On the precipice of change

29 April 2011

By Archie Law, Chief Executive Officer of ActionAid Australia

We are at a remarkable moment in the global struggle for a more just and sustainable world. The world is changing rapidly but not rapidly enough for the billions of people who live daily with the profound injustice of poverty.  This is the context in which the Australian Government is conducting the most significant review of its development assistance program in 15 years. The findings of the review will shape the future of Australia’s aid program and, more importantly, the future of poor and excluded people around the world – for better or worse.

There’s been a lot written about what the future of the aid program should be, but when you’re designing for the future, you must consider the future context.

So what will the future look like, and what does this mean for the Australian aid program?

Crystal ball gazing is never easy, but one certainty in the coming years is that dramatic shocks and crises relating to food, fuel, finance, climate change and conflict will occur. These shocks are likely to increase human vulnerability and insecurity, but they also offer unparalleled opportunities in that the present systems and structures that create or maintain poverty are likely to be discredited by their failure cope with these shocks.

Climate change is now an inevitability and will lead to massive challenges for people living in poverty, who will find it hardest to adapt – but as the world faces up to natural resource limits the case for ecological justice and new development models, premised on achieving fair shares for all, will be powerful.

The rapid growth of the middle class and unsustainable consumption patterns around the world will certainly put new pressures on our planet and its dwindling natural resources, but global communications, new forms of activism and emerging philanthropy also create great potential for solidarity action from hundreds of millions of people across regions, ages and classes, who want to contribute to a more equal and just world.

In the coming years, we will witness power shifting away from the United States and Europe, towards a more multi-polar world, with the rise of emerging economies. This creates new opportunities to challenge the dominant, market-led-model of development and potentially build alternative global relations where Southern countries have greater control over their future. The challenge is to ensure that these countries pursue more democratic and sustainable paths and offer a more equitable and ecologically-just model of development.

Over the next decade the currently dominant macro-economic models will continue to be used to advocate for purely market-oriented solutions which imply the retreat of the State and privatisation of public services, further disadvantaging those living in poverty. Fortunately, many governments are offering alternative paths, increasing progressive tax revenues, pursuing redistributive policies and targeting public spending towards those in greatest need.

The past three decades of liberalisation and deregulation have allowed some multinational corporations to accumulate unprecedented market power and political influence, but the financial crisis of 2008 has exposed the dangers to economies and societies of allowing such a concentration of power.

Many enlightened businesspeople and politicians are now recognising the need for governments to regulate markets and facilitate inclusion of all groups. While some corporations continue to abuse their power, exploit workers, pollute the environment and avoid tax, the resistance to such abuses is growing and will become ever stronger.

People are exploring alternatives, challenging dependency on commodities, promoting more diverse and just domestic economies, asserting the importance of sustainable small and medium-sized businesses, and developing innovative social enterprises.

In many countries we will continue to witness an active shrinking of democratic space, with governments enacting reactionary legislation to constrain citizen engagement, but there is also a remarkable flourishing of people’s movements, coalitions and platforms that will make their voices heard.

Almost half of the people in the world are under 25 years old, and within the next few years, in many parts of Africa, half the population will be under 20 years old. This could lead to millions of children growing up as disaffected youth, contributing to instability and the potential failure of States - but this could also be a catalyst for the transformation of societies if investments are made now, for example in quality education and job creation. Youth can be powerful drivers of social and political change.

Processes of urbanisation will continue, creating new faces to poverty: slum-dwellers, often living without legal tenure, having limited access to services, productive resources or employment and lacking the traditional social security networks of rural communities.  But this is truly an opportunity for change, building awareness of unjust distribution of resources, of corruption, inefficiency and the mis-use of power, and being able to mobilise in large numbers, close to power centres and visible to the media.

Another certainty is the avalanche of technologies, which may exacerbate inequalities, further empowering the powerful and deepening divides, but which may also be utilised to alter present systems of power and control.

In too many countries, the aid business itself, working in the name of poverty and premised on a post-colonial model, is part of the problem, undermining democracy, fragmenting efforts and creating unsustainable dependencies. But there are many who share these concerns and there are real opportunities in the coming years to transform aid in favour of people living in poverty, harmonising efforts, reinforcing rights, redistributing resources and building new types of organisation and platforms that can accelerate sustainable alternatives.

Ending poverty and injustice is a complex process but one that fundamentally depends on people, working together to tackle root causes and find alternatives.  We have seen what happens when women living in poverty discover their own power, get organised and are able to publicly demand their rights from local and national institutions - to guarantee them land or their children the means to an education. 

We have observed the impact of international campaigns built on both knowledge and the “noise” of people all over the world - that have influenced governments and corporations to end rights abuses against people living in poverty.  

We know the benefit of working proactively with communities through organising and knowledge sharing so that they are resilient to disaster and conflict

We have witnessed the power of consciousness raising, education and mass media to shift people’s attitudes and behaviours to be more inclusive, open-minded and committed to justice.  We have all marvelled at the power of people movements to end apartheid, advance gender equality, end wars, or throw out dictators

In short, ending poverty and injustice depends on people actively working together to transform power, tackle root causes and find solutions. This requires taking sides with those in poverty, empowering people in their contexts, linking people together to strengthen organisations and movements of people and using collective knowledge and power to campaign nationally and internationally to end rights abuses. 

Change is messy. Sometimes it takes decades and sometimes it can happen overnight. It is not linear. But it is happening every day because of the passion, vision and commitment of people working together across borders, social groups, and experiences. 

If there is one thing I’d want the aid effectiveness review team to consider when making its recommendations to government, it would be this simple, yet crucial point: People make change happen. So how can the Australian aid program help people make change?

Images by flickr users Jason McHuff and Fraulein Schiller.

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7/18/2011 6:07:49 PM #
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