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Greta Thunberg, Global Learning and Social Change: Lessons for International NGOs from the Climate Strike Movement


While Greta Thunberg has mostly targeted governments and multilateral bodies for their failure to tackle the climate crisis, the global Climate Strike Movement her Friday protests have inspired, may have also inadvertently exposed the shortcomings of international non-governmental organisations (INGOs).  With the kind of global reach and popular mobilisations to which INGOs can only aspire, the climate strikes have succeeded in catapulting the climate crisis to the top of the political and news agendas.  

The most recent week of climate actions from 20-27 September saw a record 7.6 million people take to the streets  in what was the biggest climate mobilisation in history with more than 6,000 actions recorded in 185 countries.  The mobilisation on 20 September was a ‘general strike’ which urged adults in all walks of life to follow the lead of young people.  This resulted in over 70 trade unions, 3,000 businesses and 800 civil society organisations supporting actions in the global North and South.  These popular mobilisations have almost certainly contributed to unexpected success for Green parties in the European Union parliamentary elections in May 2019, suggesting that heightened awareness of climate change was influencing political behaviour.  Before the ‘strikes’, the world seemed locked into a state of cognitive dissonance, whereby it recognised the gravity of the climate crisis but was determined to carry on as normal regardless.  As Naomi Klein argues although we are faced with a crisis that threatens our survival as a species, ‘our entire culture is continuing to do the very thing that caused the crisis, only with an extra dose of elbow grease behind it’. 

The lived reality of climate change

So what has changed?  On reflecting on the success of the climate strikes in her new book, On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal, Klein argues that: ‘this generation has something in common: they are the first for whom climate disruption on a planetary scale is not a future threat, but a lived reality’.  Recent research by Barnardo’s and Girlguiding shows that the climate crisis is one of the main concerns for young people and a major source of anxiety.  Research has also shown that youth engagement in social actions can reduce anxiety and improve their well-being.  Action projects represent a profound learning experience through which young people can develop key thinking skills, capabilities, attitudes and dispositions that strengthen their engagement with issues that impact on their lives.

Another major factor in the global spread of climate activism is Greta Thunberg’s communication skills and refusal to content herself with the ear of politicians and business leaders.  She speaks with clarity, directness and truth. In her address to billionaire entrepreneurs at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, she said: ‘I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act’.  Her speech to the United Nations Climate Action Summit on 23 September was more like a rebuke to world leaders. She said:

People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!”.

She was similarly unsparing in remarks to a United States Congressional climate crisis task force when she said: ‘Please save your praise. We don’t want it’. ‘Don’t invite us here to just tell us how inspiring we are without actually doing anything about it because it doesn’t lead to anything’.  The reference to ‘fairy tales of eternal economic growth’ clearly alluded to the broken neoliberal economic model that precipitated the 2008 global financial crisis.  Thunberg recognises the threat posed by a deregulated carbon-based economy to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) recommendation to limit global warming to 1.5°C.  Her speeches regularly exhort her audiences to ‘listen to the science’ and call out politicians for a lack of urgency in their responses.  And so, in remarks meant for Congress as a whole, she said: ‘I know you are trying but just not hard enough. Sorry’.

Thunberg’s reproaching of politicians and climate change deniers has resulted in scabrous abuse by internet trolls and feeble efforts to satirise her appearance, delivery and content.  It’s worth re-stating that, mostly white men, are taking to the internet to attack a 16 year-old school girl who has given a voice to millions of young people across the world and inspired them to climate action.  These risible efforts to undermine the climate strike movement nonetheless remind us of the power of carbon-based industries and their political supporters to resist all forms of regulation of dirty, extractivist corporations and aggressively attack high profile critics like Thunberg.

The Thunberg factor and INGOs

It is worth contrasting the global response to Thunberg’s terse dismissal of political action on climate to date and her very direct exhortation to act, to the diminishing returns and outcomes of the INGO sector which trades in ‘capacity development’, ‘poverty eradication’ and ‘social change’.  The writer and activist Arundhati Roy, regards the explosion of new NGOs in the wake of neoliberalism as an effort to contain radical energy for change by directing it into firefighting austerity. She suggests that:

“Armed with their billions, these NGOs have waded into the world, turning potential revolutionaries into salaried activists, funding artists, intellectuals and filmmakers, gently luring them away from radical confrontation”.

CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society groups, wrote an open letter in 2014 to ‘fellow activists across the globe’, in which it offered a damning verdict on the civil society movement and its failure to address the ‘glaring inequality that sits at the heart of the new world order’.  It said: 

“We are the poor cousins of the global jet set.  We exist to challenge the status quo, but we trade in incremental change.   Our actions are clearly not sufficient to address the mounting anger and demand for systemic political and economic transformation that we see in cities and communities around the world every day”.

The letter goes on to characterise a sector which lacks agility, flexibility and the capacity to support transformational change.  It says of NGOs that ‘much of our energy is trapped in the internal bureaucracy and the comfort of our brands and organisations’.  This is a view endorsed by Tanja Kleibl and Ronaldo Munck in their assessment of the NGO sector in Ireland in the wake of the safeguarding scandal in the development agencies Oxfam and Goal.  They argue that there is ‘a shared discourse across the government, NGO and academic sectors which does not really encourage critical enquiry’.  They go on to invite an ‘open debate on whether NGOs are part of the solution or, rather, part of the problem’. ‘This debate’, they suggest, ‘is too important to be left to the NGOs alone’.

Global learning

Part of the process of honest self-appraisal by the INGO sector could involve a greater engagement with global learning to support critical interrogation of issues such as climate change both internally as part of staff development and in external engagement with stakeholders.  Inspired by the radical pedagogy of Paulo Freire, global learning provides the values, skills, knowledge and understanding needed to understand the complex issues which underpin poverty and social exclusion, but also equip learners with the capacity to act for social change.  The Climate Strike Movement is arguably global learning in action because it combines analysis, debate and active citizenship which is key to sustaining public engagement with development issues. The heightened public awareness of climate change manifested in Extinction Rebellion and the climate strikes should encourage INGOs to invest more in global learning both as a form of capacity building and a mainspring to critical engagement with government and the business sector.  As Civicus suggests this should be part of setting ‘the path for a radical re-haul of civil society in order to get back to our roots and organise to build people’s power and define a future based on local initiatives and organising’.  The alternative is a growing irrelevance of INGOs to the lives of people that should be their natural constituency: those on the frontline of poverty, austerity, climate change and neoliberalism in the global North and South. Learning lessons from the climate strike movement could help the INGO sector to approach the process of development on the basis of a sustainable foundation for change driven by critical enquiry rather than the agenda of donors.



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