CITIZEN ACTION, NETWORKS AND GLOBAL CHANGE

PCDForum Column #7r.    Original December 18, 1990.   Updated February 24, 1992

by Anwar Fazal

According to the Chinese proverb, "If you feed a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a life time." In our complex modern world it is no longer so simple. Consider the people of the South Pacific. They and their ancestors have fished for centuries. What use is their knowledge against the Japanese, the Koreans and the Taiwanese who ravage their oceans with miles of drift nets; the Americans who use their islands and waters as dumping grounds for toxic wastes and deactivated chemical weapons; and the French who continue nuclear testing. When development workers from these same "developed" nations come and presume to teach the natives "how to fish" they add insult to injury.

Increasingly we find that justice for the poor and protection of the environment depend on building citizen power to counter the abuses of powerful states and transnational corporations, such as those that deprive Pacific islanders of their fish. The experience of the International Organization of Consumers' Unions (IOCU) provides useful insights into what this requires.

The IOCU was founded in 1960 as a rather polite membership organization that served as a clearing house for consumer product information. We evolved into a support body for powerful advocacy networks involving thousands of organizations and millions of citizens.

Our first global campaign centered on the irresponsible practices of transnational companies, such as Nestle, in the marketing of infant formula and other baby foods. These practices were causing thousands of infant deaths each year. Later we helped form and support numerous other global issue networks dealing with pharmaceuticals, tobacco, toxic wastes, biotechnology, food irradiation and others. Our insights grow with our experience.

We have learned, for example, that effective networks are more like love affairs, than conventional organizations. You don't become a "member," you become an actor. When you start doing things that support the network's goals, you are in. If you stop, you are out.

We have also found that when dealing with global issues, the most effective networks are those that link:

  • Protest and proaction. Immediate fire fighting efforts must link with efforts to achieve larger structural changes that prevent future fires.
  • Grass and sky. Groups that work at community level must be linked to those that specialize in broader political spaces.
  • North and South. Many Southern problems have Northern sources and can be resolved only through mutually supportive action by citizens of both North and South.

We have learned to build networking strategies around the multiplication of:

  • Information. Countless citizen organizations are starved for information in a useful form.
  • People. The effectiveness of citizen networks depends on millions of skilled leaders.
  • Power. Political influence depends on the commitment of organized citizen lobbies.
  • We have formulated five basic principles for global networking.
  • Develop clear vision and mission statements that define the future we want and the specific operational outcomes we seek as steps toward its achievement. Both are essential.
  • Help people think of regional and global space as their space. Encourage them to see how their problems relate to, and derive from, the global context.
  • Understand and work with the sources and flows of power in society, at both local and global levels.
  • Engage energy sources, such as youth and women, that have lacked opportunities to participate in global policy processes.
  • Develop anti-bodies against attacking viruses. Nurture the independence and self-reliance of the network's elements so that if one part of the network is weak and threatened, other parts can step in as needed. Build on what exists. For example, work through existing publications rather than starting and financing new ones. Minimize funding needs and never become dependent on a single funding source.

Global networking is still a relatively new phenomena and we have much to learn. It is already evident, however, that it is an important key to the transformation of global society through people's action. The task is enormous, with ample need for the contribution of every responsible citizen.
__________

Anwar Fazal is coordinator, UNDP Asia-Pacific 2000, and a contributing editor of the People-Centered Development Forum. He may be contacted at 18 Solok Pierce, 10350 Penang, Malaysia. Or Fax (60-4) 368-269. This column was prepared and distributed by the PCDForum based his presentation to the Asian Regional Workshop on Strategic Networks for Sustainable Development and Environmental Action, in Bangkok, Thailand, November 26-30, 1990.

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