Interview with Kumi Naidoo, a Life-long Social Change Activist

Activism & Leadership

Interview With Kumi Naidoo, a Life-long Social Change Activist

Article with Kumi Naidoo on Saturday 27th February 2021

We talk to Kumi Naidoo, former Secretary General of Amnesty International, for his take on impactful, resilient and regenerative social movements

Kumi

Kumi will be speaking at our upcoming event, Global Movements: Power, Resource and Resilience on 10 March, as part of the Regenerative Activism conference we’re hosting in partnership with Ulex Project.


8 minute read

Advaya: The theme of this years Regenerative Activism conference is Building & Sustaining our Movements. What are some of the key factors you think need to be in place to optimise movement longevity and resilience? Could you share any examples or illustrations of social movements that you find epitomise good practice in response to the environmental crisis? How essential is a regenerative approach to addressing the environmental problems of our time?

KUMI: The movements of today are taking shapes and forms that are much different than what we have been accustomed to over the past 20 years of conventional “activism”. What we are seeing today are movements that at their core, are being built with longevity and resilience in mind, whether it’s done so purposefully, or out of necessity (however we must not sit on our laurels here). In order for a movement to live long enough to achieve its goals it needs broad based support, and it needs everyday people who are willing to give time and effort. It needs a strong narrative that can bring people into the conversation, and make the issues relevant to the everyday people that it needs to connect with.

As has been proved in recent years, in order for a movement to sustain itself, the most effective (and coincidentally financially efficient) methodology for organizing is decentralisation. Movements that are not run by a central bureaucracy, that are able to move fast, respond quickly and capitalise on momentum and energy have been making gains that those in the traditional/conventional spaces have been struggling to achieve for the last decade in particular. This decentralization works in tandem with inclusive narratives as a way of lowering the barrier to entry into the movement, thereby increasing the movement’s base.

Thirdly, the intersections between the crises that we collectively face as humanity has been increasingly brought to the fore by young people. Young people are embracing an intersectional understanding of these issues and it is providing these new movements with a deeper, material understanding of the underlying structural and systemic mechanisms that are producing and reproducing these injustices. This in turn is providing them with better insight into how to solve these injustices. That being said there is still much work that needs to be done here to embrace and employ an intersectional approach, however the context is ripe for these approaches to bare fruit. Additionally, more and more people are also recognising that these modes of action and thinking must also include drawing upon ancient wisdoms and practices that colonialism sought to exterminate.

Young people are embracing an intersectional understanding of these issues and it is providing these new movements with a deeper, material understanding of the underlying structural and systemic mechanisms that are producing and reproducing these injustices.#

Fridays for the Future is a great example of how a simple act of civil disobedience has garnered the attention of the world. They have lowered the barrier to entry into the movement and have a clear, simple and effective narrative spelled out right in the name of the movement. Extinction Rebellion has also been able to execute some of the more radical forms of civil disobedience but has been able to include arts and culture into their messaging so that their narratives are clear and accessible, even when their methods may be divisive. Their language is simple and to the point. No convoluted climate science jargon, (for example, 350 parts per million or the 1.5 versus 2 degrees debate). However it is worth noting that groups who are making sure to remove themselves from the supply chain that contributes to climate change and capitalism are also taking bold radical action (for example people working to build vegetable gardens, mutual aid, tree planting groups, ect) and thus are just as valuable as those that are part of massive movements pushing for structural and systemic change.

We must understand that the climate and environmental struggle is not the struggle to save the planet. It is the struggle to rebuild a relationship with the planet that will ensure that we have a future. In that sense a regenerative approach that focuses on the human being in a mutually beneficial relationship with our planet is crucial. If our activism is causing us to burn out, induce anxiety and stress, then how can we expect to create a relationship with the fruits of our labour that is supposed to promote a healthy and restorative planet. We must realise that we are part of the nature that we are trying to build a relationship with. More critically, we are trying to rebuild a relationship with ourselves as humanity.

Advaya: Social movements calling for climate action and climate justice have been reaching exciting new levels of visibility in recent years. What are some of the challenges and opportunities you envisage at this critical moment? Where do you see the key leverage points for lasting impact?

KUMI: Let’s start off with what some of the challenges that are coming about from this increased levels of visibility over the past few years. One of the most important challenges to keep in our minds when we push forward in our organising and mobilising strategies is keeping movements inclusive and unified. Our strength lies in our ability to be a diverse coalition of activists, artists, thinkers, progressive policymakers, and everyday people who are all working within our expertise and local context to tackle these issues from all angles. We must remain committed to keeping this an inclusive space that is not privileging one voice or perspective over another, solely because of access to visibility (as we have seen historically with the marginalisation of voices from the global south). We must uplift and amplify those who are committed to this struggle and who are not visible.

Our strength lies in our ability to be a diverse coalition of activists, artists, thinkers, progressive policymakers, and everyday people who are all working within our expertise and local context to tackle these issues from all angles.#

Another challenge is resisting the divide-and-rule tactics from the various authorities. For example by agent provocateurs who try to turn peaceful protests into violent events. This is a common tactic seen in many protests that is used to delegitimise peaceful non-violent efforts. Another challenge is that generally as movements get stronger we will see a shrinking of civic space whereby freedom of association, assembly and expression are likely to be challenged by state authorities.

In terms of opportunities, the growing momentum of the climate movements around the world means that we can build more intersectional unity, which is critically important for progress on climate action. Additionally, the move towards more decentralised ways of operating is itself an opportunity. This makes it more difficult for repressive actions by the state, as well as building more leaderful movements that are less dependent on individual leaders. All of these are possibilities for us as we have not yet built a genuinely intersectional movement. The movements now are more intersectional than we’ve been in the past, but we are certainly not there.

Advaya: What in your opinion are special contributions of social movements to a more dynamic public debate in society? Can you share illustrations of social movements which have changed the priorities of governments or which have reversed a policy decision? What makes social movements successful in reverting policy decisions?

KUMI: Social movements have the ability to demonstrate the wider support of their issues amongst the public. By demonstrating this broad appeal as a united front it shifts the discourse from the fringes of society, where it is understood to be led by radicals or hardliners, and into the public spotlight where it enjoys a much wider appeal and legitimacy.

Recently we have seen how the Extinction Rebellion has been able to push the UK government to declare a climate emergency, and in France climate activists took the French government to court to hold the state responsible for its failure to take sufficient measures to halt climate change and won. The case was backed up by a petition that was signed by over 2.3 million French citizens.

In reasonably functioning democracies, popular support is crucial to getting policy passed or reversed. We are fighting against millions of dollars, euros and pounds in lobbying money from groups that benefit from climate inaction and system protection, therefore the way we are going to win is by presenting a united front and by saying that we will not support politicians who are not putting a just climate agenda as their priority. This pressure must be reinforced by climate actions that demonstrate that we are also not going to wait around for policy changes as our only saving grace. At the same time as we put the pressure on those in power, we must also engage our own agency and build alternatives that reduce our contributions to the climate change supply chain. If our leaders won’t lead, then we must lead them by example.

Advaya: What is the role of leadership in movement building? How might organisations balance the need for organic and distributed power with the need for someone (or multiple someones) to provide vision and direction?

KUMI: This is a tricky question, although we need movements that are more decentralized than ever before, we do need to have a clear vision and goal. I think we need less leaders that are focused on controlling movements and more leaders that are visionaries and have the ability to inspire action. Leaders will inevitably rise to the surface in a social movement, but it’s more important to focus on the movement and not on the individual. Placing all our eggs in one person’s basket leaves us vulnerable to attacks from enemies and those less than sympathetic to our causes. As we have seen, character assassinations of individual leaders are the ammunition of choice to delegitimize and deplatform a whole movement which stifles and can set back progress. Though we draw on inspiration and vision from one or a few visionaries, it is crucial that our strategies and motivations are inclusive and originate from the bottom up.

Advaya: As you look at two current social movements — Black Lives Matter, and the Friday for the Future youth climate strikes — what are your thoughts on their methods? How successful do you think they have been and will be in the future? To what extent does youth activism shape the direction of the environmental movement?

KUMI: The methods of Black Lives Matter, Fridays for the Future and Extinction Rebellion and the Occupy Movement before them, are responding to the reality that humanity is in its most consequential decade in its history. What happens in the next 10 years is going to determine not only what kind of future we have, but whether there is a future. Firstly, the methods of building leaderful movements with shared decentralized leadership is critically important. Secondly having a starfish* approach, where people are not waiting for a centralised organisation to give direction, but there is enough of a framework in place to provide an understanding of what needs to be done so that people feel empowered to act without being given specific instructions. This ownership also gives people the ability to act in ways that are more contextually specific to the realities and circumstances that people find themselves in. Thirdly is the method of peaceful civil disobedience. If history teaches us anything it is that when humanity faces massive injustices or major challenges, these struggles only move forward when decent people stand up and say “enough is enough and no more” and are prepared to put their lives on the line if necessary.

If history teaches us anything it is that when humanity faces massive injustices or major challenges, these struggles only move forward when decent people stand up and say “enough is enough and no more” and are prepared to put their lives on the line if necessary.#

Advaya: Many still point to divides that exist between traditional NGO organising and grassroots movements. What are some of the ways in which you see bridges being built to create greater cohesion? And in what way do imbalances of power and resource play out in the environmental activist spheres? How has this changed over the decades that you have been involved in this work?

KUMI: There are some obvious and vast imbalances of power, resources, access to power and visibility between more structured, well resourced, brand name NGO’s (whether they be national, regional, or global) and social movements. When I was at Greenpeace, for example some of our critics from the global South would point out that sometimes a single action that we would execute (for example, occupying an oil rig in the Arctic) would cost so much that it could fund 10 local grassroots NGOs.

While the employment security for NGOs is not necessarily great, it is significantly better than for social movements, as are the remuneration packages. These remuneration packages distort the realities on the ground and can often pull talent away from social movements that are making greater progress, and place them in more bureaucratic organisations where their skills and knowledge are diluted. This local brain/talent drain dismantles the spirit of volunteerism that exists in the culture of social movements around the world and overly formalises and corporatises their work. In an effort to compete for funding and resources social movements are coming under disproportionate influence by the more formalised civil society organisations such as foundations and trusts because they are resource providers. This further pushes social movements away from their roots as community level and creative organisers, into easy-to-digest, templated movements that fit donor requirements. In addition to the greater resources that traditional NGO’s have, they can sometimes suck up valuable attention in the form of media or press coverage in a coalition effort, even if they might have contributed the least.

One of the challenges is that some of the international organizations often have many gaps in geographical representation and the leadership often reflects more the global North than the global South and this directly impacts the culture and orientation of these organizations. For example, it’s still not unheard of to hear organisations and international NGO’s talk about “summer” campaigns which are based on the Northern realities and frames of thinking, confirming that the centers of power are still very much in the North.

That being said, there are some traditional NGO’s that have understood these realities and are seeing their role slightly differently now. ActionAid is a good example of how traditional NGOs have recognised the reality that social movements are far better equipped to mobilise and execute strategies and campaigns, and have committed to supporting and working with them to do so.

In reflecting on how this challenge has been addressed over the decades, a few things stand out. Firstly, there’s no question that colleagues in positions of power have tried to engage with these questions to make big organizations more consistent with the values addressing the north south imbalance and so on. However, while these efforts have not necessarily been imbued with the courage that the situation calls for, changes have been made in terms of addressing social inclusion and diversity overall, given what progressve civil society organizations say they stand for. Quite often we fall short of the mark in terms of what we are able to achieve. While people have made efforts and have identified the challenges, sadly current realities, institutional and personal interests, make it hard for organizations to make these transitions as fast as is necessary. What is different though is that people, for example, from the global South, who are part of international civil society formations are able to have more space to talk about structural inequalities within the organizations. Whereas in the past, people who had concerns about these issues had to suffer in silence.

To be quite blunt about it. I think we need fewer NGO’s and more social movements, and we need those NGOs to be consciously acting in service of the social movements. Especially when the social movements are inclusive, democratic and representative.


  • This is a reference the book Spider and the Starfish: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations. Why spider and why starfish? A spider is hierarchically structured. You chop its head, the spider dies. With a starfish, if you chop one of its arms, they grow another starfish. Can also be understood as centralized versus decentralised organising.

Kumi Naidoo #

Kumi Naidoo is a life-long social justice campaigner hailing from South Africa.

Read Kumi Naidoo’s profile