How can NGOs connect and engage more with social movements?

By Deirdre de Burca, FORUS

The political slogan “power to the people” is currently playing out across many countries across the globe. In Europe and worldwide, social movements are manifesting and becoming active. Ordinary people are taking to the streets, articulating their concerns, calling for action and using various forms of protest to try to disrupt traditional political thinking and behaviour.

NGOs around the world are currently reflecting on how they can best connect and engage with the social movements active in their countries. Many believe that social movements regard NGOs as “part of the system” and therefore irrelevant to their activities.

For this reason, the European civil society alliance “SDG Watch Europe” recently organised a day-long capacity training day for its national members including a session on “Connecting and Engaging with Social Movements”.

I was pleased to be present on behalf of Forus for this session. This allowed me to hear what the representatives of a social movement and citizen’s association active in Belgium, respectively, have to say about the possibilities for working more closely with NGOs. The external speakers were from Extinction Rebellion (https://www.facebook.com/ExtinctionRebellion/) and the Citizen’s Platform for Refugee Support (https://www.bxlrefugees.be/en/qui-sommes-nous/).

The discussion was well-structured and addressed the following questions:

  • What kind of role do social movements play in the implementation of sustainability? Is sustainability reflected in their strategies and in what way? 
  • Where do their successes lie, and what are their limits? 
  • How can CSOs engage, interact, and partner with social movements in a meaningful, mutually beneficial way? 

The exchange of views between the two social movements and the NGOs present was wide-ranging and extremely interesting. A summary of the key insights I gleaned from this exchange are as follows:

  • The work of many social movements promotes sustainability in all its dimensions – social, environmental, economic and governmental. These movements want to play their part in helping to promote a massive planetary shift towards a more sustainable future (eg Extinction Rebellion focuses on the climate emergency facing humanity and Citizen’s Platform for Refugee Response supports refugees escaping conflict and climate change- related crises in their countries).
  • Social movements recognise that their agility, flexibility and responsiveness are essential to their success. They recognise that a much greater level of formality and even “bureaucracy” applies the functioning and decision-making of NGOs. Social movements are not interested in collaborating more closely with NGOs if this will compromise their flexibility and speed of action and response.
  • Extinction Rebellion and other social movements engage in different forms of civil disobedience as part of their campaigns of disruption linked to raising public awareness and putting pressure on political systems. They recognise that many NGOs are prohibited from engaging in acts of civil disobedience because of donor and funding conditions.
  • Social movements believe that there are numerous ways in which NGOs can be more supportive of their actions and campaigns and that they could benefit from NGOs sharing resources with them – including meeting rooms, technical equipment, funding and expertise. 
  • Social movements believe that the pressure which their disruptive campaigning and actions bring to bear on politicians subsequently creates more “space” for the policy and advocacy work of NGOs directed at political systems to be more effective.
  • Social movements are less likely to approach NGOs regarding the possibility of closer collaboration than the other way around. NGOs are therefore better placed to do outreach to social movements and to begin discussions about the scope that exists for greater cooperation.

In summary, closer collaboration between NGOs and social movements could be very mutually beneficial. NGOs are likely to benefit from the increased credibility and legitimacy linked to working alongside grassroots social movements. On the other hand, social movements would benefit from having access, through NGOs, to assets which they do not possess such as meeting spaces, technical equipment, funding, and policy and technical expertise.

NGOs may need to initiate contact with the social movements in order to discuss what kind of collaboration is possible. It will be important for both actors to remember that their roles should be complementary and based on a strong respect for each other’s differences.

If NGOs can support the campaigns and actions of social movements without trying to control them, it is likely that significant benefits will accrue. These benefits will include greater public legitimacy and credibility for NGOs, as well as encouraging political systems to be more open to engaging with their policy and advocacy work.

So what are we waiting for?

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