micro-managing the Arab Spring: on NGOs, management, movements, and social change
This is an excerpt from “Anarchists in the board room – how social movements and social media can help your organisation be more like people”, by Liam Barrington-Bush. Liam is currently running a campaign to have the book crowd funded. You can contribute here.
Imagine the first strategy meeting amongst an imaginary coalition of NGOs involved in ‘strategising’ for the delivery of the ‘Arab Spring 2011’ program. Probably in about April 2002:
“Our vision is: ‘A series of mostly peaceful revolts across the Middle East and North Africa in the spring of 2011, overthrowing longstanding dictatorships and kicking-off a process of bottom-up democratisation throughout the region.’”
“Great. What are our targets gonna be? Have we identified strategic partners in each of the countries? What will we accept as a ‘democratic’ victory? Do we have a system of risk management? How will we measure the impact?…”
If they had somehow managed what we now know was achieved by less strategic or coordinated means, think for a minute how the follow-up meetings might have gone:
“Do we have a figure on ‘total persons liberated’ yet?”
“What if that figure goes up after the funding period is over? Think we could fudge it a bit to boost the numbers?”
“We’re probably gonna want to avoid mentioning too much about Syria in the final report… Bahrain too.”
“We’ll have to talk about Libya, but is there a way we can avoid giving NATO too much credit on that one? If we make it look like they were the critical success factor, they’ll get all the funding in the next round.”
“Can we reshape the vision statement to reflect Tunisia and Egypt more strongly? If we were aiming to liberate the whole region and only two dictators were ousted, it’ll be easy to say the programme was a failure. What if we said it was something about ‘supporting peaceful revolts in Tunisia and Egypt’? Then we can credit the other stuff as unexpected fringe benefits of our interventions… maybe we can build the next funding app around some of the other countries that have been ‘prepared’ for future peaceful revolutions?…”
There were of course many organisations that played roles within the various uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East in early 2011, but there was no organisation that could effectively or meaningfully take credit for what took place in any single country, let alone the entire region.
Organisations (clearly structured institutions) have, throughout history played important roles in countless social movements (looser, larger, emergent and wholly autonomous masses of people), yet have repeatedly failed to understand the differences between the two forms.
The organising principles which underpin organisations and movements are almost diametrically opposed to one another, even if from the outside (and generally through the condensed lens of history) their aims and beliefs appear perfectly aligned.
An organisation in a movement is too often like the friend-of-a-friend at a high school house party who hasn’t grasped the etiquette of the group they’ve stumbled into. They do inappropriate things, hit on people they should know not to hit on, say things they shouldn’t say… and ultimately end up too drunk for their own good, being looked after by some sympathetic stranger who wants to keep them from getting beat-up or seriously damaging the furniture.
…Maybe that last bit pushed the metaphor a bit, but anyone who has participated in a movement without their organisational hat on knows the tension that emerges when an institution tries to impose hierarchy on something for which there are simultaneously no leaders and an ever-changing plethora of leaders coming-and-going, depending on the specifics of the situation.
This tension might be sparked by unannounced organisational recruitment drives at broader movement events or actions. It might be in the domination of organising meetings with particular agendas and aims. It could be the prevalence of a particular organisational face in media coverage or publicity, taking disproportionate credit for something which has in fact been a much broader effort.
This is not to say that people who work for organisations cannot bring just as much value, resource and experience to a movement as any of the rest of us, but that too often this requires their aims as individual activists to trump their aims as employees of an institution.
The desires to build brand recognition, to secure funding, to promote awareness of a particular agenda or individual name are practically speaking at odds with actually working towards a better world. They distract from the tasks at hand. We began by explaining them to ourselves as ‘necessary evils’ in the world of organising, until they gradually assumed a considerable bulk of our work. The tail is wagging the dog.
We have put the ‘cart before the horse’ when the structures created to help achieve change, become the institution’s primary reasons for being. Over time, almost without fail those ‘helpful’ structures end up practically at odds with the change they were meant to support – often at the point of engagement between the organisation itself, and the bigger movement that it is a part of.
Our organisations need to be more sensitive to their environments, and accept that we are guests in broader movements for change, rather than the stars of the show, as so much organisational campaigning, publicity and fundraising efforts have pushed us to try to be over the years.
Becoming aware of the ways our organisational hats might be at odds with the aims of a movement, is a critical step towards making a positive difference in this emergent world. If we want to be meaningful and constructive contributors, we need to understand the principles that help movements to thrive, even if they seem immediately at odds with the principles that have driven our organisations for so long.
As you read this, there are countless emergent social movements that could benefit from the people, experience and resources that our organisations have within their walls. Finding ways to work constructively – rather than antagonistically – with these looser networks will be a defining distinction of established organisations that remain important in the movements of the not-so-distant future.
But doing so means learning to take on some of the qualities of these looser networks…
This was taken from Chapter 3: ‘The myth of hierarchical necessity and what we can do for ourselves.’ You can see Liam talk at more length about the book below.