities for influence and may allow social justice groups possibilities for organizing, it is questionable whether these invited spaces actually create opportunities for any real long-term social change on critical issues. The danger is that they may even serve to legitimate the status quo and actually divert civil society energies from working on more fundamental policy-related problems such as trade, structural adjustment or privatization of essential services, as was the case in PRSP work.   All these spaces are constantly shifting in terms of power and opportunity. Thus, civil society groups need to be strategic about when and how to engage (and disengage) in policy spaces and be realistic about what they can gain or lose from them.   The case of the Kenyan sugar farmers brought these challenges to light.

Choosing to enter these spaces raises questions of consciousness and representation.  Do we see disenfranchised communities participating directly in these spaces or do NGOs speak on behalf of others?   Whatever the case, how do educators, organizers and activists unravel the web of ideology and beliefs that can undermine effective participation and action?  A discussion of power in the context of development work is critical because we have seen that it is short-sighted to seek change in policy spaces such as the MDGs and PRPSs without addressing the power relations within and surrounding these spaces.

Levels: All of these different forms of power and spaces of engagement play out across many different levels.

The power cube looks at global, national and local levels but John adds that other levels are also relevant and can be added, depending on the context.  For example, a feminist analysis would add the household, community and personal levels.  As the work on HIV/AIDs illustrates, a critical level of decisionmaking is interpersonal.  Also, even though we may be working at the local level, we still confront elements of global dynamics.  For example, working at just the national and local levels on school or health care budgets is insufficient because the IMF can pressure governments to limit their allocations for teachers or medicines.  Thus, we have to look at all these levels together.

Understanding power this way challenges the false dichotomy between “evil global power holders” and “virtuous social movements.”  Unequal power relations are present in civil society and social movements as well.  For example, women’s concerns have often been marginalized in popular organizations and social movements.  Struggles over resources and leadership between NGOs and community groups are also common and internal tensions around decision-making and democratic process are present throughout civil society organizations.

Power needs to be understood as dynamic -- each dimension, level and space is constantly changing and interrelating.  It is also contextual, since each situation has its own particular circumstances and needs to be assessed carefully in terms of what actions are most appropriate. Some strategies that work in one context may not necessarily work in another.  The Porto Alegre participatory budget model, for example, has created local level changes in the Brazilian context but people have tried to use it in different situations where it is not necessarily feasible or effective.  Power is also relational. People who have less power in certain settings may have more power in other situations.

While this framework helps analyze different spaces, levels and relations of power, it is not intended to serve as a tool for designing concrete strategies.  Instead, it is a valuable way to reflect on how the dynamics of power create different obstacles and entry points and require a comprehensive set of overlapping strategies to be effective.  It can serve to help groups assess their actions in relation to the current types of power they are facing and thus help them better choose and combine different strategies in response.

Other Practical Questions and Going Forward

 To conclude the workshop, participants separated into two different groups to talk about next steps and generated the following comments and ideas: 

Ideas for follow-up

1. Case studies:   All agreed that the best way to help others communicate and learn about more integrated and multi-level strategies is through compelling case studies, some of which were presented during the workshop. As donors and activists struggle to develop strategies at this difficult moment, much can be gained from capturing the work that is going on.  How do we pull together a research and documentation process that helps to capture and share the great work that is happening at the local, national and international levels? All agreed that this would require a combination of activists and scholars so that the analysis would benefit from and contribute to theory. A case study process can also build skills.

 2. “Global Economic Citizenship Schools”:  Thinking big about responding to the need for activists and citizens to begin to learn about and critically analyze the politics and policies of the global economy, we proposed to develop a process and a proposal for a series of global economy “schools” to take place over a period of 3 to 5 years.  Borrowing from the experience of the “Citizenship Schools” which were a space for learning and consciousness-raising about voting rights that helped spark the civil rights movement in the US South, the concept is not a formal school but a political space for learning, critical thinking and key information for advocates, organizers and communities.  The idea would be to locate innovative learning within economic justice advocacy efforts in several different places, and share lessons and innovations between them in an effort to scale up.  This could be a joint effort between several NGOs, key labor groups and grassroots coalitions.  The convening groups would form a sort of learning coalition on education regarding the global economy.  Each of the convening organizations would take on some responsibility, share back with each other about the process and document and feedback to people in the organizations we are working with.  This bold idea will need time for conceptualization and further development with other colleagues interested and involved in similar plans.  A small group of participants proposed, as a first step, to organize an America’s workshop involving grassroots, labor and activist scholars from Canada, the USA and Mexico in similar discussions.

Popular Education Resources

Educating for a Change. Rick Arnold, Bev Burke, Carl James, D’Arcy Martin, and Barb Thomas.

Training for Transformation: Volumes 1-3. Anne Hope and Sally Timmel.   

“What is Popular  Education?” Some Definitions from The Popular Education News

 Popular Economic Education Resources

Economics Education: Building a Movement for Global Economic Justice.  Mary Zerkel, ed. American Friends Service Committee.

Education for Changing Unions.  Bev Burke, Jojo Geronimo, D'Arcy Martin, Barb Thomas, Carol Wall.

Starting With Women’s Lives: Changing Today’s Economy.  Suzanne Doerge, Beverly Burke, Women's Inter-Church Council of Canada, Canadian Labour Congress.

Teaching for Change: Popular Education and the Labor Movement.  Linda Delp, Miranda Outman-Kramer, Susan J. Schurman, Kent Wong, Center for Labor Research and Education at UCLA.

Unpacking Globalization: A Popular Education Tool Kit. Economic Literacy Action Network.

 A Very Popular Economic Education Sampler.  Highlander Research and Education Center.

WEDGE: Women’s Education in the Global Economy.  Miriam Ching Louie with Linda Burnham.

Workshop Participants

Susan Williams Community organizer,
Highlander Center   
New Market, Tennessee USA
Jojo Geronimo Trade union organizer and educator

Toronto, Notario Canada 
Bobby Marie
Trade union organizer and educator,
Trans Africa Forum and the Southern African Trade Union Coordinating Council (SATUCC)
Mayfair, South Africa
Lisa McGowan  
Senior Program Officer,
Solidarity Center
Washington, DC USA
Jo Fox
Communicator and campaigner,
Oxfam GB
Oxford, UK
Peter Newell
Senior Research Fellow
Centre for the Study of Globalisation and Regionalisation,
University of Warwick
Marjorie Mayo  
Head of Professional and Community Education (PACE), Professor in Community Education
Goldsmiths University of London
London, UK
Naila Kabeer
Research Fellow,

Institute of Development Studies
London, UK
Shameem Bhoora
Programme Manager,
ActionAid India
Bangalore, India
Neelanjana Mukhia
Women’s Rights Campaign Coordinator,
 ActionAid International
Johannesburg, South Africa
Brian Kagoro
Regional Policy Coordinator,
 ActionAid Africa
Amanda Serumaga
Country Director,
ActionAid Uganda
Kampala Uganda
Chris Kinyanjui
Country Director,
ActionAid Malawi
Lilongwe, Malawi
Ashish Shah Western Region Coordinator,
ActionAid Kenya
Carol Angir Regional Coordinator-Coast Region,
ActionAid Kenya
Mombasa, Kenya
Shahidur Rahman
Livelihoods Security Coordinator
ActionAid Bangladesh
Dhaka, Bangladesh
Alberto Gomes Silva
Program Coordinator,

ActionAid Brazil
Rio de Janiero, Brazil
Tripti Rai Knowledge Initiative Facilitator,
ActionAid Nepal
Kathmandu, Nepal
Kate Newman
International Reflect Team,
ActionAid International
London, UK
Koy Thompson
Knowledge Initiative,
ActionAid International
London, UK
John Gaventa  
Research Fellow,
Institute of Development Studies
Brighton, UK
Shefali Sharma
Development Studies Mphil,
Institute of Development Studies
Brighton, UK
Lisa VeneKlasen
Executive Director

Just Associates
Washington, DC USA
Valerie Miller Senior Advisor
 Just Associates  
Thetford, Vermont USA
Cindy Clark Program Coordinator,
Just Associates
Washington, DC USA
Darshana Patel Program Associate,
 Just Associates
Washington, DC USA


[1] We use the term “citizen” in an active sense, beyond the notion of the legal status bestowed, or not, by states but rather referring to all people who are actively claiming space and accountability in the public arena.   

[2]  The “Washington Consensus” generally refers to set of policy prescriptions promoted by the US government and IFIs.  The core elements include deregulation, privatization, ‘opening’ economies to foreign investment and trade, unrestricted movement of capital and lower taxes.

[3] For more information about this project, see

[4] Barndt, Deborah.  Naming the Moment:  Political Analysis for Action, A Manual for Community Groups.  Toronto:  The Jesuit Centre for Social Faith and Justice, 1989.

[5] Export agreements on a bilateral or regional level that determines price, tariff and market access.

About the Author

Lisa VeneKlasen is co-founder and Executive Director of Just Associates, a global network of scholars and activists in 13 countries, committed to strengthening the leadership and collective power of women to advance a more just, equitable and sustainable world. For 25 years, she has worked as an activist, campaigner, advisor and educator within and with a variety social justice efforts from community to global levels in different parts of the world.

Just Associates (JASS) is a fast-growing global advocacy and learning network committed to building movements for democracy, equality and justice by strengthening local and international citizen organizations and leaders. In just 4 years of operation, JASS has become a recognized leader among women's rights and social justice advocates around the world for its innovative strategies, training and practical, cutting-edge thinking about social change.