10 thoughts on the future of activism

So here are 10 thoughts on the kind of activism we need at a point of widespread crisis and deep polarisation – a distillation of what I’ve been thinking about over the course of the first half of a six month sabbatical.

1 The best activism works for both inner and outer transformation, because it understands that the crises burning around us are external expressions of our inner worlds

2 The best activism moves beyond the idea of victory, and categorically refuses to become a story of “us versus them”

3 Love has the power to change the world, but love and care for others only becomes possible with love and care for self

4 Change depends on shared stories, but we cannot truly listen to anyone else’s story, much less develop shared ones, unless we are brave enough to truly tell our own

5 Self-help is great – but if it extends no further than individual level then it’s stunted. In a time of culture wars and deep polarisation, what we need now is *collective* self-help and healing

6 Moral evolution is the central story arc of human history, and we are poised right at the cusp of our species’ emergence from adolescence and into adulthood

7 Our civilisation faces an initiatory moment of death and rebirth, and myths about these themes hold deep wisdom for us at this point

8 The universe is intelligent, conscious, and non-random, and at the most basic level for us rather than against us

9 Unbelievably rapid, non-linear change becomes possible when we remember that we create the reality around us through our expectation, attention, and intention

10 Our best days are before us, not behind us

Remembering Brian Matyila, Fees Must Fall Young Lion

 

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When you meet your heroes, you wonder what they will be like in person. When they are really as special as they seemed from afar, that’s inspirational. When your heroes are younger than you, it’s a whole another thing.

I met Maliviwe Brian Matyila, a 22 year old South African activist of the Fees Must Fall movement, at a gathering of the Fight Inequality Alliance in South Africa. Fees Must Fall is, as Brian put it, “a group of South African University students who are mobilizing broader society to call an end to commodification of education as this further broadens inequality in society in a country that has one of the most unequal societies in the world.” What more formalised organised civil society had failed to do – challenge the South African government on inequality, mobilise in large numbers, and win some real victories – had been managed by a group of young people who had had to learn campaigning, and go to school, while doing it.

I listened in rapt attention to a young man who had taken on such responsibility, and finally asked him, “is it difficult?” “Yes,” he said. “Being a student who could get thrown out for activism can make it hard for family. The pressure from authorities, too. The repression. Being black in university is anyway a pressure. And being a young gay man too.”

Brian was a young man who, like his comrades, took huge responsibility on his shoulders, carrying the burden of centuries of injustice and putting himself on the line. He and his comrades were tough and challenging – much less indulgent of whites who tried to steer direction than earlier generations had been. He was bold, fearless, and deeply serious. He was also huge fun – and his conversation would flit from detailed discussions of policy and reflections on political theory to joking about the troubles of dating. He and his Fees Must Fall comrade Lesedi found themselves in different camps of South African politics but remained wonderful and supportive friends. Here is Brian and friends signing the beautiful anthem, Nkosi Sikel ‘iAfrika;

And now he has passed. He will go down not only as a future leader that has been lost but also as a leader that already was. I feel so fortunate to have known him. I hope he will one day be in books about politics and history.

As I went through our old facebook messenger conversations I found an interview we did that I planned to publish as a part of a series. Now it stands on it’s own. Here is what Brian told me.

How would you describe in a sentence or two the current state of your struggle?

The movement has gained a lot of traction in society, we are now in the process of educating everyone on the pillars of the movement and ensuring that we build a movement that is grassroots based and consolidated nationally.

What motivates you personally? 

I am motivated by my own personal sufferings. I look at my family, being the only one in my family who is in University and how education is still seen as a privilege whereas it should be regarded as a basic right. I wake up everyday praying to work hard to ensure that more rural, black kids like myself have access to education.

What are the hardest times, and how do you deal with them?

The State has responded to our cries with repressive and oppressive methods with arrests, rubber bullets and intimidation being a daily experience in our spaces. I think some of the hardest times for us is when we time and time again find one of us being sent to prisons with bail being denied. We gain strength from the support we give to each other and more especially the support we receive from the elderly and international allies.

What do you have to face in terms of resistance by the powerful?

The repression that our movement has received from the State and our Universities in enormous. It often feels like the State has brought back apartheid security tactics to silence us. It frustrates us to see that the very same government we voted for and see as a democratic government time and time again refuses to listen to its youth but chooses to imprison, intimidate and “deal with”

How would you describe public opinion in relation to your activism? How do your families relate to your activism? What are the misconception and how do you counter them?

The general public initially failed to understand FeesMustFall as a movement that includes all, including those who are outside of the University space. It has taken a lot of community engagements and education for us to correct this perception and we are now seeing more and more community based movements, trade unions, religious groupings and other members of civil society coming together to not only pledge support but recognize themselves as an integral part of the movement. Families tend to be skeptical of our involvement in the movement as they fear their children being victimized by the state as they have seen the extents in which the state has adopted to silence us. The greatest misconceptions about the movement in the public’s eye are around the violence that has played itself out in the eyes of the public in our protests. This violence is usually as a result of private security and police literally beating protesters and being physically abusive, Media has a number of failed to report these incidents factually.

How best can you inspire more people to join you?

The simplest form of inspiring people to join us is by explaining how expensive University fees affect all parts of society and how these fees hinder a lot of people with great potential from accessing education leaving the have nots poorer while those who already have grow their knowledge and wealth.

Describe how it was to meet activists fighting inequality from Tunisia and Brazil and elsewhere? What do you see as the commonalities of the experiences and struggles in different places?

Meeting activists from other parts of the words was truly inspiring for us. We tend to be too invested in our struggles and we end up failing to realize that there are other people who face as much hardships and struggles as you do. There was a great lot to learn from each other and we learnt the importance of connecting with others and learning from each other because indeed it is true that in unity we are much stronger.

What would success look like in the short and long term? 

In the short them success for us would be unconditional access to higher education of all who are academically deserving without any financial burdens and in the long term it would be a decommodified, afrocentric education that seeks to service the youth of South Africa.

What has been the most important thing you’ve learned after becoming an activist?

I have learnt that inequality is a reality and we must all do our utmost best to fight inequality.


Hamba Kahle Brian. Go well. In the so many others you have inspired, you live on.

The End Violence Solutions Summit

The End Violence Solutions Summit took place this week in Stockholm, Sweden, bringing to life a recommendation made in a CIC report in 2014.

Key speakers included the Queen of Sweden, the Deputy Secretary-General, the heads of UNICEF, WHO, and UNODC, and ministers from 14 pathfinder countries. Never have so many senior leaders come together to prevent violence against children.

At the heart of the summit, INSPIRE – seven strategies for ending violence against children. The international community has reviewed the evidence and is speaking with one voice about how SDG16.2 can be delivered.

Brazil, Japan and United Arab Emirates all used the summit to join the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children.

Credit goes to countries first out of the blocks: Indonesia, Mexico, Tanzania and – the Summit host – Sweden. Also to Susan Bissell, who has nurtured the partnership in its early years and now gives way to Howard Taylor, joining from Nike Foundation as the partnership’s new director.

The big question. How will the partnership respond to Amina Mohammed’s challenge to present strengthened national commitments to end violence at the High-level Political Forum in 2019?

Read CIC’s challenge paper on preventing violence against children and my review of the Solutions Summit.

 

Image by Jessica Gow, Government Offices of Sweden

The future of the UN is revealed!

Each year, the Austrian Ministry of Defense publishes a collection of predictions by various experts on upcoming international developments.  This year, I contributed my thoughts on what will happen to/at the United Nations in 2018.  As it is otherwise only available in German, here is an English version (don’t blame me if it’s all wrong):

2018 will be a year of significant tensions at the United Nations.  The Korean situation, the Syrian war and debates over the Iranian nuclear deal are all likely to create friction in the Security Council.  UN peacekeeping forces face risks of serious violence in cases ranging from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to Lebanon.

The Security Council played a leading role in containing the North Korean nuclear crisis in 2017, passing two packages of heavy sanctions against Pyongyang.  China and the US will try to maintain this cooperation.  But if North Korea takes further provocative actions, it may be difficult for the Council to agree on additional serious sanctions.  If Washington edges towards military action on the Korean Peninsula, there could be a serious breakdown in UN diplomacy between China and the US.

The Trump administration is also likely to create divisions in the Security Council if it makes further efforts to undermine the Iranian nuclear deal.  The overall deterioration of the security situation in the Middle East more broadly will be a central issue in UN diplomacy through 2018.  There is a growing possibility of new hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon that would put the long-standing UN peace operation in the area (UNIFIL) at severe risk of casualties.

The UN force on the Golan Heights, which has already been severely constrained by terrorist groups during the Syrian war, could also be caught up in a regional conflict.

The UN may also need to find a new strategy towards Syria itself. Russia and its Syrian and Iranian allies do not want UN peacekeepers or political officers to play a significant role in Syria.  However, Moscow may press European aid donors to support UN civilian reconstruction efforts in the country, arguing that this will limit further refugee flows.

UN agencies could end up effectively working on behalf of the Syrian regime to provide basic services to the population, and possibly facilitate refugee return, although this could leave UN officials at risk of terrorist attacks.

Other UN engagements in the Middle East, such mediation in Yemen, can make little progress while tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia remain high.  UN aid agencies will struggle to find the resources to assist the suffering across the region, especially if there are fresh flare-ups of violence in Lebanon and Iraq to deal with.

In Africa, UN peacekeepers face serious ongoing conflicts in cases including South Sudan and the Central African Republic.  Presidential elections in the DRC, supposed to take place in 2018 after a controversial delay in 2016, could also result in serious violence between supporters and opponents of President Joseph Kabila.   The UN is likely to need military reinforcements in one or more of the cases to contain trouble.

The Trump administration has demanded major cuts to the peacekeeping budget, and will be skeptical of most proposals to expand existing UN forces, or launch new blue helmet operations.  A possible exception is Ukraine: Washington has indicated that it is could support the creation of a UN peacekeeping force in the east of the country to ease tensions with Russia.  While Moscow’s interest in this option is uncertain, it remains possible that the UN will launch a mission in Ukraine in 2018.

In this scenario, European countries (especially those outside NATO, such as Austria and Sweden) could face calls to provide the backbone of a credible UN presence, possibly alongside Russian-speaking troops from states such as Kazakhstan.

Security issues will not be the only source of tension at the UN in 2018.  The US has threatened to withdraw from the Human Rights Council unless the body reduces its criticism of Israel.  While European governments are working hard to persuade the US not to pull out, there is still a good chance that Washington will eventually do so.

A focus of diplomacy in New York will be migration.  UN member states are meant to agree a new compact on improving international migration management in July 2018.  This has the potential to create tensions between European governments and developing countries over how to handle large flows of migrants in cases like Libya.

There will also be negotiations in New York on proposals by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to reform the UN secretariat and development system.  Guterres has secured considerable support from UN members including the US for plans to streamline the organization’s antiquated management structures.  Yet there will be lengthy debates over the budgetary and organizational aspects of these reforms, potentially distracting Guterres and the UN system from broader global problems.

One global theme that Guterres will emphasize throughout 2018 under any circumstances is the need to strengthen the Paris climate change agreement, despite President Trump’s announcement that the US will leave the pact in 2020.

Trump has indicated he is still willing to negotiate over the issue, but real talks on revising the agreement to meet US interests are unlikely in 2018.  Instead, China will play an increasingly prominent role as a leading actor in the fight against climate change.

China is becoming an ambitious player in the UN system overall, acting increasingly assertively to promote its positions on issues including human rights.  Beijing will continue to look for ways to raise its profile at the UN through 2018 – possibly be implementing promises to send thousands of new troops on UN peacekeeping missions – and while most states will welcome this, the US may see it as a challenge.

There is a risk that the Trump administration’s relations with the UN could deteriorate further if current US ambassador in New York, Nikki Haley, stands down.  Haley is a mainstream Republican who has succeeded in moderating President Trump’s strongest anti-UN policies.  She has been tipped as a potential Secretary of State or presidential candidate, and could leave New York in 2018 to pursue higher office in Washington.  President Trump could then nominate a harder line replacement as US ambassador to the UN, reversing Haley’s moderate stance.

Despite the risks of rising tensions at the UN in 2018, however, it is worth noting that the organization continues to play a significant role in managing and containing major potential crises such as that over Korea.  The UN may be an imperfect and fragile institution, but it will be at the center of high stakes diplomacy through 2018.

The Vancouver summit on UN peacekeeping

This week, defense ministers are meeting in Vancouver to talk about UN peacekeeping.  This follows a conference hosted by President Obama on UN operations in New York in 2015 and a follow-up event in London last year.  The idea is that countries with advanced military capacities that would otherwise stay away from blue helmet commitments will pledge units to the UN.  In 2015, for example, David Cameron promised to send British personnel to Somalia and South Sudan.  Despite a bit of a wobble around Brexit, the UK has followed through on both.

In August, Japan hosted a preparatory meeting on training and capacity-building needs for peace operations in Tokyo.  Paul Williams and I wrote a background paper — you can read it at the link below.  We’ll see if any of our ideas get picked up in Vancouver (I’ll report back if they do).

Tokyo PKO Prep Meeting Background Paper

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