Back in September, T/AI organized a roundtable in Delhi with members of the TALEARN and COPASAH communities of practice and activists from several notable Indian social movements, such as Right to Food, Right to Information, Right to Health, Dalit rights, etc. Over the two days of the ‘Mobilizing Accountability’ meeting, we reflected on the experiences of grassroots organizations and movements, and particularly on their learning needs to strengthen their engagement going forward.
The ‘Mobilizing Accountability’ roundtable was a really powerful and unique experience for me. I’ve long been interested in the kinds of citizen organization, mobilization and engagement that can contribute to real democratizing change in society and the state (see previous thoughts here). Broad analysis of ‘citizen participation’ has clearly pointed in the direction of autonomous citizen’s organizations and movements as the real actors capable of ensuring influence in decision-making processes and credibly advancing accountability claims. Thus, the opportunity to sit around the table with veteran campaigners from a country with such a strong and diverse history of social movement engagement was one I had been looking forward to.
As discussed above, the first day of the workshop was spent reflecting on the experiences of the assembled organizations and movements. The second day, participants moved towards identifying learning needs and research questions based on the insights and ideas raised the previous day. Two distinct, but very much interrelated sets of themes emerged. The first was around the nature of movement building and maintenance. How are movements formed? What makes them stronger or weaker? How can they maintain momentum over time?
A second line of conversation was around the impacts of movement engagement. Many of the assembled activists worried about the fact that coalitions and movements had often been able to generate ‘wins’, but the implementation and sustainability of those advances was frequently weak and partial. In other words, many of the assembled movements had made claims around rights or issues that had resulted in new laws, resources, processes, or institutions being created in line with citizen demands. However, the transition from campaigning for changes to implementing those changes, had often resulted in disappointing results for the activists involved. Thus, the question of movement strategies and overall impact was an open one, and was interrogated by workshop participants.
I will offer a few more reflections and lessons that I learned related to these two themes below, and close with some final thoughts about a learning agenda for taking these ideas forward.
Making and sustaining a movement
Workshop participants were generally concerned that movements are built as and remain, internally democratic, fluid and adaptable, connected to the grassroots, and able to resist cooptation threats (both internal and external). The nature of citizen and civil society organization and mobilization was (nearly) as important as the outcomes achieved. And indeed, the former was a direct determinant of the latter, particularly after the early ‘wins’ when attention turns to implementation and sustainability.
Participants were aware of the challenge of leadership for movements. They expressed that citizen organizations and movements were stronger when they developed inclusive, participatory and collective leadership and decision-making. Yet, for movements to negotiate with powerful actors, they need individuals who can sit around the table and represent those not present. Building an organization or movement that can represent members, while being internally accountable to them, is challenging. This is even more the case with less-structured citizen mobilizations seen in the Arab Spring and other countries from Guatemala to Turkey. Yet being intentional about how individuals engage in activism and shape decisions, and how leadership engages externally and internally, can have profound implications for the nature of the movement how it is able to contribute to real changes overtime, including empowering changes for those involved. In this respect, the difference between movements that were essentially composed of civil society organizations and those that were truly mass-based organizations, resulted in different experiences with these issues.
Organizations and movements need resources. A few of the movements at the workshop emphasized that they are not funded externally, except by small individual donations, and mobilize all of their resources internally. However, most of the movements had civil society organizations at their core, and thus had funding needs. Yet many of those present were concerned about funding support, and the potential for distortion or cooptation of movement strategies, priorities and definitions (and measurement) of success and impact. Even so, there was some agreement that external support, including but going beyond funding, was important for organizations and movements.
Organizations, movements and the accountability ecosystem
One of the key reflections of movement activists in the workshop was that movements were often successful at pressuring decision-makers to make specific policy changes (and mobilizing to defend gains when under threat), but structural and capacity challenges limited the possibilities of monitoring and contributing to the implementation of new policies, systems, etc. Furthermore, the democratic and accountability mechanisms that should allow the state to ensure implementation have often been weak. Thus, movement advocacy wins have often been unevenly implemented in practice.
This raises the question of the engagement of social movements with the broader accountability ecosystem. In other words, instead of thinking about only the state actors responsible for approving a policy and implementing it, there is a need to think about the broader system of actors, processes, and contextual factors that influence the realization of any given right, policy, or program. Movement strategists must analyze the accountability ecosystem around the claim they are making, and understand the weaknesses and gaps that will frustrate implementation. This understanding can then inform movement strategies and decision making. This can include the structure of the movement, scope and focus of the campaign, nature of allies (inside and outside the state), and the resource and support needs required.
Individual advocacy wins by a movement, no matter how significant, don’t change the system. When corruption is identified in one institution or process, it can be shifted elsewhere. When a major law is passed, it can be delayed, under-resourced or subverted at the implementation stage. Even democratizing changes, like the institutionalization of direct mayoral elections, can serve to reinforce unequal power relations in practice. Thus, movements can’t afford to think in a narrow or linear manner, but have to connect the dots between their advocacy and other approaches, actors, and arenas of engagement necessary to enact and maintain real change. In some ways, this has been intuitive for movements, as they have often pivoted from advocacy to implementation after their demands have been met. Yet in doing so, they have often faced frustration as their earlier successes have been difficult to translated into broad improvements related to their issue or challenge. Thinking about the role of movements vis-à-vis other accountability ecosystem actors, processes and factors can help movements and their allies chart new strategies to ensure that wins are really wins, and changes are felt by those most effected.
Learning from, with and for citizen organizations and movements
The rich and challenging reflections by movement strategists led to many questions being raised about how to learn from movement experiences to improve their work going forward. Yet, early on in the conversation participants expressed a strong desire to democratize the generation of knowledge about movements, noting the gap between grassroots experiences and reflections and what is defined as robust knowledge by international actors and decision makers. Our intention behind organizing this workshop was to take the first steps in this direction by engaging activists in a process of articulating and refining their reflections on their experiences, questions and learning needs going forward, and thus defining their own knowledge agenda around citizenship, movements and accountability.
 See, for example Gaventa, J., & Barrett, G. (2010). So What Difference Does it Make? Mapping the Outcomes of Citizen Engagement. IDS Working Paper 347, 1-72.