Spring uprisings calling spring academics: #bring books out to the streets!

23/02/2012

Maria-Josep Cascant Sempere

Born the 15th of May 2011 until forced eviction from the symbolic Plaza del Sol on August 18th for Pope Ratzinger’s visit to Madrid, the Spanish Revolution is now back in the streets. The 15-M Indignados Movement spark was lit this time in a secondary school, the Instituto Lluís Vives, seated just beside the Town hall of Valencia, the third most populated city in Spain.

Facing months of delay in payments by the regional government, the school management could not face heating costs any longer. Lluís Vives students then decided to go out to demonstrate against public education cuts seven days ago. With the school strategically located in the city and students blocking a central street, police acted rapidly. They charged against 12 to 16-year-old students and detained some of them.

Technologies, mass-media and a feeling of being part of a bigger, global ‘spring’ served to ignite action. First, against gratuitous police aggressions: footage from TV cameras and mobiles demonstrated, once again, how violence is systematically applied by the police corps against the simple right of demonstrating in a so-called democratic society such as Spain – including an illegal and premeditated lack of identification by police officers (with velcro covering their uniform numbers), as part of a normalised police culture sidestepping further legal responsibilities for their violent acts.

Second, action against the education cuts that many public schools have suffered. Students brought their own blankets, toilet paper and parents helped with the school clean-up on Saturdays, something uncommon in the Spanish context. Meanwhile, the regional government has spent millions on gigantic tourist and propaganda projects that only benefit the few, not to mention the many cases of unveiled corruption.

With books about law and rights held in the air, a mass of secondary and university students, teachers and students’ families joined the march two days ago. Solidarity demonstrations have taken place in cities such as Barcelona and Madrid singing #WeAreNotAfraid, #ValenciaEscuchaMadridEstáEnTuLucha [Valencia, listen Madrid is in your fights], #Here,here,hereThereIsAlsoRobbery [when passing by the Bank of Spain]. Students have created the trending topic #ValencianSpring for communicating and organising in humble honour to their Arab predecessors and linked it to the existing #SpanishRevolution.

In Senegal, at the beginning of this month, citizens in the Mouvements 23Juin and Y‘n a marre [That’s enough] demonstrated and sang rap (and died) against the constitutional change enacted by President Wade to pave the way for his possible third electoral mandate. So did Senegalese immigrants in Paris in solidarity. And so the list goes on: Egypt, Greece, Syria, UK – a climate of international links, resistance and possibility.

As Mariz Tadros urges us to think in the latest IDS Bulletin, what can this tell us as development academics? What can we offer and take from these uprisings?

A first idea is to offer our present concepts on participation, power and change towards the understanding of these events. To try to grasp how a school director becomes unruly by taking her bit of power and saying ‘you police do not enter my school’; or how the public declaration by State Police chief in Valencia two days ago that ‘we were fighting against the enemy’ when referring to 16-year old students, was popularly re-appropriated by demonstrators in various cities of Spain with the creative slogan #MeTooIAmTheEnemy; or for governmental messages of ‘they are just 200’ to be met with counter-narrative posters saying ‘and they said we were few’. And so the list goes on. For each power over, there is a power with, a power to, a power within resisting and suggesting new perspectives.

Second, by updating concepts such as citizenship in the light of present events: how is it interplaying with our roles as consumers, as bank users, as family members? In contexts where repeated demonstrations may contradictorily become just part of the system (when is a demonstration unruly? when is it co-opted?), giving little or no effect, where participatory democracy simply does not apply, where representative democracy is a prison, where citizenship slips, and where the only thing people feel able to exercise activism as citizens over is the boycott of products, to move money into ethical banks, to change life-styles (with the hope perhaps that by impacting on the makers of real-politik – banks and multinationals – they might impact on their accomplice politicians). How is citizenship shaped, felt and reclaimed under these circumstances?

Third, we can engage with the new concepts presently living and breathing in the streets. One example could be that of glocal (‘think global, act local’), already present in the anti-globalisation movements and back again with the Spring uprisings. Demonstrators in these movements are used to see the global picture and then act locally, wherever they are. They sometimes unite too, as a colleague once said: ‘to make a global struggle of the many local ones’.

When I move from these activist spaces to the academic ones, I often feel a disconnection. I feel that we, as academics, can learn and be inspired much more by the way anti-globalisation and spring activists see things in the streets. In at least three manners: 1) in that all local spaces must be studied under equal circumstances: development discourse has long forgotten that there are local places here, in Europe (to the extent that in my local university in Valencia we would not be funded local development projects in ‘here’ because development funding was for local projects in ‘there’); 2) in that our local places are interconnected to other locals, in both positive or negative ways; and 3) in that the concept of global needs to be un-reified, un-packed. An activist friend used to tell me these global forces are ‘too big’, too difficult to fight against. They may. But this also means going to the roots of inequality. Academics can help here, as each global power has a local place, embodied somewhere (a country’s president bank account in a tax haven, a share-holder or G-20 conference, a small enterprise office taking decisions somewhere). Structured, academic analysis is needed to find those globalised locals, to make the global possible, both as power over analysis and as a space for resistance and action.

This video entitled ‘Three stories and a glass of milk’ [in Spanish, 3m] by the Catalan NGO Opcions is an analytical example of glocal interconnections in the international soya-production system. Tecojoja (Paraguay) and Cantabria (Spain) are the local producing places in the suffering end: Tecojoja sees thousands of farmers evicted from their lands for landowners to cultivate transgenic soya, and thus feed the industrial European livestocks; on the other side, Cantabria sees how in the past 12 years, 73% of non-industrial, cattle-farming family businesses have had to close down in face of industrial competition. The third and last local space analysed in the video (the localised, un-packed global space) is the harbour of Barcelona (Spain), the main entrance of transgenic soya to Europe. There, consumers and environmental activists demonstrate against meat made out of poverty and transgenic soya.

Glocal analysis can help both activists in their reflection of actions and development academics to get more politicised and go to the real roots of poverty and inequality. Many other concepts wait for our analysis in the streets. As for each library book on the shelf, ten newer versions are awaiting outside!

Maria-Josep Cascant Sempere is a PhD candidate working on the theme of popular education and social change within the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.


Challenging attempts to silence civil society in Uganda

15/02/2012

Stephen Wood

Barely a year after the murder of gay rights activist David Kato focussed international attention on the treatment of sexual minorities within Uganda, there is a sense that renewed attacks on freedom for these citizens are growing in momentum once again.

Yesterday, a conference organised by Freedom and Roam Uganda (FARUG), a campaign lobbying for the recognition of same sex relationships was ordered to close by the State Minister for Ethics and Integrity, Simon Lokodo, who threatened force against participants unless they dispersed. The Minister ordered the arrest of Kasha Jacqueline Nabagasera, a prominent LGBT rights activist, but she managed to escape the venue in time.

This follows at the heels of the announcement in the last couple of weeks that the “Anti-Homosexuality” Bill that prompted international revulsion last year, has now been reintroduced by backbench MP, David Bahati. Whilst details remain unclear on which elements of the Bill have been discarded aside from the headline-grabbing death penalty for “aggravated homosexuality”, it remains a fierce incursion into the lives of Ugandan citizens and a grave new source of human rights violations. For me, a particularly worrying element of the bill is the potential criminal penalties for those who know of homosexual behaviour, but do not report individuals to the authorities. Medical practitioners, teachers, relatives and aid workers may find themselves under threat of arrest.

The broader implications for civil society in Uganda are exceptionally worrying and play into a wider narrative of intimidation of those threatening the hegemony of the state, such as attacks upon journalists covering the presidential and parliamentary elections and the cancellation of similar conferences of organised sex workers. FARUG and the other participants are exercising the right to organise around sexual rights and the forced cancellation of this meeting undermines the right of citizens to freedom of expression and association in Uganda, rights guaranteed under national and international law.

In many ways, the treatment of the advocates for sexual minorities mirrors the silencing of oppositional political parties by the state, making it harder for their case to be heard and distracting attention from the real problems facing Uganda – accusations of Government corruption, poverty and the painful reconstruction of northern Uganda as a result of the armed conflict by the militant Lords Resistance Army. A more authoritarian approach is emerging from the Government, one that finds strength in targeting sexual minorities as a Western imperialist “enemy within” that plays to comforting nationalist tropes. These repressive events demonstrate even more keenly that the rights of sexual minorities are as important as all other human rights and that the methods used to suppress their political freedom are as pernicious and familiar as those experienced by other parts of Ugandan civil society. Building solidarity across these movements remains as important as ever.

As a gay man, I know through experience how important the fight for equality is for those people outside normative gender and sexual identities in shaping our sense of identity and self-worth. It fuels my commitment to development and the transformative impact of international aid in building sustainable communities that possess the confidence to support all their citizens. This current existential threat to the daily lives of sexual minorities in Uganda undermines their ability to participate in their communities in that manner and could also prevent their ability to work in partnership with international aid agencies, consequently undermining the viability of valuable work around poverty alleviation, health outcomes (including, but broader than HIV/AIDS) and access to education. The IDS Sexuality and Development Programme continues to focus our attention upon the links between sexuality and poverty and how heteronormativity in aid programming reinforces these inequitable structures in outcomes for groups within society. An essential part of tackling this involves working in partnership with community organisations in countries such as Uganda to reach these vulnerable populations, work also imperilled by this renewed intrusion into civil society by the Government.

As I’ve argued previously in an earlier post, these latest events present a challenge for the international community. I believe we need to see a nuanced, collective strategy that continues to build diplomatic support internationally for the human rights of all citizens, coupled with support on the ground for those NGOs with a proven track record in working with marginalised and vulnerable communities. International pressure should be available as a tool at the disposal of southern communities and exercised as their strategic political needs dictate. Their voices and needs should lie at the heart of our development policies, not least at a time when they are under sustained threat of being silenced.

Stephen Wood is a researcher for the Sexuality and Development Programme in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS and can be found on Twitter at: stephenwood_UK


Digital activism in post-revolution Egypt: How relevant is online dissidence in the marathon for democracy?

03/02/2012

Hani Morsi

The metaphorical use of the word ‘marathon’ in the title is intended to contrast the situation in Egypt during the January 25th 2011 uprising with the present state of affairs in the country. To continue the metaphor, revolutions are akin to sprints; they utilize the powerful energy of sudden mass mobilizations to amplify popular dissidence and drive for (what can appear to be) immediate change. However, the problem with sprints is that they are not meant for running very far. The energy in popular uprisings cannot be sustained on the long haul, and social change that is both desirable and lasting is a matter of long-term endurance against intransigent and anti-democratic forces. The Egyptian revolution is far from finished, and the drive for true democracy will take a lot longer than the 18 days it took to topple Mubarak’s regime.  Considering the key role new communications technologies played in the Egyptian revolution, it is important to question how sustainable this role is in the drawn-out struggle for true democratic reform.

The Egyptian uprising did not happen in a sociopolitical vacuum where the only driving force is what could be instantly observed in a shallow analysis: the fundamental desire for revolt against oppression, which is a universal human imperative. For such a revolt to result in a sustainable drive for change, it needs to be preceded by and rooted in a rich social dialogue. It also needs to be channeled into challenging the status quo through focused activism. In a society where active political participation was stifled in the conventional spaces where power is contested and challenged (what I call here ‘real’space), a vibrant social discourse on change was transplanted in ‘virtual space’ by politically active and tech-savvy Egyptian youth (a demographic minority in Egypt). The ‘boots on the ground’ manifestation of such virtual form of activism came to being on January 25th 2011 in Tahrir Square. Creating a false dichotomy between social interactions in virtual space and popular confrontational action in real space hinders our understanding of the dynamic between both. It could be argued that the only new thing about ‘digital social media’ is the ‘digital’ part. The means for fueling the popular drive for social justice have not changed much historically. Conversely, the forms these means take that have changed.

The comparison in the first paragraph between revolutionary and post-revolutionary contexts frames the analysis of the role of digital activism in an enduring drive for genuine democratic reform. I use the term ‘digital activism’ as opposed to ‘social media’ because the later is not necessarily descriptive of the use of digital social networks for activism. Social networks existed long before the internet. Political activism aided by digital social networks is what is we are concerned with herein. Digital social media is a term that describes a set of different yet related tools that, in the context of grassroots political activism, have disparate sub-roles in subverting political coercion. These roles alternated between helping reanimate a grassroots-level debate on change, to popular mobilization and organization for taking the fight from the networks to the streets.   During the early days of the revolution, one of the most important roles of digital social networks was acting as a distributed truth engine (an analogical term to distributed systems in computing, where multiple machines communicate with each other over a network to achieve a common goal), providing real-time information validated and confirmed by individuals at the epicenter of events, in effect providing a robust alternative to the propaganda presented by the largely state-controlled media. Once this umbilical cord of reliable news was severed (when Egypt went offline on orders from Mubarak’s government on January 27th 2011,), the streets were flooded with even more people seeking out the truth and bolstering the revolutionaries’ stance in Tahrir Square.

Presently, all indicators evince that if any kind of change came about in the year since Mubarak was ousted, it is arguably a relapse. There is outrageous military persecution of dissent, freedom of expression and association is heavily stifled, until last week emergency laws remained in place and the use of disproportionate violence and torture against activists and protesters continue by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF). Amidst all of this, online social networks still provide the spaces where the now-sentient discourse on democracy is revitalized, and activism is channeled from the virtual to the real. This is far from claiming that this is still a medium where the regime is out of its element. The SCAF frequently arrests and intimidates activists with loud online voices. Even Mubarak’s regime Gestapo, the now defunct State Security, used European digital infiltration technology that was used against bloggers and online activists. What is important to keep in mind, however, is that such coercive countermeasures have a diminishing effect in a post-revolutionary society. The real-time and distributed characteristics of digital social network technologies make complete control of information activism impossible. Scare tactics only add fuel to the revolutionary fire as news of  the violations are transmitted through the networks with unprecedented rapidness.

It would be naive, even condescending, to reduce the Arab Spring uprisings to the face value of the technological tools that catalyzed them. By the same token, it would be equally unwise to downplay the true role of digital activism tools in all stages of the popular quest for change. It is important to think of technologically-driven political dissidence as taking place on a continuum of activism that traverses through real and virtual spaces of power contestation. The digital in ‘digital activism’ necessitates both going beyond the boundaries of conventional paradigms of conceptualizing political unruliness, and a more thorough understanding of the different forms of emerging digital communication technologies and how they influence social interactions that lead to cultivating indigenous discourses on change.

Hani Morsi is a PhD candidate within the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.