Activist movements are changing the way that the world changes — and if the United States wants to help democracy abroad, it needs to update who it throws its weight behind.
On July 8, Nigeria’s new president, Muhammadu Buhari, did something his predecessor considered unthinkable: he sat down with the #BringBackOurGirls activists who have spent the last 14 months holding daily vigil for the 276 schoolgirls kidnapped from their school in Chibok by the militant Islamist group Boko Haram. “Nobody in Nigeria or outside could have missed your consistency and persistence,” Buhari said during the meeting, praising the tenacity with which the group pursued their task of making the world care, and keep caring, about the fate of teenagers taken from the northeast Nigerian town. He used the meeting to promise that a regional military force would be in place to fight Boko Haram by the end of the month.
The meeting was more than an acknowledgement of what the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, which took over the Internet for a brief moment last spring, stood for when it was founded; it was an acknowledgement of what it has become. When the campaign first began, some critics dismissed it as short-lived hashtag activism. But #BringBackOurGirls has proven itself to be a grassroots movement — a collective of over 50 key leaders and a broad-reaching network in the thousands — that has increasingly focused on issues that underlie the kidnapping: a right to security, to education, and protection from terrorists, and calling for an end to the corruption and bad governance that experts have found goes hand-in-hand with protracted violent conflict.
It also, more and more, is a model of the kind of organization that is spurring democratic change.
Studies by have found that nonviolent movements like this one provide the best antidote to authoritarianism and democratic backsliding. Yet outside actors often have a tough time figuring out how to help them. The U.S. Government and its democratic allies should invest in better understanding these groups and recognize groups such as #BringBackOurGirls as legitimate players that reflect truly democratic values. Determining how to support (or at least not undermine) broad-based civic movements like this one should be a priority of diplomats and development practitioners.
The Rise of People Power
The number of protest movements has increased exponentially over the past decade, as recorded in the Nonviolent and Violent Conflict Outcomes (NAVCO) Database housed at the University of Denver. Strikingly, according to Erica Chenoweth, one of the professors who designed the project, 2010 to 2013 saw the onset of more campaigns than the entire 1990s. From the streets of Tunisia to Thailand to Brazil to Ukraine to Hong Kong, citizens are organizing in new and creative ways to hold their governments’ feet to the fire, mostly through direct issues: demanding safety for LGBT populations in Cyprus, access to clean water in Colombia, fair taxes on basic commodities for the struggling poor of Kenya , even women’s ability to wear pants in Sudan. Movements succeed through collective action, and bringing people together means protecting valuable public, civic space — the essential fabric of democratic systems.
Historically these non-violent movements have been very successful — far more successful than armed struggles.
Similar to earlier nonviolent struggles, activists on the frontlines of these contemporary movements are redefining what it means to build democracy. They bring together diverse players — women, children, elderly, workers, and students — for mass participation and action, often filling the gaps where traditional organizations have left off. Participation in movements encourages a sense of belonging, purpose, and a shared identity. Feeling part of a nonviolent struggle for basic rights also helps counteract the allure of extremist groups, whose narratives are typically founded on actively resisting injustice. Win or lose, nonviolent movements build bonds between social groups and ultimately strengthen a democracy or make it more likely that a country will have a democratic transition, as studies have shown.
These movements, however, are increasingly under fire. Governments around the world have met the explosion of protest movements with crackdowns on civil society that are unprecedented in scope, sophistication, and coordination. According to Freedom House, civil and political rights have declined in more countries than they have improved for each of the past nine years. In countries such as The Gambia, Egypt, Russia, and Azerbaijan, hiring trolls to hound democratic activists online and creating pro-regime groups to counter independent ones have become increasingly common, as has harassment of foreign democracy NGOs and development agencies. Authoritarian regimes may be learning and adapting more efficiently than activists and movements, as a new book by one of the co-authors concludes.
U.S. support for these movements has struggled to keep up despite repeated rhetorical commitments.
According to the United States’ new foreign policy strategy released this spring, the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), democratic governance is the sine qua non underpinning all other U.S. objectives; the document mentions corruption and accountability over 50 times in almost 90 pages. U.S. President Barack Obama issued a Presidential Memorandum last fall as part of the Stand With Civil Society initiative that directed all U.S. Government agencies to step up engagement with non-governmental actors and to “oppose efforts by foreign governments to impose excessive restrictions on the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association.”
Still, democracy, human rights, and governance are the three lowest funded areas for the U.S. Agency for International Development, the main U.S. agency for foreign assistance. As Casey Dunning, senior policy analyst for the Center for Global Development has written, “USAID will need to dramatically rethink its budget and program allocations if it hopes to achieve the QDDR’s aims in each of these priority areas.” More critically, Nazanin Ash, the former deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Bureau of Near East Affairs (NEA), wrote in May that, “We lack, at critical mass, the people with the skills for today’s challenges and today’s solutions.”
Supporting Democracy Differently
Historically, the single-most important factor driving democratic development was broad-based grassroots movements. Successful nonviolent campaigns such as the Serbian Otpor youth movement that prompted Slobodan Milosevic’s ouster in 2000, the U.S. civil rights movement and Act Up! movement for LGBT rights, and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa built in training mechanisms to maximize citizen participation. Today, with authoritarians pushing back and civil societies besieged, the U.S. Government, its democratic allies, and non-governmental partners need to update how they support activists. It should start with who those activists are.
They are typically members of social movements that are loosely organized and that use collective or joint action. They have change-oriented goals and their methods are extra-institutional and may involve confrontation with powerholders. NGOs, by contract, are typically more established organizations, often registered with governments. While NGOs play important civil society functions, an excessive focus on professionalized NGOs, which have lost touch with their constituencies in places like Pakistan and elsewhere, means missing the mark.
Practically, effective support means listening to what activists need and then focusing on making tools related to nonviolent organizing and political engagement more accessible. Nonviolent action skills are foundational, transferrable across cultures and contexts, as well as teachable. Enabling as many activists as possible to gain access to them and help them learn from each other is an approach far more powerful than Western instruction.
Movements thrive not because of an inflow of resources but because of their ability to manage and build human capital, to evaluate power, and to set strategy based on realistic goals. Having access to real-time data and information could help movements make better strategic and tactical choices. For example, nonviolent activists waging anti-corruption campaigns in Kenya and Armenia would benefit from accessible information about government budgets, public sentiment about important issues, network analysis of related groups, and security force responses. Groups like PeaceTech Lab, which are creating new data-driven technologies, and RootChange, a new group mapping dynamic community networks, are using real-time data to help activists make better strategic decisions. Rhize, an organization founded by one of the co-authors, is helping shift support from projects where donors define the goals to a movement-support model, that provides local activists with proven skills and strategies related to nonviolent organizing, connects them to peers from other movements, and helps them access international resources like small grants and security training.
The U.S. Government, no matter how well intentioned, will always face accusations of hypocrisy and inconsistency when it comes to supporting democracy. That doesn’t mean it should give up on the effort, as some experts have suggested — rather, it means it should work with partners to step up support to local civic actors that have a strong base of support, that are inclusive, and that know how to build change coalitions.
A Movement Mindset
As of the beginning of May, in large part because of the consistent pressure by the #BringBackOurGirls movement, the Nigerian military found and returned over 600 women and girls to their families, many of them pregnant, but none of them the famous Chibok girls. The strength of Boko Haram seems unfaltering with recent attacks in Kano and across the border in Chad. The #BringBackOurGirls movement’s struggle continues, as their daily vigils have for more than 400 days.
Established NGOs in Nigeria have struggled to get results, whereas this grassroots movement, which started organically, has used the inherent scrappiness, creative resourcefulness and authentic community connections that comes with effective movement-building to occupy both digital and grassroots spaces, get direct services to victims and families and expanded allies inside and outside the country. They are nimble, strategic, and oriented around broad-based participation, where established NGOs usually lack the funding, flexibility or capacity to manage quickly changing political environments.
Successful movements cannot be manufactured. Their seeds are homegrown, and governments and NGOs must recognize this first. Prying open closed spaces and devising creative ways to empower imperiled reformists who motor democratic change is essential to national and international security. At its core this means allying with the heroic democrats around the world who are putting their own lives on the line to advance more free and just societies, and letting those societies build the political and social will for systemic change and lead the way. They’re already changing the world — now it’s time to help them do it.