The Global Campaign for Education – a model of international activism

August 18, 2009

     By Duncan Green     

‘Global campaigning’ is sometimes criticised for being driven by northern agendas. As one frustrated Indian activist interviewed in the paper discussed here asked ‘what is a global campaign? Does it mean you get a lot of people together in UK, have a Bono concert and ask us here in India to get together GCE_campaignand shout? That is not locally relevant.’ One exception is the Global Campaign for Education, discussed in a new working paper from the Institute of Development Studies  Some highlights:

‘Four large NGOs came together in 1999 to establish the Global Campaign for Education (GCE) and to promote the realization of the right to quality, free and compulsory education for all. Two of these founding organisations – ActionAid and Oxfam International – are international NGOs (INGOs). The third, Education International, is an international association of teachers’ unions formed in 1993, which brought resources from international trade union organisations to the campaign. The fourth founder member, the Global March Against Child Labour, is an international movement concerned with children’s rights, based in the global South. By 2007, the GCE had involved over 18 million people and thousands of organisations in over 100 countries. It has emerged as one of the longest-lasting, and by many counts, most effective transnational campaigns, attempting to bring together local, national, regional and international voices for change. Over 80 per cent of GCE funds go to support national coalitions along with lots of support and training on lobbying and advocacy, and its governance is carefully balanced between North and South.

But building any such advocacy coalition involves multiple challenges. Global actions may be perceived as unrepresentative or even undermining to the efforts of those engaging at national and local levels of governance. The question of ‘who legitimately speaks for whom’ constitutes a continuing issue within civil society organisations and social movements locally as well as internationally, across both global South and global North. Further, trade unions organise in very different ways from NGOs and social movements, leading to mutual suspicions and potential conflicts. And yet, the GCE has GCE_ghana_tshirtsfaced and survived precisely such challenges and provides evidence therefore of how differences may be negotiated, and how trust may be built across a diversity of interests, experiences and organisational cultures.

Although of course there are tensions within the GCE, our interviews with actors at every level in the UK, India and Nigeria revealed a surprising amount of internal trust and legitimacy between actors at all levels, and a sense of inclusion and voice that is not always the case in transnational citizen mobilisations.

The GCE provides illustrations of all three. It has been flexible enough to take on new issues or themes – as reflected in the changing themes of each of its global weeks of action – and to raise challenges in different spaces – from the IMF to regional level institutions and beyond to the local level. While it has developed an institutional structure, that structure recognises the differing roles played by INGOs, trade unions, and national members. And, as has been seen, this involvement has contributed to a widely-felt sense of solidarity with others, giving a collective identity to the emerging movement.

This case study of the GCE also revealed several other factors which contribute to its relative legitimacy and durability. These included firstly, deep pre-existing roots and forms of collective organisation at the national level, particularly in the South, before the global campaign was formed. Secondly, once formed, the GCE was highly sensitive to building upon these existing organisations, especially in its inclusive and representative formal structures. Third, a great deal of attention was been paid to the collective framing of issues, across actors and levels of the coalition. Fourth, there is wide recognition of the differential roles that can be played by activists at each level in the campaign, with a high value placed on local actors, and ensuring complementarity rather than competition. Finally, there was attention paid to the material base of the campaign, especially in the distribution of the resources. The formation and existence of a global funding mechanism was particularly important in helping to ensure that national level organisations were able to access the funds which they needed.

Interviews with actors reveal that the development of a strong sense of connectedness and solidarity with those across borders working on similar issues. Yet, for most activists, this was not replacing a sense of national or local citizenship, but was adding to it. As governance is increasingly multi-scaled, so citizenship can therefore also be multi-dimensional.’

The paper accepts that in some ways, the GCE has it easy – education is a relatively non-contentious issue (at least apart from privatization and user fees, and their advocates are not in the campaign) with a clear set of global goals agreed at the Dakar World Education Forum in 2000. Other campaigns on a range of economic and environmental issues, tend to run up against ideological and/or North-South differences much earlier on (witness the food sovereignty v food security and food miles debates).

The research involved extensive interviews with activists in India, Nigeria and the UK. It looked at process and inputs, the nuts and bolts of campaigning and alliance-building. I would have liked at least a summary of the evidence of the impact that all this activism has had, but its findings on how a large global campaign can be constructed are worth reading.

August 18, 2009
Duncan Green