porTobias Troll
a 03 JUL 2014



“We’ve become something of a bacterial species, and our fingerprints are everywhere. The planet is dying, and there is a need to reform or rethink or out-think the ways we’ve been thinking about the world and our relations to it. Today’s most pressing imperative is to turn to each other.” – Bayo Akomolafe


1. Introduction

The world is at risk. Facing irreversible consequences of climate change, some activists propose to “accept near-term human extinction” and “catastrophic climate change [as] unavoidable. Game over. All that’s left to do […] is to bear loving witness to the demise of all species.” (Biggs 2014, in response to Baker 2014). Global scenario planning suggest that humanity, not able to find collective responses to an economic system that does not consider planetary boundaries and increased inequalities, might well drive in the abyss of “barbarization” (Raskin et al. 2002), yet other, not more friendly futures such as a multipolar, divided world or, at best, a world in which environmental challenges are addressed but at a large social cost (Vaes and Huyse 2012).

The necessity of a “great transition” (Raskin et. al. 2002) – a transformation of our economic system, based on marketization, consumerism and competition, but also our cultural frames, social relations and systems of governance (Narberhaus 2014) – has left a sectarian or radical corner and is taken up increasingly by actors of or close to the political mainstream. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon calls in recent speeches to shape the “great transition” as “global citizens” (Ban 2013). Olivier De Schutter, until lately UN special rapporteur on the right to food, states in the background paper of a recent “transitional governance” conference in Brussels that “the transition towards sustainable societies will require the introduction of new forms of governance, encouraging social innovations and participatory democracy at all levels, combined with improved multi-level coordination to facilitate local experimentation.” (De Schutter 2014).

However, there is little agreement on how such a “transition” should look like, and even less on how to get there. And while NGOs, business, politicians and officials at national and global level wrench on wordings in never ending negotiations, citizens all over the world mobilise increasingly to challenge a system that does not deliver to their aspirations (CIVICUS 2014). In an ever more interconnected world, any transformation away from the current exploitation of people and planet towards a more just and sustainable future can’t be done without the citizens of this world. Even more, this article will argue that a global citizens movement (GCM) is a precondition to achieve such a transformation. While efforts to influence the institutions – the classical NGO advocacy and lobbying work around intergovernmental and UN negotiations – are not very likely to bring upon the systemic change they aspire to, as has shown, for example, the general failure to address the challenge of climate change (Narberhaus et.al. 2011, Baker 2014), a global citizens movement can help to facilitate such transformation through connecting radical experimentation at the level of niches and through changing the dominant discourse and culture. Moving away from a focus on changes in policies, a global citizens movement can re-conquer the sphere of politics. Paulo Freire (2005), already back in 1970, argued that the conquest of political power of citizens is an essentially emancipatory and educational process: “People subjected to domination must fight for their emancipation. […] The world […] becomes the object of that transforming action by men and women which results in their humanization.” Popular education, development education, global learning or global citizenship are at the very heart of global movement building and systemic change. This is an opportunity for development education to reposition itself at the core of the process towards a transition for a better world. While NGOs and even state actors recognise that a sectorial approach is not delivering anymore (Trócaire 2011), development education has to leave the field of the aid industry, where it is traditionally situated, and enter the core of the debate on the world we want to live in, based on a culture of learning, sharing and mutuality, that helps to scale up alternative and radical experiments and at the same time reshapes discourses and culture, to overcome the false promises of mainstream ideas around economic growth, competition and consumerism.

This essay will first reflect on the character of global citizenship and a global citizens movement. Then, I will introduce a theory of change, based on the Smart CSOs change model (Narberhaus 2014) that highlights the importance of working with radical niches and cultural discourse in contrast to an exclusive concentration on political advocacy. The following section highlights the conference “Building a global citizens movement”, which took place in Johannesburg, S.A., on 11 and 12 November 2013, as a crystallising moment of discussions around a GCM. Statements by participants in this conference, interviewed in the frame of this research in May and June 2014, will illustrate the plurality and common concerns in the discussion of a GCM. Based on the interview, I will discuss two critical aspects of a GCM: The question if there should be “one overarching plan”, or even one centralised organisation to facilitate the emergence of a global citizens movement, and the question of the necessity of an alternative discourse (“semiotic transitions” or even a “religion”, Karlberg 2014, in response to Paehlke 2014), and the role of global learning and global citizenship education as a foundation of an emerging GCM.

2. From cosmopolitism to a global citizens movement

The concept of global citizenship is old: Already Socrates claimed 450 BC his land of origin to be the world, as did Diogenes a century later (NCDO 2012). Indeed, every person is born on this planet Earth, and as “earthlings” we are all, by default, global citizens. Schattle (2008a) underlines that an increasing number of individuals regard themselves as members of a formative global community, who “think and act locally and globally”. However, the motivation to adapt such cosmopolitan is multiple, and is not limited to commitment to global common goods or values, but can also be based on “corporate citizenship” and global business opportunities, or even transnational fundamentalism, yet terrorism, as pointed out by Armstrong (2006). Nevertheless, he proposes three pillars of global citizenships: a universal system of individual rights, responsibilities and “an emerging world-wide democratic public sphere, or ‘global civil society.’” Dower (2008) sustains the idea that “we are all global citizens”, due to a “global ethic” (formulated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) with gives value, rights and responsibilities to every human being. UNESCO (2014) distils from the discussion a common understanding that global citizenship would not imply a legal status but rather a “a sense of belonging to a broader community and common humanity, promoting a ‘global gaze’ that links the local to the global.”

However, in the aftermath of the WTO protests in Seattle, which was a first public manifestation of what became known as the “anti-globalisation” movement, a number of authors point to the political character of a global citizens movement. Susan George (2001) underlines the cross-sectorial and transformational “political project” of the movement. Kriegman (2006) believes in the “the co-recognition and internalization of others’ struggles as our own in a global community of fate” as the key to build a GCM towards a “great transition”. However, there is an inherent conceptual tension between a GCM as composed of individual “global citizens” or their movements, and “organised civil society” such as international NGOs, who struggle to identify a common agenda (Narberhaus et.al. 2001) or even legitimise the current system through co-optation (Armstrong 2006). Paehlke (2014) points out that, despite the urgency of tasks ahead, a GCM can’t become a centralised command-control style organisation with institutional structure or central administration, and pleads for a multi-layered, amorphous and organic movement, based on inclusiveness, radical democracy and multiple interfaces to connect.

Active citizenship is evolving, and even if the multiple popular uprisings and mobilisations such as Indignados, Occupy Wall Street or Arab Spring often have a topical and/or geographical limited starting point, the issues they tackle are of global concern and are often mirrored in uprisings elsewhere on the planet (CIVICUS 2014). And the identification of individuals as “global citizens” who believe that many local struggles have a global dimension, and that global challenges require global answers has never been higher (Schattle 2008b).

3. Addressing Systemic change: The Smart CSOs change model

The Smart CSOs initiative is based on the assumption that civil society organisations (CSOs) currently mainly act within the existing paradigms of markets and competitions, and apply intrinsic change strategies based on policy work and institutional lobbying. The Copenhagen climate summit is maybe the most prominent illustration of the limits of this approach. As an alternative, the Smart CSOs lab, a growing community of practice of a broad range of civil society leaders from a variety of sectors (though mainly from Europe), proposes to move change efforts from the level of “regimes” (“where the dominant political, economic and social institutions of the old unsustainable economic system lie” to the level of “niches” (spaces of radical experimentation “where the seeds of the new system emerge”) and the level of “culture”, where the dominant discourses, values and worldviews are situated. At this level “a shift to a culture of sufficiency, wellbeing and solidarity has to emerge to support the transition” to a new economy and global democracy (Narberhaus 2014).

Diagram 1: The Smart CSOs change model (Narberhaus 2014)

Narberhaus et. al. (2011) identified a Global Citizens Movement (GMC) as one of five “leverage points” to advance systemic change – a “great transition” in order to overcome sectorial separation of civil society and “rise above the current politics of opposition”. A Global Citizens Movement (GCM) engaging masses of people, “nurturing values of human solidarity, ecological resilience and quality of life” is described as necessary and possible. This movement would “embrace diverse perspectives and movements as separate expressions of a common project”. (Raskin 2010). The next section will explore how such a global citizens movement could look like.

4. What is a Global Citizens Movement? The Johannesburg experiment

In November 2013, a global conference was organised by CONCORD, the European Confederation of Development NGOs, the World Alliance for Citizen Participation CIVICUS, and the Global Call for Action against Poverty, GCAP. Its ambitious, even daring title was “Building a Global Citizens Movement”. More than 500 individuals from 123 different countries applied to participate in this meeting, which underlines the appeal of a reflection on a global citizens movement. 200 people from 82 countries finally gathered in Johannesburg on 11 and 12 November 2013, under the overall aim to “initiate a global coalition for citizen’s empowerment for change”. The conference had three objectives:

a. Vision: Exchange, and possibly agree, on a joint narrative of the world we want, and the world we don’t want;
b. Linking: Establish and reinforce cross-continental networks towards a global movement of citizens for change;
c. Learning: share approaches and practices on emancipatory campaigning and learning.

However, the bare diversity (geographic, ideological, organisational) of the 200 participants united showed that a western-style, objectives and outcome based strategy setting had strong limits. In consequence, the participants in this conference challenged the initial idea of a joint final “declaration”, and instead adopted a more open “Johannesburg Compass: Questions and Orientations”:

“Together, in humility, we started a journey of transformation and developed a common vision that we believe will drive a fundamental shift in our world, the way we work in our organisations, and within our societies. In humility, we know that we don’t have all the answers, that we have and many questions. And that we are aware that we should find new ways of expressing our politics and therefore this is not a Declaration but a Question we pose to ourselves and the world.”

Through its open and inclusive methodology, the Johannesburg conference has inspired a range of people and organisations, and for examples informed the currently planed global Action/2015 campaign to be both “radical and radically inclusive”, in the spirit of the conference and its outcome document.

So what is this “global citizens movement” in the view of the participants of this conference? In the frame of this research, I had conversations with seven individuals from four different stakeholder groups (popular movements, global activists, INGO leaders, development educators). The answers to the simple and general questions (“Why do you engage with the idea of a global citizens movement?”, “How do you define a global citizens movement?” “What is its potential and possible difficulties?”) showed a strong convergence along certain aspects, but also a high variety of angles on how to address the issue.

Marta Benavides, chair of the global campaign network GCAP and popular educator from El Salvador and involved in people’s movement from 40 years, insists on the mutual support role of a global citizens movement:

"We must be solidarious, meaning one with everybody, with the care of the planet, and we must accompany people."

An approach underlined also by Aya Chebbi, young Tunisian blogger engaged in the democratic revolution in her country:

"We can learn from each other, we can inspire each other to do something positive, like the leaders inspire each other to oppress people […]. A global citizens movement is an inclusive […] collaborative and supportive movement. It’s like a support system to each other […] where I feel I have a backup […] of expertise, of training, of people, of networks."

She also underlines the tension between spontaneous, decentralised mobilisation and the need for leadership and structure:

"Tunisia’s revolution had no leadership, so I see things to be more successful when they don’t have leadership. It was a totally spontaneous movement – and it worked. […] But I think it should shape to some structure. But maybe with new mechanisms, than having a ruling group… because I think the movements that are rising now are sick of leadership, bad leadership, or dictatorship. We are just sick of one ruling person or one ruling group, or class. So if we do the same, we’re just repeating the same mistakes we are fighting against."

Bobby McCormack, development educator from Ireland, believes that its possible to define a joint vision or goal, but sees the difficulty in identifying it in working together in cross-sectorial and global manner:

"The idea of a citizen’s movement is something where there are people from many different perspectives, and many different views, who have got some kind of shared vision and shared goal […] There is a lot of strength in trying to cross over those, say, silos type movements into a much more joint up network […] The potential of this global citizens movement, this overarching cross-sectorial idea is that possibly it achieves more at a far deeper level in the long run."

Danny Sriskandahrjah, Secretary General of the global civil society platform CIVICUS, echoes the organic and people based character of citizens mobilisation, and the changing role of big NGOs in formulating messages and strategies:

"Because of the rising aspirations of people all around the world, especially young people, to participate and have their voice heard, you’ve got this potential for a more chaotic, or more democratic way in which citizens movements can be built. It’s going to be crazy and chaotic, but that’s good in my view […] The coms department of the NGOs can’t control the messaging in the way that people have wanted to do sometimes. […] We can’t rely on the NGOs to solve the world’s problems. We never could, and we certainly no longer can."

For Olivier Consolo, former director of CONCORD, the European Development NGO confederation with members such as Oxfam International or Save the Children,

"There is no global political space, and there is no global democracy."

NGOs and other institutional actors had failed to address global challenges such as climate change or inequalities through a top-down approach that disconnected them from the local movements and concerns. Because of the institutional connotation of the term “global”, he prefers to talk about a “world-wide” citizens movement that should be

"an internationalisation of local, popular movements [...] to reinvent the institutions they believe we need to better regulate and lead the world today. […] We [NGOs] should tell them: Guys, we understand that we failed. […] Let’s build that strategy not from our old organisations, but with those new actors, putting all the resources and the capacity that we have […] for them to create whatever they want to create. And this means abandoning power from ourselves."

Rene Suša, Development Educator from Slovenia, echoes the scepticism of a centrally set agenda and insists on

"epistemological justice [...] to start first with the exploration of the possibilities of radically different world views meeting on an equal ground, before we decide what a common cause is."

A global citizens movement would be a “human movement” with no one at the centre, as space to explore

"ideas and concepts from […] different knowledge production systems to actually meet among each other […] and maybe to discuss solutions or ideas that were beyond the scope of what was possible before."

The keynote speaker at the Johannesburg conference, Bayo Akomolafe, writer, poet and clinical psychologist from Nigeria, stated that 

"the most powerful, the most potent prospect or potential for a global citizens movement in my view is a radical bottom-wide think-present social actors base that changes or shifts attention away from giant corporations and profit mechanisms to people, ordinary people, who in work in local spaces to rejuvenate the ways of life and connect the people again.[…] A global citizens movement is the opportunity to ask new questions, totally new questions."

If we put these statements in relation with the earlier introduced change model of Smart CSOs, we can clearly see that the level of niches (cross-linking between localised initiatives and focus on mutual support mechanisms: e.g. Chebbi, Benavides, Akomolafe) and the level of culture (changing discourses, epistemological pluralism, organic forms of organisation: e.g. Consolo, Sriskandarajah, Suša) are the privileged angels for a GCM from the interviewees perspectives. No interviewee pointed to policy work as the main element and objective of a GCM – however, this is where most of the international NGOs invest the biggest part of their resources. Some interviewees even challenged directly the model and role of big NGOs (Sriskandarajah, Consolo), and suggested fluid networks rather than hierarchical set-ups (McCormack).

5. Towards a streamlined organisation or an amorphous network?

The various perspectives gathered in the interviews, and also during the discussions at the conference, underline that a western style log frame thinking, where commonly and agreed objectives shape a strategy and in consequence a particular centralised organisation, meets strong scepticism from a variety of actors who consider themselves as global citizens, and who identify with the idea – and the need – to build a global citizens movement.

Paehkle (2014) argues, sustained by the examples of the American civil rights movement and the environmental movement, that the multitude of approaches and actors make a GCM “more decentralized, more unplanned, more possible, and less threatening.” Experience also tells us that attempts to unite the great diversity of people, initiatives and organisations motivated by the frustration of exclusion in the current economic and political global (and national) decision making, and the will “to make the world a better place” are doomed to fail. Already in the rather homogenous realm of international civil society organisations (INGOs) such as Amnesty International, Doctors without Border or Oxfam (examples set by Paehlke), a joint political agenda is far from immediate possibility, not to talk about the often topical and/or geographically limited popular struggles and movements such as Arab spring, Indignados, Occupy Wallstreet or Gezi park protests, to mention just a few. The experience from the Johannesburg underlines that a re-connection from a global perspective to local mobilisations, and learning from them and their “pluralistic epistemologies” is a alternative to sectorial, policy focused, top-down campaigning, that not only does not consider the universal character of the challenges humanity is facing, but also simply doesn’t deliver the transformation towards alternatives modals of co-existence between peoples and planet.

6. How to address plurality: The GCM as “new religion” and the role of global learning

As underlined by the interviewees, the role of creating community and joint identification in the emergence of a global citizens movement is central, and the experience of the mentioned Johannesburg conference confirms this assumption. Linking people, their struggles and believes works first of all through creating a joint language and identification, which is a pre-condition for joint action (yet strategy). The work of the Common Cause group on values and frames (Crompton 2010, Darnton & Kirk 2011) clearly outlines the power of values and joint narratives in order to create bonds between people through alternative “values such as justice, modesty, participation and diversity instead of money, standardisation, efficiency and consumption” (Johannesburg conference concept note). This applies also – and in particular – to actors who are already engaged in global causes, such as INGOs: The Oxfams, Amnesties and WorldVisions of this world often, and sometimes increasingly, function through the very logics of competition, self-interest and growth. Karlberg (2014) argues that only a “semiotic transformation” can render a great transition “sensible, desirable, and possible”: A “global system of meaning within which global citizenship” becomes meaningful. The creation and transformations of meaning has been the role of religions, in the etymologic sense of binding and linking people. A GCM needs to create meaning and identification through addressing the values and frames, which are priming most of the people today, and create a new space of sense and possibility. Global learning understood as critical global citizenship education (Andreotti 2006) can be a tool to create sense from “pluralistic epistemologies” (Suša) towards alternative worldviews.

7. Conclusion

An increasing number of people identify themselves as “global citizens” (Paehlke 2014, Schattle 2008a) and the motivation to join a still abstract “global citizens movement” is growing. However, the consolidation of such a movement has first of all to emerge through the consolidation of alternative values and joint narratives, in order to create identity and new semiotics. The emergence of such new worldviews is an open and dialogical process, based on mutual and global learning, creation of trust and radical inclusiveness, as Paehlke points out. This implies to move to focus from strategy formulation to discourse shaping, from resourcing aspired policy change to nurturing radical experimentation and niches, and from working through hierarchical organisations to weaving wider and thicker networks. We cannot predefine the outcome of this process, and thus the wish for centralised leadership or strategy is not only futile but also counterproductive – as desirable it might be given the urgent and massive challenges humanity is facing. The Global Citizens Movement cannot – and should not – have one central website.

Tobias Troll, Gestor do Projecto DEEP e estudante no Institute of Education, University of London