Guest post: To Save The Economy, We Have To Break Its One Sacred Rule

Written by Jason Hickel, originally appeared on FastCo on 15/03/16.

Scholars are still trying to figure out why the society on Easter Island collapsed, ending the people famed for their construction of towering stone heads. One interesting theory holds that it had to do with the heads themselves. Somehow, the islanders decided that the giant heads represented power and success, so different groups competed to build as many heads as possible. But because there was only one quarry, to move the stones around the island required felling trees to use as rollers. To feed their lust for heads, they felled the trees so eagerly that, over just a few generations, what was once a tropical forest was reduced to barren scrubland.

The islanders must have realized that their obsession with heads would quickly spell their doom. As the project wore on, they no longer had sufficient wood to build fishing boats or houses, nor trees from which to gather fruits and nuts. They must have seen this disaster unfolding—slowly starving to death and forced to live in caves for shelter—right up until they felled the last palm. It was all because of a myth, but a myth so powerful that, despite knowing its madness, they could not resist it.

Humans are strange creatures. We create our own myths and then we live by them almost as though we didn’t create them at all, as if they were handed down to us by the gods. And this is not just a characteristic of small societies. Our global civilization has its fair share of powerful myths, one of which is remarkably similar to that which destroyed Easter Island. Just as multiplying heads became the sacred rule of Easter Island economics, so there is one sacred rule that underpins our global economic system: namely, that GDP must grow, and must grow at all costs. Why must GDP grow? Because GDP growth is equivalent to human progress.

We tend to take the GDP measure for granted as though it has always existed. Most people don’t know that it was invented only recently. It has a history. During the 1930s, the economists Simon Kuznets and John Maynard Keynes set out to design an economic aggregate that would help policymakers figure out how to escape the Great Depression. Kuznets argued for a measure that would help us maximize human well-being and track the progress of human welfare. But when World War II struck, Keynes argued that we should count all money-based activities—even negative ones—so we would know what was available for the war effort.

In the end Keynes won, and his version of GDP came into use. GDP was intended to be a war-time measure, which is why it’s so single-minded—almost violent. It counts money-based activity, but it doesn’t care whether that activity is useful or destructive. If you cut down a forest and sell the timber, GDP goes up; GDP does not count the cost of losing the forest as a habitat, or as a future resource, or as a sinkhole for carbon. What is more, GDP doesn’t count useful activities that are not monetized. If you grow your own food, clean your own house, or take care of your aging parents, GDP says nothing. But if you buy food from Tesco, hire a cleaner, and send your parents to a nursing home, GDP goes up.

Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with measuring some things and not others. GDP itself doesn’t have any impact in the real world. GDPgrowth, however, does. As soon as we start focusing on GDP growth, we’re not only promoting the things that GDP measures, we’re promoting the indefinite increase of those things. And that’s exactly what we started to do in the 1960s. GDP was adopted during the Cold War for the sake of adjudicating the grand pissing match between the West and the USSR. Suddenly, politicians on both sides became feverish about promoting GDP growth. GDP growth became a sacred rule. And we remain in thrall to it today.

The imperative for growth is incredibly powerful; probably the most powerful force in our world. When the entire global political establishment puts its force behind this goal, human and natural systems come under enormous, overwhelming pressure.

What does this pressure look like in the real world? In India, it looks like corporate land grabs, which leave peasant farmers dispossessed. In the U.K., it looks like privatization of public services—with corporations eager to exploit untapped markets. In Brazil it looks like deforestation, which is eating the Amazon at a rapid clip. In the U.S. it looks like fracking, backed by a government desperate for cheap energy. Around the world it looks like trade agreements that strip away regulations that protect workers and the environment. And for all of us it looks like longer working hours, expensive housing, depleted soils, polluted cities, wasted oceans, and—above all—climate change.

We normally think of these as separate crises. But they are not: they are all connected. They all proceed from the same deep logic of GDP growth, the collective madness at the heart of our economic system. To fight them as separate issues is to mistake the symptoms for the disease.

People who spend their lives pushing against these destructive trends will tell you how futile it feels. It is futile because our governments don’t care. They don’t care because according to their most important measure of progress, destruction counts as good. Indeed, under the tyranny of GDP growth, the destruction must continue at all costs. The problem here is not that humans are inherently destructive. The problem is that we have created a myth that encourages us to behave in destructive ways, and have given that myth the power of a sacred rule. As Joseph Stiglitz has put it, “What we measure informs what we do. And if we’re measuring the wrong thing, we’re going to do the wrong thing.”

Why does GDP growth retain such a hold on our imagination? Because we assume that when GDP goes up, it makes our lives better: it raises our incomes, it creates more jobs, it means better schools and hospitals and so on. This may have been true in the past. But unfortunately it no longer holds. In the United States GDP has risen steadily over the past half century, yet median incomes have stagnated, the poverty rate has increased, and inequality has grown. The same is true on a global scale: since 1980, global GDP has grown by 380%, but the number of people living in poverty has, according to World Bank numbers of people living on $5 a day, increased by more than 1.1 billion. Why is this? Because past a certain point, GDP growth begins to produce more negative outcomes than positive ones—more “illth” than wealth, as the economist Herman Daly has put it (if “ill” is the opposite of “well,” “illth” is the opposite of “wealth”).

GDP growth might make sense on a planet with endless room and endless resources. But we don’t live on such a planet. In fact, we’re already overshooting our planet’s biocapacity by more than 50% each year. There are no longer any frontiers where accumulation doesn’t directly harm someone else, by, say, degrading the soils, polluting the water, poisoning the air, and exploiting human beings. At this point in our history, GDP growth is creating more misery than it eliminates. And the problem is not just that the growth is inequitably shared, although that it is a major issue; the problem, rather, is aggregate growth itself. In our era of climate change, even sober scientists are pointing out that growth is leading us down a path that that has widespread famine and mass displacement just around the corner.

Yes, some try to reassure us that our economy is gradually “decoupling” from material throughput, and that soon we will have growth without destruction. Butstudy after study has proven that it’s not true. In fact, global consumption of materials has nearly doubled over the past 30 years, and accelerated since 2000.

The rule of GDP growth may seem sacred, but it is not. As quickly as we created it, we can pull it apart. And pull it apart we must—it’s time for the giant stone heads to roll. There are already movements in this direction. A number of states and countries have adopted much more sensible alternatives, like the Genuine Progress Indicator, which seek to promote human and environmental well-being. There are many others we might consider, and it doesn’t much matter which we choose—indeed, each city or country could pick a different measure, or no measure at all. The important thing is that we shake off the tyranny of GDP growth and open up a creative, democratic conversation about what kind of world we want to live in.

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The refugee who took on the British government, or why ‘aid’ doesn’t work in an international system of oppression and inequality

“For British politicians, foreign aid to Africa has become a cherished emblem of our idealism and generosity.” But this is a powerful story we’ve been told.

The following article details yet another tale of foreign ‘aid’ and corrupt governance (on all sides) doing irreversible damage to the lives and livelihoods of the supposedly intended recipients.

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jan/12/ethiopian-refugee-who-took-on-the-british-government

I’d strongly recommend you reading the full article, but it’s a long read, so I’ve pulled out a few of the paragraphs I found most interesting and poignant.

“Ethiopia is in a race to develop. In a similar fashion to Rwanda, the authoritarian government, lacking a democratic mandate, has staked its claims to legitimacy on its ability to deliver economic growth, and it is in a terrible hurry. During the past decade, Ethiopia has pursued a Chinese-style rush to develop its economy: locking up dissenters, crushing the opposition with a succession of 99% electoral victories, and building massive road, rail, agribusiness and hydropower schemes without pausing to conduct the necessary social and environmental impact assessments.

Nonetheless, despite still knocking along the bottom of every poverty index, Ethiopia has earned a reputation as a development success story, and donors, including the UK, are very keen to help, praising Ethiopia’s apparent strong progress towards the UN’s millennium development goals: increasing primary school enrolment and improving statistics on access to healthcare, water and so on. But donors are steadfastly silent on human rights abuses. Ethiopia receives more aid than any other African country – close to $3bn per year, or about half the national government budget. For the donors, Ethiopia is a priority, a linchpin of their development efforts, research and policy; especially so for the UK, where rising aid budgets have propelled Ethiopia into second place, behind Pakistan, as the recipient of the most British aid.”

“In Gambella, the government’s plans for delivering these things took the form of villagisation. The inhabitants of Opik’s village, though, were mistrustful of the government’s intentions. There had been no dialogue, no consultation. If the government had done little for them before, why would they suddenly start caring now? They suspected a plot to steal their land. They had heard of investors coming to test soil in certain areas.

Their suspicions were well founded. In Opik’s district, the allocation of land for agribusiness was well under way. Information was patchy, but a study by the Oakland Institute, a US-based thinktank, estimated that in Gambella, at that time, the government had leased or marketed 42% of the region to investors. Speaking to investors in India, government officials referred to the land on offer as “unused,” “under-utilised” or “completely uninhabited”.”

“The Anuak had to wait 10 months for a clue. In October 2012, after questions were asked in the British parliament, the findings of the DfiD visits were quietlydeposited in the House of Commons library. They described massive flaws in the villagisation programme, inadequate services and insufficient food, possibly requiring an emergency response.

The first report, which has since disappeared from the parliament website, noted that more than half of respondents had said they did not want to move. The report warned of a “potential humanitarian crisis” due to the people’s “limited livelihood options”. It also warned of “reputational risks” to donors’ aid programmes. This, then, was the heart of the matter.”

“For first Tony Blair and now David Cameron, the essentialising of Africa has been a useful political arena for the exercise of idealism untainted by politics. It was a deft move, following the Iraq war, to establish the Blair Commission for Africaand the Make Poverty History campaign. For Cameron, ring-fencing aid spending “was a key part of the compassionate Conservative makeover,” a senior former No 10 adviser told me.”

“A former chief economist of DfID, who did not want to be named, told me, “If you’re asking, ‘Am I prepared to tolerate a certain level of human rights abuses in exchange for progress on development?’, the answer is yes.” The question, then, is who decides what constitutes a “tolerable” level of repression in the absence of a democratic system?”

“A former head of DfID Ethiopia said to me, in relation to the relocation of the Omo peoples, “but if they’re being relocated anyway, aren’t we making their lives better?” She could not see that there was a problem with underwriting the transaction. It is almost impossible for those who make a living dispensing aid to imagine how easily it can become a tool of repression. She evinced a kind of helplessness, whereas a report by the Oakland Institute into alleged cover-ups of human rights abuses noted that DfID and USAid are, “wilful accomplices and supporters of a development strategy that will have irreversible devastating impacts on the environment and natural resources and will destroy the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people.””

“Of all the academic economists working on Ethiopia, I could not find one who was willing to speak on the record for this article. Much of the professional field of development studies is dependent on DfID research grants, with many academics serving on multimillion-pound study teams.

“If you challenge the consensus and make headlines, it is going to make your life harder,” said one economist at a London university, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Career progression is not just about where you publish, it is also about the amount of money you can raise and, in that regard, DfID is the biggest donor by miles,” he said. The two main centres of development studies research in the UK, the Overseas Development Institute in London and theInstitute of Development Studies at Sussex University, have depended heavily on DfID contracts over many years: “If that dependence is not a kind of institutional capture, then I am not sure what is,” said Warwick’s Prof David Anderson, a rare critic.”

Thoughts and feelings welcomed as always…

Why is economic growth our measure of human progress?

Whether you believe that ‘money makes the world go round’ or that it’s the ‘root of all evil’, increasingly humanity is waking up to the fact that money can’t ‘buy you happiness’ and that it’s certainly no longer an accurate or helpful measure of planetary progress. Our world faces multiple crises of which continuing economic growth has often been the cause and less often the solution.

Today the planet is a miserable and frightening place for most of its inhabitants. Many of the rich are not happy, while the gap between the rich and poor gets wider. The wealthiest 80 people in the world have the same wealth as the poorest 50%, or 3.5 billion people. Our pursuit of economic growth means that we are ruining the planet at such a rate that – sooner than most people can imagine – large parts of it will become uninhabitable. Our soils and forests are disappearing, our oceans are being vacuumed of fish, unstable financial markets lurch from crisis to crisis, disengaged people vent their anger and frustration at oppressive governments and we live in an economic system that rewards our greed and immorality and that forces those living in rural areas and no longer able to support themselves, more than a billion people, to swarm towards cities where there is no work for them.

In 2014 young people in 20 countries around the world were asked ‘to what extent, if at all, do you feel that today’s youth will have had a better or worse life than your parents’ generation or will it be about the same?’ On average, only 37% of young people living in the ten wealthiest countries ranked by gross domestic product (GDP) thought that life would be better for their generation than it was for their parents. In the US, the richest country, only 26% thought it would be better.

  Country GDP in millions of US$ (World Bank, 2013) % of people aged 29 or under who believe that today’s youth will have had a better life than their parents’ generation (Ipsos Mori, 2014)
1 USA 16,768,100 26%
2 China 9,240,270 76%
3 Japan 4,919,563 41%
4 Germany 3,730,261 30%
5 France 2,806,428 16%
6 UK 2,678,455 22%
7 Brazil 2,245,673 48%
8 Italy 2,149,485 21%
9 Russia 2,096,777 41%
10 India 1,875,141 46%
  AVERAGE(Rounded to the nearest whole) 4,851,015 37%

When the future is looking bleak for the wealthiest countries on the planet, it’s perhaps time to reconsider GDP as a measure of progress.

Gross domestic product, or GDP is the monetary value of all the finished goods and services produced within a country’s borders in a specific time period, but usually calculated annually. GDP has traditionally been used to measure progress economically, but fails to take into account social and environmental ‘wealth’ or causes of social tension or inequality, something that I believe is essential to truly understanding if, how and where human progress is being made.

GDP measures everything “…except that which makes life worthwhile.”

“Our Gross National Product…counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armoured cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities…, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the Gross National Product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.”

Robert F. Kennedy, speech at the University of Kansas, March 18, 1968

There is already an abundance of measurements that we could call on to replace GDP and give a fairer, more useful picture of what is and isn’t working and how we go about creating a world that works for all, not for the few. So far, suggestions range from birth weight (usually a good indicator of a child’s likely future quality of life) the number and sound of birds in a city (a good indicator for biodiversity); and ownership of washing machines (with the assumption that their requirement for piped water and electricity make them a good measure of development); to the economic emancipation of women. I’m sure you can think of more…

Today, I’d invite you to think about why our leaders and big businesses measure economic growth as a measure of human progress and how we can move beyond measuring success by how much we makerather than how we live.

What do you think human progress is? And why is growth the only answer? #WhyGrowth

This post was originally posted on The Rules website on 11th September 2015.

Have you ever thought about how #PovertyIsCreated?

Have you eaten today? If not was it because you chose not to or because you didn’t have enough money to do so? And if you have, did you have to think carefully about what you could afford, or did you eat whatever you fancied?

Whoever we are, and however much money we do or don’t have, a lot of the time we’re so focussed on living our daily lives we (understandably) don’t stop to think about how we’ve got to where we are – whether that’s making difficult choices about how we spend our last few coins, having so much money we don’t know what to do with it, or something in between.

It’s also easy to forget how connected our lives, and our money, really are. We can all get our heads around the idea that if someone takes too much of something, someone else will have less, but when it comes to poverty we’re often told that ‘we’re born into it’, or ‘it’s just the economy’, or ‘the wealth will trickle down’, or ‘we’re just lazy/unlucky/unfortunate’. These are such powerful stories that they’re easy to believe, but they all hide the fact that poverty is created – it doesn’t happen by chance.

Imagine two children – one child grows up in a house that’s warm and dry, with shelves full of books and a fridge full of food; parents who can afford to stay at home and look after them; a private education in a well-resourced school with teachers who love their jobs; and, as an adult, access to loans and internships and connections. Today they live comfortably, with a lifestyle like their parents and children of their own.

The other child grows up in a damp, noisy, busy house, with parents who must work several jobs; education in a school with large classes, little funding and stressed teachers; and, as an adult, no access to loans, financial commitments at home and little help finding work. Today they live in poverty, with a lifestyle like their parents and children of their own.

Imagine two countries – one country fosters innovation and develops its industries; it travels across the world to trade with other civilisations; it manufactures weapons which it sells to others; it forces millions of people from other lands to leave their families, jobs and lives to work for them in slavery; it divides up continents and groups of people and rules over them – creating new countries where citizens must work power the empire’s economy; its companies take billions of dollars of resources from other countries without fair retribution whilst damaging ecosystems; it lends money to other countries with an expectation to be repaid with interest; it teaches its values, religion and worldview and wages war on countries and people who do not play by its rules. Now this country is (largely) economically, politically and societallystable, with a large proportion of its population living comfortably above the poverty line.

The other country fosters innovation and develops its industries; it begins trading with visiting nations from overseas; it buys weapons manufactured there; millions of its people are forced to leave their families, jobs and lives to work abroad in slavery or are killed; its people are divided up into new territories and ruled over by foreign countries and forced to grow crops to power foreign economies; its resources are extracted by multinational corporations from abroad and both produce and profit are sent overseas leaving only environmental devastation; it borrows large sums of money from other nations to try and compensate with so much interest it can never be repaid; its values, religions and worldview are criticised, undermined and systematically destroyed, and it is physically attacked if it doesn’t play by the rules. Now this country is economically, politically and societally unstable, with a large proportion of its population living in poverty and hunger.

There are hundreds of stories, just like these, that show that poverty exists because it is created.

You only have to do the maths… the 85 richest people in the world have the same amount of wealth as the poorest 3 billion. Is that just a coincidence?

Every year 18 times more money leaves poor countries in the global south than trickles into them... and we wonder why they’re poor?

This month, the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals are telling us a good-news story, and it’s one we all want to hear – that things are getting better and that if we keep doing things largely in the same way, with charities and technical fixes we can end centuries of global poverty creation by 2030.

Don’t get me wrong, I too would like to end global poverty by 2030, but we think that it’s not going to happen until we start admitting that poverty is created, not a state of nature, spot of bad luck, or a disease that humans can ‘cure’ but don’t ‘create’.

So although we all want to feel good about the world, I’d like to invite you to start finding the gaps in the stories we’re being told about poverty and start asking the BIG questions:

  1. How is poverty created? # PovertyIsCreated
  2. Why is growth the only answer? #WhyGrowth
  3. Who’s developing who? #WhosDevelopingWho

When we’re really honest about what’s going on, then we can look at breaking the creaky, archaic, unfair rules with game-changing and exciting possibilities like updating the money system so that it doesn’t just create debt; moving to a steady-state economy so that it’s in balance with nature; putting limits on the power of big companies so that we can have real democracy; or considering a basic income for everyone so we can spend less time fighting and more time loving, and where both of the children and the citizens of the countries we talked about earlier would share fairer, more equal lives.

Originally posted on TheRules.org on 7th September.

How to feel good about poverty…

It’s been a mad month as I’ve started working with www.therules.org, which, as you can imagine, is a dream come true.

We’ve just launched a campaign based on the idea that #PovertyIsCreated in advance world leaders coming together in New York later this month to formally sign the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The SDGs will be met with fanfare: celebrity endorsements, photo ops and a general air of celebration. These goals will set the international development agenda for the next 15 years and will affect the lives of millions of people, but what they are proposing is business as usual – grow the global economy and wealth will trickle down to the poorest. We know this won’t work, because between 1990 and 2010 global GDP increased by 217%, but the number of people living in hunger and poverty has actually increased.

The UN has lots of answers for reducing poverty, but it’s not asking the right questions. The UN’s Millennium Development Goals set in 2000 have grown economies, but left 60% of the world’s population living in poverty and contributed to the continued destruction of the planet.

How can we sustain growth when we’d need 4.1 earths for everyone to live like an American? And if growth works, why does all the money end up in the hands of the few? – Even now the 85 richest people in the world have the same amount of money as the poorest three billion and 18 times more money flows out of the global south every year than trickles into it.

We need to start asking the BIG QUESTIONS about poverty, because if we can expose its root causes we can get real answers about how to eradicate it and change the rules for a world that works for all.

With the UN and the SDGs under the media spotlight for the next month, we have a unique opportunity to tell the true story of poverty and how #PovertyIsCreated with videos, articles, tweets and other messages. This is the first step to steering the conversation towards solutions that can truly alter the system to stop creating poverty and change the rules for a world that works for all. We need to make sure our message reaches as far as possible.

Please watch and share our short video to find out the big questions we need answers on, and soon.

Capitalism #ADifferentStory

You’ll know from previous posts that I don’t believe that ‘we can solve global poverty if rich countries give aid to poor countries’. This new campaign and video from The Rules questions that rhetoric too and recognises that, in the current system, “rich countries are rich because they grab land and natural resources and exploit the human labour of poor countries”. It calls for us to tell #ADifferentStory to capitalism, and, like me, believes that we can change things. It’s really worth a watch.

Here’s their intro to the video:

How many of us have a sneaking suspicion that something pretty fundamental is going wrong in the world? We keep hearing about the potentially devastating consequences of climate change but we are pumping more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every single year. We are forced into economic crisis after economic crisis and the only people who aren’t brought to their knees are those that cause it. In fact, they often just get richer and more powerful while the rest of us work harder and harder for less reward. Politicians all say the same basic thing. No one, it seems, is offering anything that is really different. The whole operating system is somehow wrong, but also somehow inevitable. Nothing can really be changed because this is just how things are.

At least, that’s what we’re told, and how it can feel. But this way of living – our system of modern capitalism – is just a story.  And this story is not the only one there is.  It’s not inherent within us.  It was invented by human beings, and so human beings can change it.

But in order to get there, we first have to face up to some difficult truths.

You can find out more about The Rules and their campaign on their website.

Let me know what you think. What story would you tell?

NGOs losing the war against poverty and climate change, says Civicus head

Back in August, Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah wrote an article for the Guardian, entitled: NGOs losing the war agains poverty and climate change, says Civicus head. The piece focussed on answering the question: “Charities are no longer drivers of social change; for many saving the world has become big business. How did we lose our way?”

In my opinion Sriskandarajah is spot on with his evaluation of civil society. The ‘commercialisation’ of charities is something that I have become increasingly aware of and it is a concern of mine.

In the ‘more beautiful world our hearts know is possible’, I hope that charities cease to exist because they are no longer needed. But until that point it worries me that even ‘charity’ has been subjected to our modern culture of immediacy and instant gratification. If charity means ‘big business’ there is less of an incentive for those who become disillusioned and lose their way to put themselves out of a job, which is what the majority (not all) of people working for a charity should be trying to do. As Sriskandarajah notes: “And so we find ourselves reinforcing the social, economic and political systems we once set out to transform. We have become part of the problem, rather than the solution.”

I have reposted the article text here. The original article can be found here.

I’d be really interested to hear what you think about this. I’d like to write about this issue in more depth another time. But I found this piece thought-provoking and wise and thought it was important to share before I forget to.

In the last 40 years, we have witnessed an explosion of growth in civil society. There are now up to 4 million charities in India (pdf), 1.5 million in the US and 81,000 international NGOs and networks, 90% of them launched since 1975.

This should be music to my ears. The organisation I lead exists to strengthen civil society and citizen action around the world. So why am I worried? Because this exponential growth, and the institutionalisation and professionalisation that has accompanied it, has some serious downsides.

Sure, we’re winning battles here and there, but we’re losing the war; the war against poverty, inequality, exclusion and climate change. Too many of us who work in organised bits of civil society – including myself – have become removed from the forces that drive deep social change; from the causes that first inspired us. In devoting our energies to designing log-frames and reporting to donors, we’ve become mired in bureaucracy.

For better or worse, the biggest NGOs today look and act like multinational corporations. The largest of them employ thousands of workers around the world and their annual budgets reach hundreds of millions. They have corporate-style hierarchies and brands worth millions. Saving the world has become big business.

And big isn’t always bad; just as small isn’t necessarily beautiful. But it’s the effect of these trends on global citizen action that should unsettle us. We – civil society – have been co-opted into economic and institutional processes in which we are being outwitted and out-manoeuvred. Our conception of what is possible has narrowed dramatically. Since demonstrating bang for your buck has become all-important, we divide our work into neat projects, taking on only those endeavours that can produce easily quantifiable outcomes. Reliant on funding to service our own sizeable organisations, we avoid approaches or issues that might threaten our brand or upset our donors. We trade in incremental change.

And so we find ourselves reinforcing the social, economic and political systems we once set out to transform. We have become part of the problem, rather than the solution. Our corporatisation has steered us towards activism-lite, a version of our work rendered palatable to big business and capitalist states. Not only does this approach threaten no one in power, but it stifles grassroots activism with its weighty monoculturalism.

To bring about radical political change, we need to build from below. We need to help communities organise and drive change. We need more Arab Springs, but we need them to endure. Organised civil society must prioritise meeting the challenge of how we can build upon these sudden upsurges of social energy without suffocating them. When peaks of protest are connected to long-term action, temporary shifts in power have a far greater chance of becoming permanent gains in democracy, equality and freedom.

How can civil society reform and re-energise itself to meet this critical challenge? On 6 August we published an open letter, endorsed by some leading figures in global civil society, calling on all of those who have the privilege of working in this sphere – getting paid to do the things we believe in – to engage in this debate.

We believe we need to find better ways to put the voices and actions of people back at the heart of our work. Our primary accountability must be not to donors but to all those struggling for social justice. We must fight corporatism in our own ranks, recognise the power of informal networks, tap into the wisdom of the street and re-balance our resources. We must promote and protect civic spaces, and strive to build global people-to-people solidarity from the grassroots up. And this should not be about abandoning the civil society organisations we have created, but rather we must evolve these NGOs to be more open, agile and accountable to those they seek to serve.

All this will be not be easy to do – especially for those of us who have to keep an eye on donor deliverables and balancing the budget. But it will be worth it. Civil society needs to offer a new set of global organising principles, a new paradigm, an alternative model. No-one else is going to do it. And, if we can – if we can turn the tide of corporatisation and technocratic management that threatens to overwhelm us – we will rediscover our understanding of civil society as a deeply human construct, as a facilitator of empowering social relationships. And it is these relationships, history teaches us, that can truly change the world.

Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah is secretary-general of Civicus, a global network of civil society organisations and activists. Follow @civicussg on Twitter