Here's the fourth and final in our series of guest blogs, published in the lead up to our conference, Reclaiming the Story, which will take place this Friday 12th May in the Croke Park Conference Centre.
We're asking leading figures across civil society 4 questions - around what they think of the challenges facing civil society, what NGOs need to change to fight these problems head on, how activists need to protect civil society space, and ultimately, how we can reclaim the story.
Today we're delighted to feature Winnie Byanyima, Exective Director of Oxfam International.
Here's what she had to say...
1. There is a sense of crisis in Europe and the US – that there is a major political shift going on that is challenging the concept of multilateralism, of the human rights framework, and indeed the very idea of aid. Do you think that is the case, and if so, what is the most worrying aspect of that challenge?
There is no doubt that the tectonic plates of the political landscape are changing. But we tend to view recent events such as Brexit and the US Presidential election through an exclusively Northern prism and therefore unrelated to the fundamental shifts that have been occurring globally for some time. There has been a long-standing crisis in democracy and human rights around the world, especially in the global South, with powerful (and powerfully unfair) political and economic systems that push back ordinary people. One of the most worrying challenges is global inequality, which is holding back progress in the long fight against poverty and gender inequality. The global economic model marches to the beat of those with extreme wealth. It has enabled just 8 billionaires to accumulate as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion people.
2. What do you think is the one most important change NGOs should make to adapt to this new political reality?
Our future is one of our own creating. Despite these crises, I believe that humanity has the talent, the skills and the imagination to build a fairer, safer world for everyone. We cannot just deal with the problems posed by the new political reality; we must address the corporate and political dynamics that are driving the crisis. However, one challenge is ensuring that we do not simply re-inform the broken political and economic models but instead direct our collective efforts towards truly fixing them. So we must not tinker at the margins but honestly seek to address the causes of inequality, for example. In essence we must seek to strengthen democracy by rewriting the rules so they work for all of us, not just an elite few. NGOs alone cannot bring about such a change – all of us in wider society all must play a role.
Q3. We know also that civil society space is shrinking wherever you look – what do you think is the most important thing we as activists should do to protect and defend it?
Together we must continue the ongoing but long drawn-out movement for open, responsive and accountable governments and, for their part, governments must protect the space for citizens to claim their rights, organise and express themselves. To achieve our aims, NGOs need to link together better with the most vulnerable and disadvantaged among us, and with voters, consumers and other citizens, to globalize our world’s similar struggles – those within rich countries, and those between the rich North and developing South. We must link together our struggles, against the same unjust governance. Each and every NGO has a distinct and unique role to play – and for International NGOs, it’s about using our networks, our bases in the global North where we have them, and placing that all at the purpose of standing alongside marginalized people in the South.
Q4. We’re aiming to “reclaim the story” – what do you think INGOs need to do to more effectively tell our stories?
INGOs need to connect people in struggles around the world, build alliances and networks, share knowledge and expertise, in order to transfer powerful stories around the world, with the aim of being inspiring and empowering. However, part of the process of reclaiming and retelling the story must be first to listen – for any NGO that means putting the people we work with at the centre of everything we do. Then we are not just telling our stories as agencies, but helping to amplify the voices and the stories of those who matter most.
For more information about Oxfam’s work, visit www.oxfamireland.org