Opinion: Radicalism will always set the action agenda

Geraldine Peacock, a charity commissioner and a civil service commissioner, but writes in a personal capacity

Radical activism has always been the distilled essence of the third sector. Each decade has its radical causes, be they peace, housing, poverty, sexual health, the environment or global trade. Each cause has consequently spawned NGOs such as CND, Greenpeace, Shelter and War on Want, whose roots lie in this radical activism.

Charles Dickens said: "This is a world of action, and not for moping and droning in." The development of NGOs such as these demonstrates the shift from protest to pragmatism, from chanting to debate, from demanding change to achieving it. And, apparently, therein lies the problem.

NGO umbrella body Bond's forthcoming report, written by Sarah Lister of the Institute of Development Studies at Sussex University, claims that young activists regard NGOs as elitist, snobbish and that NGOs have "lost touch with the groundswell of radical activism". T'was ever thus. This perception is always going to exist and is healthy. Realistically, the pace of change is never going to satisfy passionate, committed individuals.

Fundamental change takes time but it's this very dynamic that ensures the continuation of radicalism. It is the pressure that each generation of young activists exerts that galvanises agenda-setting, challenges orthodoxy and ensures that campaigning remains energised and focused.

Creating, even forcing, change is not something owned by radical activists or NGOs, but by both. One demands change, creates publicity and appeals to potential supporters' emotions; the other identifies what structures need changing and how best that can be achieved in the least possible time.

What there does need to be is better interaction, communication and strategic partnerships between individuals and organisations, and between different types of organisation. Those more radical voices that are disillusioned now are the potential movers and shakers of tomorrow. Consultation combined with effective opportunities for influencing and involvement by NGOs will demonstrate that the inertia ascribed to them is misplaced.

Change does come, but never at the speed radical activists want, and that is probably just as well or we would never have the opportunity to benefit from it.

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