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Deconstructing People Power

Shanthi Kalathil's picture

If you're interested in some of the nuts and bolts behind "people power," this short piece on nonviolent resistance is worth checking out. As my colleague Anne noted in her earlier post on coalition building, even the most amorphous-looking of crowds often have a strategy and discipline behind them that is based on core principles and smart organizational strategy. 

The article highlights three key ingredients for success: 1) overcoming fear and obedience/apathy; 2) targeted noncooperation; and 3) nonviolent discipline. Of these, the fascinating one to me (from a CommGAP perspective) is the first one: after all, this basically entails engineering a mass (and rapid) shift in public opinion under what must be, by definition, adverse circumstances. How does this occur when the government is able to literally pull the plug on major communication channels? Could it have something to do with the nature or robustness of the public sphere in the country concerned? I suspect it does, but unfortunately we do not yet have the tools or the conceptual frameworks to properly consider this question (from an operationally oriented development perspective rather than an academic standpoint). At the very least, it would be worth exploring how we might develop frameworks and diagnostics that would shed further illumination on these important events.

These issues also appear directly related to the concept of "netwar" as articulated by John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt in the 1990s, which essentially postulated a new form of low intensity social conflict (incuding activism), characterized by networked, decentralized decision-making and a reliance on strong communication channels. "Netwar" was used to describe the successful efforts by the Zapatistas in Mexico to harness the nascent Internet in projecting power. It will be interesting to see whether this concept, or some offshoot of it, might be used to deconstruct recent phenomena in the Middle East, and whether the advent of ever-more sophisticated communication tools, deployed by both the public and governments, have changed the equation at all.

Photo Credit: Leo Reynolds (on Flickr)

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I highly recommend a recent episode of Al Jazeera’s People & Power series, in which a reporter is embedded with a group from the April 6th Youth Movement. From their site, “As Elizabeth Jones reveals, they have spent a long time planning and organising for these momentous days, taking lessons from other revolutions about how to mobilise popular support.” (See: The protests in Egypt and elsewhere remind us that challenging the bonds of poverty and oppression is about extending to people the feeling that they matter. I am reminded that real big-“D”evelopment comes when people awaken from fear and they can look forward to a future in which they feel secure, valued, and honored. And that, ultimately, this must come from within.

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