Citizen Action, Networks and Global Change

According to the Chinese proverb, "If you feed a man a fish, you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." But consider the people of the South Pacific. They and their ancestors have fished for centuries. What use is their knowledge against the Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese companies that ravaged their oceans with miles of drift nets; the Americans who used their islands and waters as dumping grounds for toxic wastes and deactivated chemical weapons; and the French who continued nuclear testing in their region. When development workers from these same "developed" nations come and presume to teach the natives how to fish, they add insult to injury.

Justice for the poor and protection of the environment depend on building citizen power to counter the abuses of powerful states and transnational corporations, such as those that deprive Pacific islanders of their fish. The experience of the International Organization of Consumers' Unions (IOCU) provides useful insights into what this requires.

The IOCU was founded in 1960 as a rather polite membership organization that served as a clearing house for consumer product information. Since then, we have evolved into a support body for powerful advocacy networks involving thousands of organizations and millions of citizens.

Our first global campaign centered on the practices of transnational companies, such as Nestlé, in promoting the use of infant formula in place of breast milk in poor countries. These practices were causing thousands of infant deaths each year. An international consumer boycott and information campaign resulted in passage of the World Health Organization's International Code of Marketing for Breast Milk Substitutes. Later we helped form other global networks dealing with pharmaceuticals, tobacco, toxic wastes, biotechnology, food irradiation, and other issues. Our insights grew with our experience.

We have found that when dealing with global issues, the most effective networks are those that link:

  • Protest and proaction. Immediate fire fighting efforts must link with efforts to achieve larger structural changes that prevent future fires.
  • Grass and sky. Groups that work at the community level must be linked to those that specialize in broader political spaces.
  • North and South. Many Southern problems have Northern sources and can be resolved only through mutually supportive action by citizens of both North and South

We have learned to build networking strategies around a clear understanding of:

  • Information. Countless citizen organizations are starved for information in a useful form.
  • People and power. The effectiveness of citizen networks depends on millions of skilled leaders and the commitment of organized citizen lobbies. Movements must clearly identify the sources and flows of power in society, at both local and global levels. Engage those, such as youth and women, who have lacked opportunities to participate in global policy processes.
  • Revolution and evolution. Clear vision and mission statements must define both the future we want and the specific outcomes we seek as steps toward its achievement.
  • The local and the global. Encourage people to see how their problems relate to, and derive from, the global context.
  • Danger. Nurture the independence of the network's elements so that if one part of the network is weakened, other parts can step in. Build on what exists. Minimize funding needs, and never become dependent on a single funding source.

Global networking is a key to the transformation of global society. The task is enormous, with ample need for the contribution of every responsible citizen.

Back to Papers & Presentations