Pay-as-you-go activism

Joanna Wheeler and Thea Shahrokh Joanna_Wheeler200

During the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence, here’s a question for all of us who believe that activism is part of the solution to gender-based violence in all its forms: can you buy activism?Thea Shakrokh

This question came up in response to a discussion with a leading feminist activist in India who was sharing her sense of accomplishment in what the women’s movement has been able to achieve in the last year since the horrifying events of 16th December and their aftermath. The women’s movement has been able to secure some major changes to legislation on rape and harassment in India through leveraging the political will that they have been able to catalyse in part through sustained activism. Yet she was also very clear that for her and her organisation, activism and the commitment of people within the organisation to activism had to be kept very separate from program funding from international donors. In her view, using donor money for activism would be the best way to kill it.

picture of entrance sign for Saartjie Baartman Centre

The Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children in Cape Town is a one-stop centre for women and children who are survivors of abuse

This got us thinking about what creates sustained personal and political commitment in relation to gender-based violence. Last week, in Cape Town, as part of the work on the Accountable Grant policy theme on addressing and mitigating violence, we spent time working with the Western Cape Women’s Network on Violence Against Women in order to better understand how the possibility to act against gender-based violence has been developed through a programme called Prevention in Action. The central goal of Prevention in Action is to increase the number of women and men acting against gender based violence through a networked approach to social mobilisation. The programme involved identifying and training ‘community engagers’ and ‘community influencers’ and working with them to establish activist groups. These roles were funded through the programme, so the question became: where ‘action’ is the desired outcome of an initiative and you fund it directly, can it be anything more than pay-as-you-go?

Activists for hire?
Tensions in this example are linked to the role of external agencies in implementing social change initiatives and the extent to which action is being driven by monetary incentive, or the results framework of an NGO, and what this means for the sustainability of political action. One of the NGO partners in this process likened the situation on the ground to the game of a ‘living statue’: A person dressed and painted silver only moves when someone drops them a coin. She asked us whether financial incentives can build the strategies necessary to challenge the deeply harmful norms and actions that perpetuate gender-based violence. This question is made more difficult in a context of extreme poverty where people are negotiating how they will feed and house themselves and their families on a daily basis.

Talking to those involved on the ground tells another part of this story. For them, the consequences of gender-based violence are very real: ‘It is our children being raped and we are the ones that have to face this. Yes, the programme opened up the opportunity, but when the programme ends, we will still be here and we will still have to face this’. The experiences of the women we met show how the lives of activists extend beyond, around, and through any programme, and it is their own journeys as people that drive and enable action around gender based violence. A grounded understanding of the lives of the people involved is necessary to respond to the tensions of paying for activism. As Beth Mills discussed last week, this is also critical in responding to the paradox of a gendered, contextualised understanding of agency and empowerment and current development discourse and practice.

Valentina Pellizzer is a feminist activist in Bosnia and Herzgovinia, who we have been working with over the past few years on questions of democracy and citizenship for LGBTQI communities in the Balkans through the Participate initative and work on visualising democracy with SDC. Valentina made another interesting point about pay-as-you-go activism: if people with whom you are working and trying to mobilise see that you are getting paid for what you do, it undermines your legitimacy. In the context of the Balkans, this is interpreted as a mercenary strategy to get something out of the system rather than a real commitment to the issues and the goals. At the same time, she has many stories of ‘professional’ activists also acting as informants for the government or other external authorities. The latest scandal implicates a well-known activist as an informant for a global security firm, and shakes the trust towards civil society in a region where it desperately needs to be renewed and regained.

So where does that leave us?
The development industry is starting to recognise the importance of activism especially for issues like gender-based violence. At the organisational, or ‘professional’ level this means constantly making choices around resources, where are they allocated, and to what issues. Do you work ‘within the system’ to achieve change, or remain an outside critic—and what does this choice mean for how you get funding? For programmes such as Prevention in Action, the predictable result of donor-led activism is a pay-as-you-go approach where £5 pounds buys you one ‘act’ against gender-based violence. But how much can the politics we really need to address the deep roots of misogyny and violence really be done with donor funding? Can the commitment to particular causes for activists, which are based on personal identity and an intent to claim more democratic citizenship be incentivised? What really sustains this commitment and what undermines it? There are no simple answers to these questions, but if we want to really get to the bottom of how to use activism to challenge gender-based violence, we need to think very carefully about where and how money comes into the picture. When it comes to activism: can you buy it, and can it be sold?

Joanna Wheeler is a research fellow and Thea Shahrokh is a Research Officer. They are both members of the Participation, Power and Social Change team at IDS.

Read other blog posts relating to the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence


3 Responses to Pay-as-you-go activism

  1. For communities marginalised on account of non-normative sexualities, access to livelihoods for many are incredibly difficult and sometimes aid monies are a lifeline, albeit one which can bring unforseen impact to those communities. This makes your post all the more timely and challenging.

    One aspect of your thinking I’d like to hear more about is the transformative nature of doing work around reducing gender-based violence or non-discrimination for sexual minorities. You mention the compromises to legitimacy that monetarising this work can bring, but I’d like to understand more about the effect participation can have on resilience, personal and political change and the translation of these issues into meaningful local conxtexts.

    • Thanks for your comment Stephen. The work we are doing with the Western Cape Women’s Network in Cape Town is looking at how dimensions of citizen agency, mobility, autonomy and identity interact with conceptions of and action against gender-based violence.

      Through the individual life stories of activists in Khayelitsha we hope to understand more about their own journey and what has driven and enabled their political expression on this issue, and as you outline, what this participation in the public and political life of their community has meant for their own feelings of personal and collective power. Understanding the relational dynamics of agency in contexts of violence is critical – this is both in terms of the kinds of relationships involved, and also whether these relationships enable or undermine feelings of empowerment. Where families and closest community members are those committing violations and abuse, damaging people’s sense of empowerment, the question of how people create or access alternative opportunities for belonging and solidarity with others is central. The work we have done so far shows that there is an important interplay between the power built through working with others, and how this generates opportunities for positive change at the personal level.

      We will be sharing the findings of this work early next year, which will include a focus on the implications for policy – will keep you updated.

  2. A discussion between myself and Ranjita Mohanty (Researcher on the politics of the poor and powerless – cross posted from another social networking site):

    • Ranjita: Good one Jo. The problem is not money or funding or donor per se (assuming that it is all clean money); questions would be – conditionality attached, flexibility for activists to decide the course of action etc. There are organizations who have done excellent human rights work with Nordic funding. Many radical ones doing activism on their own in Delhi last December had to return to work after a few days. Instrumentality of money in political action is not to be underestimated. That said, it would be relevant to think about different models.

    • Joanna: Is aid ever really unconditional? I think that is at the heart of the issue, as well as what it is that motivates and sustains activism (for activists, themselves/ourselves) versus what is needed to enable it…

    • Joanna: The problem is that as soon as activism is funded, it has to be counted in results frameworks…

    • Ranjita: Absolute unconditionality is a myth; it depends what can be negotiated and what can be acceptable to activists – in doing the framing, measuring impact, time frame etc. Self -sustained activism can happen two ways – one funds one’s activism from money earned through other sources (salary, for example) or raise public funding through charity. That’s how grassroots mass movements in India have sustained themselves.

    • Ranjita: The tension between visions of political action and its material enabler is a deep one!

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