NEWS IN FOCUS: Global solidarity is key in the fight for social justice

Emma Maier

Last week in Third Sector, Daleep Mukarji of Christian Aid expressed his vision of forming a unified global movement to fight for social justice worldwide. Emma Maier takes a closer look at the viability of his idea.

When Christian Aid's chief executive Daleep Mukarji made the suggestion that NGOs from all corners of the world should come together to form an global umbrella movement to achieve social justice, it was met with a buzz of excitement and anticipation (Third Sector, 3 December).

Mukarji's ambition is to take the success of the Jubilee Debt Campaign and the Trade Justice Movement to a global level. This will involve bringing together a diverse range of NGOs, trade unions, faith groups and other movements to form a worldwide network to fight for poverty reduction, environmental protection and a more just, inclusive and peaceful world.

"Christian Aid cannot tackle this alone, nor can a coalition of UK NGOs," says Mukarji. "There are trade issues and the Common Agricultural Policy that need to be tackled in Europe and we need partners in the US so that we can pressure Bush. We need a diverse network of groups from rich and poor countries. That is my dream and my hope."

Mukarji's idea is based on the notion that if NGOs recognise the common ground between their differing agendas and work together, they can achieve these aims by holding governments, multinational corporations and international governance institutions to account.

The potential benefits of such alliances are well documented. In the 1990s, activist authors Jeremy Brecher and Tim Costello used their 'Lilliput Strategy' to illustrate that, just as the tiny Lilliputians in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels managed to incapacitate the giant Gulliver by working together, so activists can combat the forces of globalisation by forming alliances and networks.

While Mukarji's utopian vision of achieving social justice is likely to be universally embraced, and his strategy seems logical on paper, it remains to be seen whether such a colossal coalition involving organisations and movements from across the world could ever be achieved in reality.

However, early indications show that, despite the enormity of the task, Mukarji's peers have good reason to be excited.

The past decade has seen many local and regional collaborations, as well as cause-specific alliances, such as the Enabling Partnership - an umbrella organisation of five disability charities that pool their fundraising resources (Third Sector, 2 July).

Larger scale projects such as the Trade Justice Movement, which has 50 member organisations and can reach a potential audience of 9 million people, provide further encouragement.

It has become clear that, on all levels, there is strength in numbers.

But there are significant differences between regional or national collaborations, and an all-encompassing global movement.

Trade Justice Movement co-ordinator Glen Tarman is enthusiastic about the idea, but is concerned that the breadth of elements that make up 'social justice' may cause difficulties.

"With a broad agenda, it is very easy for governments to agree with you," he says, "because they can cherry-pick parts of the agenda and ignore other areas. This can make it more difficult to take them to task where they are failing."

History also shows that a broad agenda can pose difficulties when it comes to agreeing a strategy. While it is easy to set broad aims, it is harder to agree on the best way to achieve those goals.

Last year, when a senior policy advisor at Oxfam resigned because she disagreed with the methods used in the charity's Make Trade Fair campaign (Third Sector, 15 May 2002), divisions within Oxfam and disagreements among other NGOs were exposed.

Using a predefined set of goals may help avoid this kind of conflict.

Mukarji suggests using the Millennium Development Goals set by the UN in 2000 as a basis. These include measurable targets such as halving world poverty by 2015, achieving universal primary education and reducing child mortality - targets that governments have already signed up to.

"The challenge is to ensure we have a framework in place that enables us to influence the necessary agendas and manifestos so we can start pushing for change," says Mukarji.

The broad nature of a global social justice movement could bring particular advantages.

"We all agree with the idea of social justice, so it can become like a secular religion to bring everyone together," says Raja Jarrah, programme director at Care International UK.

But it may be the problems posed by NGOs' organisational structures and political stances that are most difficult to combat.

"There is a tension between collaboration and competition," says Jarrah.

"We are so used to differentiating ourselves that it can be culturally difficult to overlook our differences to work together."

NGOs will also need to distance themselves from governments if they are to hold them accountable.

"To achieve social change, NGOs need to adopt a more radical agenda rather than sticking to the inside track as appendages of government," says author and historian Mark Curtis, who is the former head of global advocacy at Christian Aid.

"The problem is that many organisations are doing very well from governments - this access to easy money means that it will be very difficult to change the culture of the organisations."

Maintaining a strong link with grass-roots supporters will also be important to ensure the legitimacy of a global movement.

"Many NGOs see themselves as self-appointed experts and don't feel accountable to the public," says Curtis.

"This is something that must be overcome so that they can mobilise their supporters of the social change agenda."

But for many, the goal of establishing a global movement is achievable, despite the challenges.

Ultimately, success may well have to be born from necessity. Friends of the Earth's chief executive Tony Juniper asks: "If we do not put the world on a new path, then who will?"

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