The Tricky Challenge of Translating Education and Activism into Social Change

Author: Stephen McCloskey, Director, Centre for Global Education, Belfast.

October ‘revolution’ in Lebanon

Last October, a wave of anti-austerity protests erupted across Lebanon following tax hikes imposed by an unpopular government on an angry population at the end of its tether.  The final straw was a proposed levy on Whatsapp, a popular and free form of social messaging. The protestors are demanding an end to the sectarian nature of Lebanese politics which ensures that the president is a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker in parliament a Shia Muslim.  The confessional nature of Lebanese politics has ‘fostered clientelism, nepotism and corruption’ which has contributed to an enormous national debt and failing public services.  After 13 days of protests the government resigned but protestors’ demands for a non-sectarian, technocratic administration that breaks with the old sectarian carve up of ministerial posts have not been satisfied.  A new government of ‘specialists’ was installed in January 2020 but they’re backed by the same old political parties and the president, Michael Aoun, remains firmly entrenched.  The protestors remain on the streets and the stand-off with the political establishment continues. 

Protests as development education

The protests in Lebanon have been unprecedented in their cross-sectarian nature and have been sustained for four months despite meeting increasing levels of violence from security forces.  The protest movement has been leaderless which can be both a strength and weakness.  It means there is no new, alternative political movement to serve as a vanguard for political change but, on the other hand, it’s been more difficult for the state to behead and derail the movement for change. And so, the protestors remain in that tricky limbo stage of having identified the social and economic ills of the state, debated possible solutions and taken action, but being unable to translate their activism into meaningful political change.  In short, the Lebanese protestors have engaged with the main staging points of development education practice and may yet reach their ultimate goal.  Indeed, they might argue that they have already secured many victories short of their main objective.  Hundreds of thousands of people have been mobilised and politicised breaking a sectarian stranglehold on civil society.  They have engaged in critical thinking and reflective action, and the genie may be ‘out of the bottle’ with activists now having a thirst for justice that is unquenchable until their demands are met.

Climate action

A similar process has taken effect with the ‘Friday’s For Future’ climate strike movement inspired by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg.  The climate strikes have been, in effect, development education in action with their combination of analysis, debate and popular mobilisations.  The climate actions from 20-27 September 2019 saw a record 6 million people take to the streets in what was the biggest climate mobilisation in history with more than 6,000 actions recorded in 185 countries.  This is the kind of public resonance and action that the international NGO sector can only dream about and can be largely attributed to the clarity, directness and truth of Thunberg’s messaging on climate.  Her speech to the United Nations Climate Action Summit last September, for example, was more like a rebuke to world leaders.  She said:

“People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”.

This very direct reproach of neoliberalism and the dangerously deregulated economic model that drives ‘development’ today is rarely taken up by INGOs in their public advocacy work and policy engagement with governments.  That is a particularly damming indictment of the development education sector which is rooted in the Freirean methodology of critical thinking that probes the underbelly of global problems and formulates action-based responses.  The international development and development education sectors appear to be complacently and uncritically pinning all their policy aspirations on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  The goals were adopted in 2015 by the United Nations as an ambitious programme ‘to promote shared prosperity and well-being for all over the next 15 years’. 

Development – an obituary

In an essay for New Internationalist titled ‘The Age of Development: an Obituary’, Wolfgang Sachs argues that the era of development is over.  Development, he argues, is ‘more often about survival now, not progress’.  He suggests that the SDGs should ’really be called SSGs – Sustainable Survival Goals’.  The SDGs, it seems, haven’t grasped the reality that sustainability now means de-growth and that arresting climate change within the same tried and failed economic system that created it is not an option.  

When you next scan the newsletters of international development networks in Ireland, check out the number of jobs, resources, seminars, ‘challenges’ and conferences you find on the SDGs?  Then, check for events or discussions on neoliberalism; the main source of the problems the SDGs are supposedly trying to address?  You’ll be lucky to find one.  It seems that the international development sector has still to get to base camp on the biggest question of our age while the climate strikers have already recognised that climate change means ‘system change’. 

And, yet, despite their enormous success as a popular movement for action on the climate emergency, the climate strikers, like the Lebanese protesters, are stuck in that limbo of having achieved heightened awareness of the issues but remaining short of their goal for a robust, international accord for reducing carbon emissions.  The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) has recommended limiting global warming to 1.5°C. above pre-industrial levels but the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change which bound signatories to achieving this goal has been undermined by several countries now being led by ‘nation first’ populists who refuse to take the climate issue seriously.

Lessons for activists

So, what are the lessons to be drawn from the climate and Lebanese activist movements?  Well, we shouldn’t under-value the significant educational achievements and outcomes from participation in protest movements.  For example, the climate strike movement has almost certainly contributed to unexpected success for Green parties in the European Union parliamentary elections in May 2019, suggesting that heightened awareness of climate change was influencing political behaviour.  We should also learn from Greta Thunberg’s enormously effective communication approach that speaking truth to power resonates with people and inspires them to action.  Yet another lesson is that almost everything worth struggling for demands an attritional campaign that can be exhausting, resource intensive and, at times, discouraging.  In Lebanon, the political establishment has been attempting to elongate the process of political reform to burnout protestors and diminish their zeal for change.  So, it’s worth recalling in the lowest moments of any campaign for change the words of trade unionist Bob Crow: ‘If you fight you won’t always win. But if you don’t fight you will always lose’.

Stephen McCloskey is Director of the Centre for Global Education, a development non-governmental organisation based in Belfast, and Editor of the journal Policy and Practice: A Development Education Review.  He was in Lebanon last October to observe the anti-austerity protests called the ‘October revolution’.

Published by deptintdevmu

International Development is an important vehicle for just transformation in our world. As one of the top 100 Young Universities in the world, Maynooth University offers unique opportunities for critical learning for global change. With over 40 years of experience, through the Kimmage Development Studies Centre, our work at the Department of International Development is underpinned by a commitment to inclusivity, diversity, equality and justice. Focusing on local and global development issues, we support skills development and critical engagement at personal, local, national and international levels. Our courses reflect a combination of formal and non-formal educational methodologies. We facilitate learners to understand the causes of poverty, inequality and injustice around the world, while supporting them to question understandings and responses to the international development challenges we all face. Our MA in International Development offers flexible learning options to study part-time, full-time, or remotely, online. Studying international development prepares people for careers in local and national government, transnational organisations, non-government organisations and activist groups. Our graduates work in community development, global education, development policy, project management and in humanitarian and conflict contexts, and on issues such as human rights, gender, climate action, justice, migration and empowerment.

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