Citizen Action and National Policy Reform

"Citizen Action and National Policy Reform: Making Change Happen" (2010), edited by Gaventa and McGee, presents a series of case studies of citizen movements and advocacy for national policy change. The book fits well within the "How Change Happens" space. Cases are presented from: South Africa, Philippines, Mexico, Chile, India, Brazil, Morocco and Turkey. The cases represent "emerging or existing democracies characterized by functioning states and at least some democratic space" (p. 4), even if that was not the intended objective of the volume. However, these effective cases suggested to the editors that it was "precisely because these are the kinds of settings where we can most expect collective citizen action on national policy to emerge" (p. 4).

Give the difficulty of summarizing the diversity of the cases, this review will share the key lessons learned about citizen action for policy change, as outlined by the editors in a series of propositions:

  • Proposition 1: Political opportunities are opened and closed through historic, dynamic and iterative processes. While political opportunities create possibilities for collective action for policy change, these openings themselves may have been created by prior mobilization.
  • Proposition 2: Civil society engagement in policy processes is not enough by itself to make change happen. Competition for formal political power is also central, creating new impetus for reform and bringing key allies into positions of influence, often in synergy with collective action from below.
  • Proposition 3: While international allies, covenants and norms of state behaviour can strengthen domestic openings for reform, they can also be the subject of fierce domestic opposition. Successful reform campaigns depend on careful navigation to link international pressures with differing and constantly changing local and national contexts.
  • Proposition 4: Successful policy change occurs not through professional advocacy alone, but involves complex and highly developed mobilizing structures which link national reformers to local and faith-based groups, the media and repositories of expertise. Such structures are built over time, deeply grounded in the societies where they are found, and linked to the biographies of those who lead them.
  • Proposition 5: Alliances between social actors and champions of change inside the state are critical to make policy change happen. Social mobilization structures provide opportunities for state-based reformers to generate change from within, just as political opportunity structures provide spaces for social actors to do so from without.
  • Proposition 6: Policy change on contentious issues requires contentious forms of mobilization. Contentiousness is a dynamic and contingent concept. Successful collective action must also be dynamic, with the ability to frame issues carefully, adjust to changing circumstances and audiences, and draw upon a wide repertoire of strategies.
  • Proposition 7: 'Success' can be understood in many different ways, especially among the different actors in a broad-based campaign or social movement. In general, robust and sustainable changes require campaigns which link the national to the local and which pay attention to the processes of empowering citizens and deepening democratic governance as well as to effecting policy change itself.

This book is a great resource. One note of caution, although the book was published in 2010, it appears most of the case studies were written around 2004-2006, and largely reflective of activities from the late 1990s and early 2000s.

65 Hits

How Change Happens: Climate Change

​Naomi Klien believes in the power of the people, and of collective action, to change the world. As outlined in "This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate" (2014), she writes: "Slavery wasn't a crisis for British and American elites until abolitionism turned it into one. Racial discrimination want a crisis until the civil rights movement turned it into one. Sex discrimination wasn't a crisis until feminism turned it into one. Apartheid wasn't a crisis until the anti-apartheid movement turned it into one. In the very same way, if enough of us stop looking away and decide that climate change is a crisis worthy of Marshall Plan levels of response, then it will become one, and the political class will have to respond, both by making resources available and by bending the free market rules that have proven so pliable when elite interests are in peril" (p. 6). A previous post covered the main arguments of the book, while this one focuses upon the author's vision for how change happens.

The author writes that "building a mass movement that has a chance of taking on the corporate forces arrayed against science-based emission reduction will require the broadest possible spectrum of allies" (p. 157). But, how to get there? Klien looks back to the history of the environmental movement, to understand how activism of past decades were more effective wherein struggles were not to narrow nor negative, they were "for greater community control, democracy, and sovereignty" (p. 309). Building  alliances requires looking for commonalities, often extending beyond one's own specific interests.

Klien thus argues that, not only is climate change action going to require political change, it is advocacy for greater democracy that will build the alliances and allies for those changes to take place: "In the past, people committed to social change often believed they had to choose between fighting the system and building alternatives to it. So, in the 1960s, the counterculture splintered between those who stayed in cities to try and stop wars and bash away at inequalities and those who chose to drop out and live their ecological values among like-minded people on organic farms… Today's activists do not have the luxury of these choices even if they wanted them" (p. 403).

Naomi Klien argues that "only mass social movements can save us now. Because we know where the current system, left unchecked, is headed. We also know, I would add, how that system will deal with the reality of serial climate-related disasters: with profiteering, and escalating barbarism to segregate the losers from the winners. To arrive at that dystopia, all we need to do is keep barreling down the road we are on. The only remaining variable is whether some countervailing power will emerge to block the road, and simultaneously clear some alternative pathways to destinations that are safer. If that happens, well, it changes everything." (p. 450).

That movement, however, is not "some shiny new movement that will magically succeed where others failed. Rather, as the furthest-reaching crisis created by the extractivist worldview, and one that puts humanity on a firm and unyielding deadline, climate change can be the force – the grand push – that will bring together all of these still living movements. A rushing river fed by countless streams, gathering collective force to finally reach the sea" (p. 459). Furthermore, it is not a movement that can fully create its own destiny, it is a movement that needs to take advantage of the critical junctures, where opportunities for change are greater. "The real question is what progressive forces will make of that moment, the power and confidence with which it will be seized… The next time one arises, it must be harnessed not only to denounce the world as it is, but build fleeting pockets of liberated space. It must be the catalyst…" (p. 466).


119 Hits

Capitalism vs The Climate

Naomi Klien's "This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate" (2014) is not a case for how climate change is real or important to consider, it is a call to action. From a research perspective, I was not overly impressed with the book. However, a few chapters into my reading I realized I had approached the book incorrectly. This is not a research book by a researcher; Naomi is an activist and this book is calling for action. It is a book about how the author thinks the public can change the ways things work. It is not the pragmatic, middle of the road argument. It is to "move the ideological pole far away from the stifling market fundamentalism that has become the greatest enemy to planetary health" (p. 26).

The main reason why action has not yet occurred, despite the consensus about climate change, is "those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis" (p. 18). The solution, Klien argues, "is not simply that we need to spend a lot of money and change a lot of policies; it's that we need to think differently, radically differently, for those changes to be remotely possible. Right now the triumph of market logic, with its ethos of domination and fierce competition, is paralyzing almost all serious effort to respond to climate change" (p. 23). While the author makes a clear argument for the challenges that are value based, much of the book is a collection of examples of how we can transform not just those values, but also translate new values into actions.

Yet, it is not just climate change that is at issue. It is the ability for citizens to express their will using democratic systems. "The process of taking on the corporate-state power nexus that underpins the extractive economy is leading a great many people to face up to the underlying democratic crisis that has allowed multinationals to be the authors of the laws under which they operate – whether at the municipal, state/provincial, national, or international level. It is this corroded state of our political systems – as fossilized as the fuel at the center of these battles – that is fast turning Blockadia into a grassroots pro-democracy movement." (p. 361). Change is possible, and change on this scale has happened before, and the author specifically highlights the responses made to the Great Depression, the abolition of slavey and the independence movements against colonial powers, as these not only included political shifts but also economic ones (p. 545-545).

The book makes two arguments for action: support the smallscale efforts (and many examples of this are given) and use your collective power as citizens to change the system (policies and programs). Where to start? "That means cheap public transit and clean light rail accessible to all; affordable, energy-efficient housing along those transit lines; cities planned for high-density living; bike lanes in which riders aren't asked to risk their lives to get to work; land management that discourages sprawl and encourages local, low-energy forms of agriculture; urban designs that clusters essential services like schools and health care along transit routes and in pedestrian-friendly areas; programs that require manufacturers to be responsible for the electronic waste they produce, and to radically reduce built-in redundancies and obsolescences" (p. 91). Doing so "requires visionary long-term planning, tough regulation of business, higher level of taxation for the affluent, big public sector expenditure, and in many cases reversals of core privatizations in order to give communities the power to make the change they desire." (p. 95).

163 Hits

How Change Happens

Governments, activists, NGOs, politicians and development programs all want change. It is why donor dollars are raised and people protest in the streets. But, how much do we actually know, or reflect upon, how change actually happens – and to what extent is that embedded within how development works? "How Change Happens" (2016) by Duncan Green, blogging celebrity of From Poverty to Power, seeks to answer these questions. The book is available open access, as is the author's last book, From Poverty to Power (2012). It is "for activists who want to change the world" (p. 2), but the author does not offer a manual for change. "Indeed one of its conclusions is that reliance on checklist toolkits is on the things that is holding us back. Instead it offers a combination of analysis, questions, and case studies, with the aim of helping readers look afresh at both the obstacles and the enthralling processes of change going on all around them, and to gain some new energy and ideas about how to contribute" (p. 5).

Avid followers of Duncan's blog will encounter some familiar terrain. I have not focused on the norms and institutions that make up significant parts of the book, rather upon a selection of specific points that I think contribute in unique ways to the conversation about how change happens, starting with a reminder for those skeptical of any change at all: "People seeking change are often impatient, intent on addressing the problems of the world. In the words of one of the greatest activists of them all, they are consumed by 'the fierce urgency of now.' From the perspective of 'now', institutions appear to be permanent and unchanging; in fact, they often depend upon that appearance for their credibility. But 'now' is merely a moment on the continuum of history, and history shows us that the status quo is far less fixed than is appears" (p. 75).

Green offers a sufficient amount of detail to challenge notions of simplicity found in the toolkits and checkbox lists, without burdening readers with drawn out contextual information. For example: "In fragile states, where power resides mostly in outside the state, activists may be better off working at a local level, with municipal officials and non-state bodies like traditional leaders and faith groups. In developmental states, engaging directly with efficient bureaucracies, using research and argument rather than street protest, often makes for a better (and safer) influencing strategy than challenging politicians… In more patrimonial systems, the best influencing strategy may be to network directly with those in power" (p. 91). The book is full of similar short notes that provide food for thought and illuminate points with examples that may not have been considered.

Politicking and creating political parties are not often priorities on the list of activists. Yet, Green argues that some successful "social movements organize as parties because as movements they tend to rise and fall in sudden bursts of protest and can rarely muster the long-term engagement with the state required to achieve lasting change. What's more, civil society organizations find it hard to make any legitimate claim to represent the will of the people because no-one has elected them" (p. 116). At the same time, not all movements and organizations should become political parties. "Civil society can help the state become more effective, and states can in turn promote citizen activism by addressing" different kinds of power (p. 190). Thus, civil society itself has an important function outside of politics. The author has weaved diverse examples throughout to demonstrate different pathways to how change can occur, rather than promote a specific action (although a particular approach – the power and systems approach is promoted as a means to help determine what pathway(s) ought to be taken). Indeed "the range of possible advocacy tactics is limited only by the imagination of the advocates"(p. 217).

At the outset, Green writes that he "was moved to write this book by a combination of excitement, fascination, and frustration" (p. 1). The self-reflective style of writing is engaging, particularly when Green grapples with the intersection between excitement, fascination, and frustration. For example: "Based on research in Pakistan, Masooda Bano argues that aid often erodes the cooperation that underpins CSOs. When foreign money flows in, the unpaid activists that form the core of such organizations can lose trust in their leaders, whom they now suspect of pocketing aid dollars. In Bosnia, my conversations with CSOs suggest that even their supporters view them as little more than 'briefcase CSOs', only interested in winning funding. I find such conversations painful, as they force me to acknowledge that the aid dollars Oxfam has spent so many years advocating for can in some circumstances do more harm than good" (p. 192).

I found the commentary on the role of leadership an important addition. As Green notes "aid technocrats avoid discussions of leadership, because it rapidly gets political and clouds the seductive purity of 'evidence-based policy making'" (p. 199). Activists too "tend downplay the role of leaders and leadership in driving change. Development studies as a discipline has little to say about the Big Man in the presidential palace, and even less about leadership from below" (p. 198). Green writes: "Part of the art of outstanding political leaders such as Gandhi or Mandela lies in their ability to go beyond merely reflecting public norms and instead influence them for the better. Even the endless reception of simple messages, which may be one of the most off-putting aspects of politicians' daily lives, helps challenge old norms and cement new ones. Of course, politicians can also reinforce norms that should change, for example, by whipping up hatred against ethnic or religious minorities or desperate migrants" (p. 53-54). There are some emerging program supporting emerging leaders, but these remain few and far between, and often ones that support established leaders rather than strengthen the skills, network, capacity and opportunities of emerging ones.

Duncan Green is hopeful that the simplified narratives of complex realities, remedied by simple solutions, are (slowly) changing. Different approaches to storytelling show that the good/bad narrative is not the only means to tell an effective story (although certainly it has been used to tell compelling ones, even if they are not entirely factual). "Such narratives squeeze out the more nuanced views of local people and the deeper, underlying causes of conflict, and end up promoting superficial victories rather than real change" (p. 223). I am somewhat less optimistic that the messier stories of complex systems and power will have the same broad appeal as the simple ones – but such stories need not always have broad appeal and strategic approaches might be tailored as we navigate from simplicity to complexity. 

241 Hits

Logan Cochrane

logan.cochrane@gmail.com

LinkedIn Profile  Academia Profile