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How are Citizens’ Movements Getting More Active in Asia? Lessons from a 10 Country Dialogue

Duncan Green's picture

Yesterday’s post discussed two of the case studies from last week’s Asia Development Dialogue on active citizenship. Today’s installment covers my more general thoughts  on the discussion, based on some final reflections I was asked to give at the end of the day.

First, I felt pretty privileged to be able to eavesdrop on a conversation between activists, political leaders and academics from 10 Asian countries: a women’s rights organizer from Myanmar seeking advice from a women’s leader from muslim Southern Thailand on dealing with ethnic conflict; a woman mayor from the Philippines asking a Cambodian leader if she had considered expanding her work on nurturing grassroots women’s political leadership to other countries. Fascinating.

A Thai academic described the overall aim as shifting the perceptions in Asia, so that when poor people speak up of, those in power hear ‘Voice’ rather than ‘Noise’. There is clearly a high level of active citizenship in Asia, and that is linked to, but certainly not synonymous with, the existence of competitive electoral politics (eg China, or yesterday’s post on Vietnam).

There was a big focus on working with local government, where a partnership of equals with civil society organizations seems more feasible (national governments in capitals often seemed a long way away in these conversations).

There was a place for individual leadership, with some charismatic women mayors from Philippines and Thailand addressing the gathering. But individuals are embedded in political and social systems, so understanding what is going on (and what is possible) requires a good power analysis of the drivers and blockers of active citizenship – that was present in some cases, not in others, where the obstacles to enhanced voice were portrayed as purely technical, rather than about power and politics.

There was also a clear link drawn between active citizenship and gender rights, with a prominent role for women’s leadership, not least when repression blurs the boundaries between the private and public spheres, and women emerge from their roles as wives and mothers to lead human rights organizations (the case from Southern Thailand reminded me a lot of Argentina’s Mothers of the Disappeared).

So how best to build active citizenship? Some lessons from the day:

Analysis is critical: understanding the incentives of those in power, what kinds of evidence or pressure persuades them to listen, what language to use.

Implementation Gaps: often, success emerges when civil society organizations and their allies  identify such gaps between policies or laws, and practice, and deliberately target them.

Insider v Outsider strategy: getting the balance right. Depending on the political and social context, that may mean getting government representatives on your advisory board (Vietnam PAPI) or working with sympathetic officials (Indonesia). But sometimes more confrontational approaches are needed, raising the difficulties of managing cycles of conflict and collaboration in the growth of citizen-state relations.

The nature of alliances – this meeting seemed to privilege vertical alliances (between state, civil society and private sector) over horizontal ones (building large coalitions of CSOs). Is that a feature of AC work in Asia, or just a coincidence of the case studies chosen here?

Finally, a long and difficult conversation on the role of ‘Effective States’. Sure enough, many people in the audience disliked my use of the term, with its echoes of autocracy and repression. My response was that the desire for ‘democratic developmental states’ is understandable, but at least in the early stages of development, there is not much evidence for their feasibility. It does seem that there is a trade-off between economic take-off and human rights, and we need to think about that.

Overall, I was struck by the optimism in the room, given my previous posts about the closing down of civil society space in so many countries. In Asia, this is happening in some places (Cambodia), but elsewhere the room for citizen action is actually expanding (Myanmar). People detect an upward spiral, with the occasional backlash by governments merely a sign of the inexorable rise of active citizenship in the region. Hope they’re right.

As for the event itself, it’s easy for a ‘dialogue’ to produce little more than speeches and ‘conference building measures’. I don’t know the ADD process well enough to judge, but the combination of a cross-sectoral approach and serious case studies seems promising. The challenge at these events is to get people to really exchange views and try and understand the very different worlds present in the room, rather than just bigging up their own project (there were remarkably few admissions of failure in the presentations) and talking past each other. You probably need to lock them away for more than a single day to really make that happen. The ADD moves on from here to engage with decision makers and start generating ‘so whats’ – worth keeping an eye on.

This post was originally published on From Poverty To Power 

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