‘New Strategy Needed for Development’ – Lorna Gold of Trócaire – 09/14

Sep 22, 2014 | 0 comments


CIDSE: Catholic International Cooperation for Development and Solidarity

Transformative Advocacy Workshop 9-10th September, 2014
Sharpening our Strategies – Seizing the Kairos Moment

Lorna Gold of Trócaire says its time to involve everyone in the struggle for a sustainable and just world.


It is a great honour to have the task of giving the opening reflection at this important gathering.

I want to start by letting you in on a secret. Recently, I have been feeling increasingly uncomfortable and restless. I have been trying to figure out why I have this sense of unease which I just can’t seem to shake. I have a really good job, I’ve a great family life, nobody is sick, I live in a peaceful, beautiful country… why am I feeling restless deep inside?

Maybe it is a case of a ‘middle age’ crisis – after all, my life has changed in recent years through getting married, having children and it’s all very settled and safe compared to my adventurous 20s and 30s! But I think I’m too young for that kind of crisis! No, I’m definitely not having a middle aged crisis.

One of my friends said that maybe I’m bored with work. I have been working in NGO research, policy and advocacy for over a decade now. Maybe I need to try something different, a new organisation, a completely new field – open a coffee shop maybe – find a new challenge!

No. It is definitely not boredom with my work. If I’m honest I feel privileged to get paid to work for an organisation which aligns with my own personal beliefs and values. I just need to look around me and see so many friends working for large multinationals and feeling depressed, living for the weekend. Who else gets to come to work and discuss how to build a transformative advocacy agenda?! My sense of unease doesn’t come from a middle aged crisis or from boredom with work.

If I’m honest, my inner restlessness is coming from a lingering self-doubt: is what we are doing in our advocacy making any difference in the grand scheme of things? We are extremely busy – and having a lot of small successes in our national advocacy on one level. But over the past few months I’ve been coming to a growing conclusion that despite our best efforts, as agencies committed to a just world, we seem to be ‘winning the battle, but losing the war’. It leaves me with a heavy sense of responsibility and wasted opportunity.

Despite all our efforts and energy, the gap between the haves and the have nots, has widened dramatically in the past ten years. The environmental sustainability crisis seems to be deepening. New conflicts are emerging. What’s worse, fewer and fewer people (certainly in Ireland) seem to understand the nature of the global crisis we face. They feel powerless so it seems they don’t care.

As one speaker at our recent summer school put it – we seem to be suffering from the ‘boiling frog’ syndrome… the changes around us are dramatic, but are happening incrementally and so silently that we can’t observe them – to the point that like the poor frog, we are even enjoying the heat but unable to jump! We need to wake up and turn off the heat before it is too late.

Are we achieving transformative change?

In the decade I have spent involved in CIDSE policy and advocacy we have become a lot better at some things. We are more professional, more technically specialised, far better resourced, better paid, and there are more of us for sure! Policy work has become a career path, as has much of international development cooperation. We have many defined strategies, we achieve milestones and goals and the donors are happy with the progress. We tick all the boxes. What has this vast expansion of international NGO policy work actually achieved? And more importantly, are our methods and strategies up to the task of facing the major transformative challenges we are now facing?

Certainly it would be wrong to write off everything we have done. If we look back at the past decade and do a bit of a quick balance sheet on the achievements of INGO advocacy CIDSE has been involved in, there are many achievements to be proud of:

  • Would we have a Ruggie Framework and greater focus on the issue of corporate responsibility towards Human Rights?
  • Would we have donor governments (some, by no means all) committed to achieving ODA target of 0.7?
  • Would there have been debt cancellation for the HIPC countries, enabling many to make substantial progress on the MDGs?
  • Would tax justice be as high up the international agenda? Would we have an FTT across many countries in the EU?

As a sector, and as a network, we have played a significant role in achieving these changes – changes which will have significant impacts on the poorest and most vulnerable people in the poorest parts of the world. We have also won many local battles too – which have empowered thousands of people to claim their own human rights. Moreover, we can’t possibly assess what would have happened without our efforts. At a time of economic recession our advocacy has often been about fighting a rear-guard action – protecting gains.

Despite all this effort, however, if we look at the world around us, there are signs everywhere that the economic, social and political crises – and the untold human suffering that lies beneath them – are deepening. Absolute poverty in monetary terms may have fallen – but the situation we are facing globally now is far more precarious and conflictual than in the past. We are very much reaching a ‘tipping point’ – primarily due to the issues of climate change, resource scarcity and energy crises… which could undo much of the advances achieved. We can’t forget either, that the positive development efforts and technology change which have generated wealth – have deepened inequality. And there is far greater consciousness, especially amongst youth in poor urban environments, of inequalities.

This flagrant inequality, transmitted daily through social media from the slums of Nairobi to the consumer cathedrals of Dubai, is resulting in aspirations – but also confusion, resentment and anger. These are systemic challenges which are now becoming mutually re-inforcing and are a recipe for a future fraught with conflicts.

At previous CIDSE events like this we have explored these issues in great depth. The background paper gives really good examples of the types of shifts we need to see and how we might need to change to achieve the change. We know what we want – we know what the ‘dream’ is – it is a tough dream. It involves substantive, transformative change at all levels. We cannot achieve it on our own. It is not an easy road to go down.

Equipping ourselves for new battles

Can we fight the battles in the future with the same ‘weapons’ we have right now? Our strategies to date have largely focused on incremental policy change, on constructive dialogue with duty bearers, on the basic premise that a predominantly insider strategy will work. We place a lot of value in being in the room. We have focused on winning the argument with policy makers and politicians in the belief that this will be enough to influence change (perhaps with a few emails from their constituents). The rising influence of new transnational corporate actors, particularly financial actors, over national political systems and the collapse of effective governance, however, needs to make us question this approach.

In the future battles, I would argue that such an insider approach needs to be situated within a far bigger strategy to bring about the kinds of systemic change we need. There is absolutely no value or meaning in having meetings with policy makers if we don’t situate that within an overall narrative and strategy which plays to our strengths.

At the heart of the biggest battle, as our background paper outlines, is now about wrestling back the terms of the debate away from economic growth and back to rights, dignity and sustainability. What underpins that simple statement, however, is something very profound that can’t be resolved through a meeting with this policy maker or that one. The problem is too deep. The philosophy on which the dominant brand of free market economic system rests has become a self-perpetuating system, almost a religion. It has permeated communities and societies so deeply, through the media and through our consumption lifestyles, that virtually nothing is immune – everything is for sale. There are no limits. Everything serves economic growth. The so-called ‘commodification of everything’, where the market logic expands into all spheres of human life, which Marxists warned about is now a reality.

At the end of the day, you can’t bring about the kind of systemic change we are seeking without challenging this logic. It seems arduous, but it is such a destructive, stupid idea and so devoid of life, it is actually quite simple, but we need to think differently and creativity is key to that. Sometimes rather than tilting at windmills like Don Quixote, we also need to focus on building a different reality. We need to find a new narrative which exposes the ridiculous and short sighted nature of this self-seeking, wasteful, ideology. How many of us would counter in our own lives the cold, calculated, selfish homo economicus – “rational economic man” the market demands us to be for efficiency sake? In our family and community life we would never accept the kind of behaviour we think is necessary for the market to be efficient.

If we want to make headway in this debate, we need to engage people in a new story that involves tapping into what it means to be human and what makes life worth living and to transform our economy from the inside out. It involves culture, art, music, even humour. It is a story which means linking different parts of our own lives again and discovering the shared humanity which motivates us into action.

To change everything – we need everyone on board. A good place to start is the truth of every human life as we experience it each day: that kindness, affection, sacrifice, solidarity, forgiveness, courage, sharing, collaboration and love exist. They are more powerful than any other force out there. They are universal. They are what makes life worth living and are more important than self-interest – also in the economic sphere. They generate creativity and energy. These are realities in every human life and every community – regardless of religion or geography. This is a scientific fact. Affirming these human values and putting them back into the heart of the economic system and demonstrating an alternative way is possible. But it means building a movement from the grass roots up.

Grasping the ‘Kairos moment’

For us, as CIDSE, what is our greatest strength? Yes we have technical expertise, we have connections to global civil society, we have significant resources at our disposal. The greatest thing we have, however, is our connection to the Catholic faith – and the global Catholic community, the Church. This is the thing that unites us. Over a billion people profess to be Catholics, another billion profess to be part of other Christian churches… connecting with and mobilising these communities to grow a new economy based on human values – and demonstrating this is possible – is the most powerful thing we can possibly do. With the leadership of Pope Francis, there has never been a better time to shout from the rooftops!

But what does this actually mean? How do we really connect with this vast network of the faithful who sometimes seem as confused as we are? It is a tricky question which is fraught with issues of identity, independence, and has a history. We get caught in-between struggles within the factions of church politics. We are not missionaries – but we still want to work together with the Church to bring about a just world. At times, however, we struggle to see that these issues are intimately connected. As we discussed at the Mid-Year Meeting of Directors, re-connecting with our identity is key.

Is not the challenge for us, as agencies rooted in the Gospel, also about sharing in the world that a God of love wants? “Seek first the Kingdom of God and everything else will be given to you.” This may seem like semantics, or even a bit too overtly religious, but we cannot escape the need to break out of the business as usual approach of sanitised policy speak. It is about rediscovering the heart of the shared faith-narrative of the change we seek. The creation of a ‘new order of things’ is a generative process in which we need to be open to the mysterious presence of a living God, a higher Spirit.

This is not about being pious. It’s not about topping and tailing our documents with relevant religious quotes. It’s not about having a spiritual moment (though that’s also nice). I’d like to propose three things we need to consider – and this workshop is a really good, ‘safe’ testing ground to explore these themes – if we want to act more effectively as Catholic agencies to bring about transformative change.

1) A time to dig deep

I would argue that this is, above all, a time to ‘dig deep’ – to really understand our own identity as agencies and especially how it relates to the prophetic Gospel message. It is only if we tap into the full richness of the faith-story, which says something very profound about what it means to be human and really question more deeply what that has to say to us in terms of our vision, values and the alternatives we would like to see.

Yes, this is about shifting policy debates forward, but as I said, it goes beyond that. It is more fundamentally about the creation of a new order of things, and breathing life. We need to be bold and change the discourse – create a new discourse which inspires people and captures the different way of being we want to see. The irony is that often others see this more than we do! Others talk of CST as the ‘zeitgeist’ – where we fail to see it!!

2) A time to speak plainly to the masses

We need to become agents of a broad movement within the Church and beyond. In Gospel terms, we need to become the ‘yeast in the dough’. To do that we need to become far better connectors in ways that inspire people. We need to speak plainly – and not to get caught up in esoteric theoretical, ideological debates about paradigms – nor in the minutia of technical solutions. We need to shift the narrative of progress and be very direct and plain speaking in how we critique and how we articulate solutions. In many ways, it is about rediscovering the imperative of ‘speaking truth to power’ and saying it like it is, recognising that this will entail a cost.

3) A time to unite – being more than the sum of our parts

Finally, this is a time to unite and be more than the sum of our parts – and facilitate that unity. In my work nowadays I feel like we are literally being pulled in so many different directions. Sometimes it is hard to know whose agenda we are serving. Have we been captured by the system? As a civil society in the North, we have become very cautious. Civil society has become better funded, very professional, but in the process have become fragmented and competitive – this is true sometimes even amongst ourselves. We urgently need to become connectors and agents of unity.

We need to break down the pre-conceptions of others involved in the struggle for a more just and sustainable world – have open minds – and build our capacity to create alliances. Certainly, in tapping into our Catholic identity we need to avoid putting up new barriers.

The word Catholic, after all, means universal. To be Catholic in the deepest sense, is to be a bridge-builder, to go out. Look at Pope Francis and his pleas for the Church to “go out”! This means building stronger alliances and joint work amongst ourselves, but also with others – especially in other sectors. As leaders, we need to look closely at what the barriers and incentives are to that deeper collaboration?

So, in conclusion…

My sense of unease lately hasn’t come from a midlife crisis or a desire to move on from Trócaire. It has come from deep sense that we urgently need to recover our passion – and change direction in our advocacy and see our role differently. It is exciting, but hugely challenging as we need a new mind set and skill sets!

As John Patrick said at our MYM, the big question is: “Do we have the courage to make this change.” I think the deliberations over the next two days will be an exciting opportunity to explore these critical themes together in a spirit of solidarity.


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