"More people, more agency": Turning protests into movements

How do we transform the waves of protests—which have occupied streets and squares worldwide over the past few years—into movements that can challenge power? Português Español

WhatsApp Image 2022-04-16 at 2.52.03 AM.jpeg
Francesc Badia i Dalmases
12 May 2016

Protests of activists during the World Civil Society Week in Bogotá, Colombia. April 2016. Photo: Francesc Badia, all rights reserved.

The International Civil Society Week, co-organised by CIVICUS and the Colombian Confederation of NGOs, took place from 24 to 28 April in Bogotá. DemocraciaAbierta was there and this is what we saw.

It has been almost nine years since we felt the first shockwaves of a meltdown of the global economy triggered by the near collapse of the financial capitalism. In addition, because of the relative decline of the West, including the enduring European crisis - which has mutated from economic to social to political -, re-emerged authoritarian powers like China and Russia are now disputing world hegemony. This can be noticed in different fields, from the commodity trade to land buying in Africa and Latin America, from investments in extractive industries to media swaying through news agencies and global broadcasting networks such as Xinhua or RT. For both powers, crushing any sprout of organised civil society and flexing military muscles have become routine exercises. For citizens living in other places like Turkey and Egypt or now the Philippines, things do not look at all better.

A global threat to civil liberties is unfolding, undermining democracy around the world. As protests multiply worldwide and activists powered by mobile technology and social networks proliferate, a counter-reaction by governments - not only in the Global South (something that does not make news due to their track-record of abuses in the not-so-distant past) but also, alarmingly, in the Global North – is under way. The direct victims are, as always, individual citizens (an increasing number of activists are paying the ultimate price) but also organised civil society, which is struggling to fight back in good shape, with better tools and improved strategies, through global exchange and coordination.

A conference in Bogotá

Co-organised by CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation (the largest civil society network in the world) and the Colombian Confederation of NGOs (CCONG), a relevant event took place the last week of April in Bogotá: the International Civil Society Week 2016, which gathered some 970 leaders, activists and representatives of civil society organisations from more than 100 countries around the world. The atmosphere was a mixture of celebration, determination and – if I may say so - perplexity, seasoned with a pinch of anger (or indignation, a word that may describe better the feeling that has become a major driver of social and political mobilisation across the world). Volunteers, staff and participants seemed as engaged as they looked out of breath in this impeccably organised conference, logistically complex as it took place in different venues in an otherwise chaotic Latin American mega-city, at 2.644 metres (8.675 feet) above sea level.

The message of the conference, held under the theme “Active Citizens, Accountable Actions”, was clear enough. In terms of human and civil rights, the very first priority of the global civil society agenda should be “to close the gap between what is written in the papers and what is actually done by governments”, to put it in CIVICUS Secretary General Danny Sriskandarajah’s words. While new strategies are needed to make governments accountable for the promises they make, the goals have hardly changed over the last years: civil society must dare to speak the truth to power, reclaim civic space, and face one of the biggest challenges democracies are today confronted with: how to make themselves more meaningful to citizens, how to become more transparent and accountable, and avoid being reduced to the condition of a “simply electoral” political system. “Beware: our democracies end up being electoral systems and not social contracts”, said Emilio Álvarez Izaca, Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights at the closing session of the conference.

But all is not dark and uphill for civil society activists, as new tools are helping them in this endeavour. Some ground for optimism is to be found in the extensive use of communication technologies and social media, and the emergence of quality independent digital media which counter corporate publicity and governmental propaganda. This is happening, however, in a context of increasing concentration of media conglomerates that threaten, in their turn, to undermine one of the fundamental pillars of democracy: freedom of expression - diversity of views and plurality of voices.

Worries arise also from the fact that widely used social media like Facebook and Twitter are profit-driven and dependent on advertising, which raises major concerns about many issues: from invasion of privacy to privatisation of content, from customization of advertising to manipulation and outright censorship. Another major concern of civil society today comes from the increasing tendency of governments (democratic and undemocratic alike) to crack down on social movements and protests for the sake of theoretical security and the “protection of order and the institutions”, but in fact out of fear of dissenting voices. Further worries have to do with the use of anti-terrorism legislation to limit civil liberties and spy on citizens, on everyone from the doorman to the prime minister, for in the hands of totalitarian regimes, this ubiquitous surveillance means certain death for many. But it is inequality, currently on the increase in most countries in the world, both rich and poor, that worries the most, while political and economic elites collude, driven by relentless greed in their capture of all sorts of resources - from natural to human to financial- and, mired in corruption, are circumventing the law, if need be, through political appointments and orchestrated media campaigns.  

Colombian civil society and the peace process

As the World Civil Society Week 2016 took place for the first time in Latin America, the region had a fair share in the overall discussions. The current peace talks between Colombian government officials and representatives of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Havana offered the opportunity to vindicate the active role of civil society in the construction of a fair and lasting peace agreement.

In an unprecedented inclusive procedure, victims of what has become the last armed conflict active in the region were invited to Cuba to make their point. This came about as a result of the pressure by civil society organisations, which enabled the opening of a transitional justice discussion leading to a historical agreement. Albeit this has not been fully understood by many in Colombia, where the peace talks in Havana have become a hot domestic political issue that goes beyond the technicalities of a complex (and perceived as endless) negotiation, the transitional justice agreement has been a major step forward to reconciliation. Understandably, after more than five decades of brutal war, scepticism is a widely spread sentiment among the population, and a significant part of public opinion sees the current process as ultimately incapable of bringing true peace and justice to the country. After all, many argue, “Colombia is a violent society: only 15% of murders are actually related to the armed conflict”.

One of the local stars of the conference, Mr. Antanas Mockus, a charismatic intellectual and former Bogotá mayor, made his point by underlying the moral aspects of peace and reconciliation. “Peace depends on us”, he argued, since “forgetfulness is an act of will”. According to Mockus, there is no bigger challenge than to be able to understand the reasons of the Other. “Against the irrationality of war, we should be able to oppose the irrationality of forgetfulness”, he claimed, sparking a round applause of the plenary. Another of the conference celebrities, Mr. Ali Zeddini, a member of the Nobel peace prize Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet (the group of organisations that was able to stabilise the political transition in Tunisia after the Arab Spring and trigger the drafting and approval of a democratic constitution for the country), stressed the role of civil society in the construction of a lasting peace: peace in only achieved through inclusion and participation, he said, and he recommended “patience” to his Colombian audience, while reminding them, in the same breath, that “women were the cornerstone of the Tunisian revolution”.

The number of women who participate directly in the current Colombian process definitely brings hope for a “fair and lasting peace” for the country. According to the executive director of the CCONG, Liliana Rodríguez, since the final agreement seems closer than ever, now is the time to raise awareness about the difficulties of the “post-conflict” – or “post-agreement”, as some experts prefer now to call it. The structural causes of violence must be tackled, and an effective alternative to violence must be built. Civil society must insist on its grass-root work in different communities and territories, and create the essential social cohesion needed for a stronger, more inclusive and more democratic society. Easier said than done.

Protests are not movements

From all the almost dizzying array of topics covered by this World Civil Society Week, one question that appeared to be ever present and of cross-cutting concern was how to transform the rebellion of many small organisations and individuals around the world into one big movement with one common goal:  to tackle a number of burning issues, including the protection of the environment, the respect for diversity, the fight for non-discrimination, and the defence of human rights. To this end, as one of the activists at the conference put it, civil society needs “more people, more agency, more ownership, and more activated leaders”.

Over the last few years, we have witnessed a proliferation of protests around the globe, both huge and tiny, always fuelled by powerful communication tools and social media, that have mobilized youth in particular, but not only. An yet protests are not movements, and here comes the big challenge, acknowledged by many at the conference: how do we transform these waves of protests, which have occupied streets and squares worldwide, into effective movements that are able to challenge power relations and change policies at the same time?

Many of those active in traditional movements, administrations, NGOs, unions, political parties and other institutionalized organisations are seeing today how formal participation is increasingly demotivating, and people are losing interest. In the not-so-remote days of the 1980s, the agenda setting process was way more slow and hierarchical. In a conference session entitled “New forms of participation: challenges faced for their inclusion”, led by Fundación Corona, a civil society leader from Brazil explained how, to launch the 1983-84 Diretas ja campaign demanding elections, it took them one year to go around talking to all the movements, from the Catholic church to land movements, from unions to students, and it also took a long time to decide who was to be part of the 5 to 10 leaders who were to hold the front banner at the demonstrations. Today, all this would take about a week, and nobody would be fighting to hold a banner in the front row anyhow. 

The emergence of new tools, especially mobile technology, has thus become a change-maker for the way people engage in agenda setting. Tools like Avaaz or allow people to launch campaigns very quickly, even though some critics underline that there is a lot of “click-activism” involved, without real engagement on the part of individuals sitting in front of their multiple screens. These are fast tracks to short-term mobilization which can achieve momentum very fast, but questions arise when it comes to reengagement, for many campaigns show insufficient follow-up after having reached a peak. It is only when on-line mobilisation is capable of taking people out onto the streets; when, as someone at the conference put it, “on-line meets the on-site” that some meaningful results can be expected. Critics, however, stress that too often massive street protests, like the ones in Brazil in June 2013, are incapable of turning into a 2 or 3 issue agenda which enables an effective follow-up. Street protests tend to evolve fast and dissolve.

New ways of decision-making, where the agenda is set in a collective way, are interesting methodologies but show some difficulties when asked to come up with concrete action. As we witnessed with the Occupy movement, decisions are hard to reach when they depend on the will of an assembly. And there is the issue of leadership too, which was raised by a participant at the Fundación Corona’s session: “In this type of mobilisations – she said - if someone tries to take the lead, the movement is over”. Besides, new movements tend to emphasize the role of the individual, rather than the collective and, failing to connect with the collective, their impact is therefore diminished. In this sense, the experiment currently taking place in Spain, where a group of university professors are trying to catalyse the 15-M movement into a classical and hierarchical political party, able to work within the system without being co-opted by it, is raising as many hopes as it raises eyebrows.   

Yet, the truth is that the new tools have enabled new types of movements, which do not organize following traditional patterns and are reshaping old ways of operating. They can be fragmented and democratic at the same time, albeit these open, fragmented, unrestricted ways of engagement are also being used extensively (and opportunistically) by many extreme-right and fascist movements, in Europe and elsewhere. They show other weaknesses, such as quick disruption by hostile governments, who can easily switch-off certain tools or apps, or block access to the Internet, should they not like what they see. In an international landscape where the space for political liberties is shrinking, vulnerability, particularly that of individual activism, increases at the same pace. Someone at the end of the session ventured the figure of 40.000 people jailed in the world because of activism, only last year. Nobody in the room seemed to think that this figure was an exaggeration.


Many other issues were debated during the intense five days of the conference, from protection of anti-corruption activists to accountability for implementing the Sustainable Development Goals, from civil society participation in multilateral scenarios to promoting civic space through Open Government. But “Global Partnerships” came up all the time and everywhere - it was the buzzword of the week.

A young Brazilian activist from Engajamundo, Raquel Rosenberg, speaking at the final plenary session, proposed a new way of dealing with the overall frustration that the big established NGOs (pretty much everybody in the room, I would say) are generating by occupying all the spaces of civil society. And the way she proposed was this: to #sexify the issues. By this she meant making them more attractive, friendly, and lovable to as many people as possible. “We are not going to see our interests represented in these failed systems”, she said. “Our answer is the creation of true human relationships”. It sounded a bit like a revival of the “love” movement of the 1960s, but it certainly was a breath of fresh air.

It could well be that it was this Brazilian youth leader who captured the spirit of the conference, encouraging delegates to change their attitude, if they wanted really to change the world: “We need to show that we are part of the solution, not the victims”. This is a particularly echoing message in Latin America, already familiar to the many Colombian civil society activists attending the conference, who have been working so hard, for so long, to put an end to their stupid, absurd, criminal war.


DemocraciaAbierta attended the International Civil Society Week 2016 thanks to a Media Fellowship from CIVICUS. A series of interviews to prominet civil society leaders, who participated in the event, will follow.

Unete a nuestro boletín ¿Qué pasa con la democracia, la participación y derechos humanos en Latinoamérica? Entérate a través de nuestro boletín semanal. Suscríbeme al boletín.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData