ActionAid head says Myanmar ‘literally bristling with activism’

Mr Adriano Campolina, Chief Executive of the international development agency, Action Aid International, left, speaks with Mizzima Editor in Chief Soe Myint, right. Photo: Thet Ko/Mizzima

Mr Adriano Campolina, Chief Executive of the international development agency, Action Aid International, left, speaks with Mizzima Editor in Chief Soe Myint, right. Photo: Thet Ko/Mizzima

On a recent visit to Myanmar, Mr Adriano Campolina, Chief Executive of the international development agency, Action Aid International, has a chance to observe activism and social welfare programmes in action and check up on his NGO’s progress.

Mr Campolina sat down with Mizzima Editor In-Chief Soe Myint for an exclusive interview to discuss his NGO’s work and the challenges for Myanmar with its democratic transition.

How do you view the state of activism in the world today?

I believe that activism is in a very interesting moment of reshaping itself, and the bridge with more traditional ways of activism.

So what do I mean by that? I believe that the activism of my generation did, the ways of organizing people, the ways of mobilizing people, the ways of awareness, and consciousness and then a long movement towards change remains very important. It has not gone. So if I am a landless person in Brazil or a Dalit in India there is still that consciousness, the different movements in mobilizing.

At the same time you have quite an important transformation that was brought by technology. So you have got new, I would say, shortcuts of mobilizing where, I will give you an example, in my time of organizing and mobilizing people for democracy in Brazil in the early 1980s … could take us seven or eight months of work to put 100,000 people together. And now it can happen in a much faster pace because of the use of social media, particularly the use of mobile technology, Facebook and Twitter and so on and so forth. So I think those two worlds of activism coexist and sometimes they coincide, and they come together in very powerful moments of change.

Examples of those very powerful moments of change I would say are in South Africa in which students across South Africa came together to demand not to have any increase in their (school) fees. And that was an excellent mobilization using mobile phones and social media with concrete on-site real mobilizations and negotiations with the government and the university leadership.

I also see the Black Lives Matter movement in the US as an interesting new way in which people combine those two. In parallel to that process of bridging different activism, you also have online activism, which is also quite big and quite important. They are doing online petitions, online ways of mobilizing, which I think they do add value in terms of putting pressure on some issue, raising awareness, involve different sectors of the media, and even decision-makers, however if they don’t connect with the real people on the real issues (it is hard to build) transformative change because it has been compromised.

What about the effectiveness of activism if you compare with the activism of years ago and now? For example, activism to end war or end poverty. You talk about transformation.

I believe that there has also been quite a lot of change recently. If you look at the classic activism of the 1970s, stop the Vietnam War, or even before with the Civil Rights activism, South Africa, anti-dictatorship and many examples around the world, they were very effective. And so was the activism very effective in the early 2000s, for instance. … We used to have a proposal by the US, most of the governments in the region, back in the 1990s to create a free trade area for the Americas that our activism has defeated. Another example is the struggle of people with AIDS and the access to medicines, to anti-retroviral drugs, they have won the access to treatment.

So I think there has been quite important victories in recent years as well. So that activity has been maintained, I think we are still winning lots of battles, but there is also a moment in the world where inequality … and that inequality makes it difficult for the people, because you have a concentration of power in very few hands and they capture the state, I would say we continue to be effective, but the other side has become quite powerful. What I think has been quite interesting is the ability to mobilize beyond the usual (capability) of the activism movement, the fact the use of technology, the use of creative – in our time it was the arts – but I think more and more now the forms of activism are mobilizing and are reaching out to a much larger group. And practically it has become very powerful in the relationship with the youth. It is quite important to stop issues like land grab, abuse of corporate power, to more and more mobilize for the right of the freedom of association, freedom of mobilization.

On the question of solidarity, we used to see some solidarity and support and network in the past from one group to another, from one movement to another. What about the current state of solidarity movements around the world. Does this still exist? Is it still active enough to challenge for example the injustice?

I believe solidarity remains quite acceptable. I will give you one example. A couple of years ago, during the UN General Assembly in New York we had one of the biggest climate marches in the world. It was about 300,000 people on the streets of New York at the heart of the biggest polluter in the world. You had 300,000 people marching in solidarity for themselves and the planet. And who had organized it was the labour movement in the West because you had a fundamental change on the economy and will not only not be able not to have a future but will also not be able to get decent jobs. So I think that is a good example of solidarity.

We, as we speak, we work in hundreds of communities across the world and our work supporting the communities and also helping them to claim rights is supported by all kinds of individuals in all types of communities from Brazil to Italy to Greece to the UK and those individuals support the struggles. I have also seen a lot of interaction between youth movements. That level of conversation is happening in a good way. There is an important space to mobilize those forms of solidarity.

I would probably observe that in the key moments of global decision-making there are great opportunities for that solidarity to materialize into political action. So in the climate change negotiations, I would also with SDGs, the developments goals, I think they were approved by the conference because of a very strong civil society mobilization, both from North and South, towards solidarity. So I am still quite confident that in spite of all the rogue incentives, sometimes they are very xenophobic or racist fears and seek to undermine solidarity, we still have a situation which allows a network to claim for rights.

You started your activism in Brazil in Latin America where activism and repression has been very strong. So when you do your work in other countries, like for example in Myanmar, is it the same methodology that you might use in Brazil? Is it relevant?

I would definitely say it is relevant, though it is not the same. I think of course the change in context, the difference in context is so different, it is difficult to say they are the same. And also the difference in terms of generation, and how different areas communicate with one another, and build solidarity and build collective action. But I would definitely say there are a few fundamentals that remain quite strong. One of them is consciousness-raising. So when I was here in Myanmar over these past two days, I see farmers coming together and discussing their problems and starting to realize that problem is outside the reach of that community or the effectiveness to therefore they have to work on that. Farmers being able to talk with the chief minister, in order to say look these are the things that need change in agricultural planning.

The second concept that remains important for me is the concept of collective action. So everywhere in the world that we work, when we see people coming together with a common purpose and strategizing together, I definitely feel this is fundamental to be able to achieve change. And the use of leadership, the ability to have collective leadership and people being led by themselves, as opposed to being led by others. It remains quite important in terms of the legitimacy of the cause and the ability to push towards that goal. And finally I would say the issue of building support, the ability of those experienced in activism to communicate with and to interact with and bring together a much larger range of organizations, movements, media towards the cause is very important.

Like recently if you look at movements like the climate movement. It brings together fisher folks in the delta areas of Bangladesh with farmers in Africa who are affected by droughts with people who live with the consequences of the (the melting ice in the) Arctic. It brings together social justice activists with environmental activists. I think it is this element of inter-sectionality where the struggles become much more collective, with different movements, another new feature. Where we have some struggles that are collective struggles, that brings together different kinds of movements and different, I would say, sectors. Like the environmental sector. One appropriate example of that, we have discussed that in the face of inequality, women’s rights, attacks and patriarchy, in the face of climate change, in the face of shrinking political space, we need to bring together a larger group of organizations and we then have a manifesto signed by ActionAid, Amnesty the trade unionist federation. So that shows how we bring together environmental organizations, public development organizations, and labour unions so that we have to do it together. There is no way we can achieve substantial change alone. We need to come together and be much open nowadays to strategize.

In an ideal world, where the government is responsible for taking care of the well-being of the people, yet we see governments fail. So what is the role of activists or civil society communities for example in the question of equality, especially the growing gap between rich and poor, where the governments have partially failed?

I think to a great extent, in many places where the governments fail is related to what you have just mentioned is inequality. It is not only failing because the government does not have sufficient resources. Sometimes it is failing because those scarce resources are being monopolized by powerful groups. So leadership is about choice and when a government has to choose between giving credit to farmers or giving credit to rich farmers, that’s a choice. And because of the reality of inequality in many parts of the world, elites or international elites have captured the state, so therefore the state prioritizes activities that are beneficial to those elites, like with the executive taxation systems. We have many countries in the world which will give a full tax exemption to big company. … That is an example.

I sense that the role of activism is exactly to look at the equation of the capture of the state by the public, to be able to build power with the people in a way that it becomes so powerful that you can confront the capture of the state. And in that process of disputing the resources and making sure it serves the majority requires, number one, the ability of people who live in poverty to have the consciousness and strength to make the case visible and to make their voice heard. And the second is the ability to understand how the state operates, to understand budgets, to understand lawmaking and decision making, understand budget allocation, and therefore be able to interfere or lobby or campaign at the right time so you can go for the capture of the state day by day. So when a local judge has to make the decision to spend money or spend the money that has nothing to do with poor farmers we will know what that moment is and will be able to bring a case at the right time.

I would also say it has to do with the ability to look at some structural issues that allow the capture of the state. I just mentioned taxation is one of them, that is a fundamental issue for society, that is to create progressive taxation that would allow a redistribution of power and resources but also allow a very effective state, capacity building, capacity to fulfill its obligations, to protect and promote human rights, and to ensure everyone’s access to services.

So I think that is one crucial structure as well as the issue of democratic space for the movement, because at the end of the day, if you don’t have the space in which you can freely organize yourselves, you can freely mobilize for your rights, it will be very difficult to confront the capture of the state.

I would like to discuss ActionAid and its work in Myanmar. What is your focus in Myanmar and what are the major programmes you are currently doing in the country?

ActionAid in Myanmar has a very effective and impactful programme in the country. The focus starts very slowly with the notion of fighting poverty and eradicating poverty through re-strengthening the capacity of communities to understand their own situation, to understand the cause of the situation they are going through, and to trust or have an understanding of a plan for developing the community, and then being able to bring that plan to the local choice. There has been a very strong focus on that to do bottom up planning with the whole community mobilized. We developed books and the books are a summary of the main problems of the community and the solutions and the priorities, what they want to achieve. And then they mobilize resources to achieve that, first of all through dialogue with the local community so that they will be prioritizing the budget allocation as well as mobilizing other resources. And that ends up with a very strong natural emphasis on issues related to education, issues related to access water, issues related to infrastructure. There is a very strong emphasis on that in community development. And I would also say organizing and mobilizing the community, so creating social fabric that allows a day by day exercise of democracy.

So we also have fellows who are volunteer, different youth leaders. They are trained to really build up this process of organization from the bottom up. So that is another important part.

Another very important part of us has to do with finding climate adaptation. We know that Myanmar is considerably vulnerable to the change in climate, so therefore we also work with communities to build up resilience, either through the way they do their production of infrastructure that Is resilient to climate related phenomenon, drought in some areas and floods in other areas.

And I would say women’s rights is also an important emphasis for us. We do understand that there is no way to fight poverty without fighting patriarchy, without advancing the rights of women. So our grassroots programmes have a very strong emphasis on women’s rights. In fact with the new leadership we have just launched our new campaign which is aimed to change to make a safer city for women so that they can access public services, school, or their jobs, be free of harassment and be free from violence.

Myanmar was under a military dictatorship for many years and it is now in the early stage of transition to democracy. So in your opinion, what are the challenges for the country and the people?

I think there are a number of challenges and one of them has to do with the very culture within this state apparatus, the way the state works. So of course a state is a political entity, but is made up of human beings. Those human beings who are working for the state and the people, they have had a strong culture on how they would deliver services and fulfill their duties. This comes from authoritarian times. I think there is a need to make sure the state machine changes the culture. I know there has been a change of leadership but there also has to be a change of culture of the state. So building a culture, accountability, building a culture of participation, a culture with values, that is ready to learn and decide together takes a lot of work.

I think another important challenge also building the capacity of society to interact with the state, to be able to articulate demands in a format that can actually influence public policy, to be able to give visibility for the situation of injustice such as a land grab or a denial of rights. All of that requires the capacity of society to be ready. For me the fundamental issue is how to make sure you improve the readiness of both civil society to claim rights and the state to be able to dialogue, to influence, and to be accountable.

You also have the institutions in the private sector, the big companies, so how we not only look at the issue of your nascent democracy, from the perspective of the civil society and the state, but also look at the relationship with the private sector and how the economic development is also democratized to have civil society ability, influence and ability to shape development to come alongside political development.

What about the question of ethnic minorities in this transition and also the question of communities living together? Myanmar has been struggling with these issues for years and still fighting and conflict. How can this be handled in your opinion?

I don’t have a deep knowledge about Myanmar and the conflicts. The experience across the world shows that this requires, firstly, commitment and the willingness of all parties to really engage in peace building. So that is a fundamental issue, respect. We establish commitment from all parties to resolve it.

Secondly, you must go deeper into what are the underlying causes of the conflicts. Some of it is economic. Some of it is control of resources, you haven’t been able to see what is in there. And also a deep cultural practice that also has to be tackled. So I would say a comprehensive peace-building requires a lot of commitment and a lot of collective leadership to achieve and it is absolutely crucial. Because at the end of the day, we all know that the most vulnerable are the people, and the people are already exploited and are already in a situation of poverty. Those are the main victims of the conflicts. So as an organization that fights poverty and has a very strong commitment to social justice views this as a fundamental step towards a fair and just society.

In the last few days, you have been visiting various places and meeting with colleagues in different parts of the country and also the groups and individuals who are involved in the movements. What are your impressions?

I am absolutely amazed by what I saw in Myanmar in these past few days. First of all, the role of youth. This is so interesting to see. We have the experience with the fellows, which are actually community organizers of chain B as it were. Thousands of youth being trained in rights and community development, and they have such an interesting role, by going back to their respective communities and working with people from different generations on identifying problems and being together. And I could see a very strong youth led process of change, that was very impactful to me.

Second, I could observe a very strong witness of the different sectors of society to start slowly to build the ability to interact with the nascent democracy and rights. So I could see 300 farmers coming together to build a joint analysis of agricultural problems and then provide their input for the national agricultural plan. That exercise of democracy is really important.

I also could see a very strong people-led process of engagement. So who is leading the process of change are the people themselves. In terms of innovation, it is a very active process. I saw so many new initiatives from the way people organized themselves, to social enterprises, to different ways of cooperating, different kinds of entrepreneurship. I believe that innovation is very much there. And I would also say the willingness to tackle cultural issues together in the nation. Before, when we launched our Safe Cities campaign, there were hundreds of rural women very committed to try to and engage into cultural change. So I feel like the country is literally bristling with activism and participation in a very unique way. And I believe it is a particular trait for building a democracy and the solid values.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Just to add a big thank you for the opportunity to talk to you and to talk to your leaders and talk to your viewers. And thanks to the Myanmar people to give me the opportunity to learn from the beautiful process of change, building democracy and building social justice, and youth and leader led, that is a gift to carry with me everywhere I go.

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