Taking up the challenge of poverty

As the divide between the wealthy and the poor grows ever wider, it is evident that the dominant development paradigm has failed to solve the challenges of poverty and inequality.

Academics, policymakers, practitioners and social activists have been preoccupied by the need for change. Their efforts have resulted in impulses and innovations that aim to shape development thinking and practice in exciting new directions, seeking out new conceptions of power, values, social organisation and a redefinition of relationships.

Two of these innovations are rights-based approaches (RBAs) and new social movements.

Rights-based approaches
Many South African NGOs, born out of the rights-based struggle against apartheid, have been bemused by the evangelical fervour and formulaic rhetoric of some northern-hemisphere RBA practitioners.

Recently, though, we have seen more nuanced articulations of an RBA surfacing. In sectors and countries without much exposure to indigenous rights-based struggles the RBA lends some political backbone to conventional development practice, focusing on palliative local economic approaches.

We have been particularly inspired by ActionAid International’s shift towards an RBA practice in recent years. It is based on advancing the “power and rights of women, girls and other poor and excluded people” within the following strategies and objectives:

  • Basic needs, conditions of poor and excluded people (rights holders);
  • Rights consciousness, awareness, capacity, organisation, mobilisation of poor and excluded people (rights holders);
  • Organisation and mobilisation of civil society in support of poor people; and
  • Advocacy — policies and practices of state and non-state institutions (duty bearers).

These are all grounded in the daily reality and experience of people. Although it is still early days, there have been inspiring stories of change, of local grassroots organisations and coalitions being supported by ActionAid on all continents to take on local and national challenges.

New social movements
New social movements consist mainly of informal social networks that work for social change through people on the ground.

In South Africa the work of the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) is an example of a civil society organisation that has campaigned relentlessly for government policy to reflect socioeconomic and health rights. In its endeavours to widen access to antiretroviral drugs the driving force has come mainly through the agency of people living with HIV and Aids.

The TAC adopts various strategies and combines mass mobilisation with sound legal and political strategies. Using informal networks for micro-mobilisation, the TAC has taken advantage of the post-apartheid legal and political spaces to provide a critical vehicle for ordinary people’s participation in public policy processes.

The TAC has contributed towards reclaiming the rights of people. It has provided avenues for poor and marginalised groups to have an impact on the distribution of drugs for treatment, social exclusion, claiming power and exerting influence in the South African landscape.

Further, from within civil society, the TAC has been inspirational in developing a dynamic relationship with the government, through which it has opposed it on certain issues and cooperated with it on others. The dynamic nature of this relationship has enabled the TAC to invoke rights-based discourses in the new democratic spaces for the realisation of socioeconomic rights.

The TAC is an example of how social movements can be important sources of cultural innovation and consciousness. It contributes towards creating a new culture by garnering legitimacy for establishing new forms and infusing new norms, values and beliefs into social structures.

What unites these innovative, alternative practices?

The arenas of social change are characterised by complexity and working with the unknown. This demands creativity and intuition.

New impulses emerge between waves of fear and hopelessness and open up possibilities for transformation and revitalisation. They give hope to marginalised, desperate people and motivate them to keep on striving for a better life. They enable changes that lead to an increase in human security, freedom and self-determination.

Their real power lies in that they help bring to the surface people’s voices, enabling them to appreciate their power to decide about their own present and future. They alert society to social justice, human rights, humaneness and environmental sustainability.

For organisations in development, they hold the promise of a space for new thinking and questioning present development practices.

Nomvula Dlamini and Doug Reeler are development practitioners at the Community Development Resource Association (www.cdra.org.za). This is an edited version of an article in the CDRA 2007/08 annual report, available on the website

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