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Say You Want a Revolution: Start with the Silent Warriors
Published on Friday, May 27, 2005 by the Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)
Say You Want a Revolution: Start with the Silent Warriors
by Sean Barratt
 
Power to the people, sang John Lennon in the 1980s. If he were alive today he would see his dream coming true but not quite in the way he imagined. People are deserting established politics and resorting to social activism to get the changes they want in society. Almost every week brings new evidence.

This week the Sydney Writers' Festival is sold out with people wanting to attend sessions and hear from overseas activists and polemicists such as Tariq Ali, David Suzuki and Jared Diamond.

Last week a consortium of seven universities, the Queensland Government and non-government agencies launched Eidos, a think tank to use research to better understand and achieve social change.

The week before that brought the federal budget and the big winners were dementia sufferers, whose cause was declared a national health priority, and they got $320 million for prevention, treatment and care. This was the result of a clever activist campaign that influenced politicians and health policymakers.

The not-for-profit sector in Australia is estimated to turn over $70 billion a year. Groups such as Greenpeace, Oxfam, Save the Children and the World Wildlife Fund are well known. But these are only the tip of the iceberg. There are a numbers of groups working for change at every level, from world trade through to local roads and services.

People argue about what constitutes the so-called third sector but the truth is that people are putting their time and money where their beliefs are. Membership and support for non-government organizations are increasing; the opposite is the case with traditional political parties.

Research continues to show that trust in non-government organizations is greater than in business and politicians. Many activist groups do not have traditional membership structures but coalesce around an issue.

The adept use of the internet and texting is revolutionizing activism. Activists have a method of communication and mobilizing free from media mediation, government regulation and exploitation by marketers. Cyberactivism is not the domain just of the young. Professional campaigners are finding that anyone with access to a computer is a potential activist. Mothers at home, professionals in their offices, wage slaves and schoolchildren can pursue their concerns.

This success is breeding ambition for change. Where politicians are slow or fearful to tread, activists are taking action and making a difference. Using a technique called "intelligent markets", they are entering markets rather than just taking on individual companies. An example is the Fair Trade Coffee, which guarantees a fair price to growers. In the 18 countries where it operates sales are growing at about 20 per cent a year, forcing big players such as Nestlé to imitate the scheme.

Non-government organizations that once largely opposed and operated outside the system are becoming integral to the system. Governments are outsourcing to them functions and the provision of services, especially to vulnerable communities.

As well, non-government organizations are taking over the role of market regulators and gatekeepers. They are learning to manipulate the market economy and to work with business, when necessary, to achieve campaign objectives.

While campaigns such as saving the Tasmanian forests and anti-whaling seem to take two steps forward and one back, these are but battles in a war that is becoming more sophisticated.

It is the silent warriors who are being drawn to the well of inspiration at the Sydney Writers' Festival and forcing the organizers to put on extra events to cope with demand.

"Power to the people, right on."

Sean Barratt has worked on health, human rights issues in Europe, Australia.

© 2005 Sydney Morning Herald

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