Emmaus International

At the World Forum of Alternatives, Ferdinand Ayité (Togo), Mônica Benício (Brazil) and Gustave Massiah (France) shared their perspectives on the role of social movements to build societies based on human rights and equality. Based on their experiences as activists and their national contexts, they demonstrated the importance of social movements for reinventing democracy and putting alternatives into place.

Pour conf sur Mouvements Sociaux © David Sinza

Ferdinand Ayité, a Togolese activist who fights for democracy as part of a movement which defends freedom and basic human rights, first of all gave a brief history of Togo. This country bears the marks of many years of colonisation followed by successive dictatorships since 1963, the year in which the country came under the control of a military junta which has been led by the same family ever since. It was to stand up to this dictatorial regime that the Nobueke movement came into being, bringing together a wide range of activists whose shared goal is to forge connections across the country, and to raise citizens' awareness of democratic issues and how they can take part in building their own country: 

"Above all, we raise public awareness because, due to our closed regime, people in our country do not have access to information and are not well-informed. Therefore, we seek to inform them about their rights and responsibilities, but also about the need for change in our country, using neighbouring countries that are a long way ahead of us as examples. In both Ghana and Benin, for instance, there are well-established democracies which are widely admired.

Our long-term objective is to bring about a change which breaks the traditional mould, as our political parties have become adapted to the situation, as have our trade unions, which have been corrupted by the system, and which have achieved nothing for many years. Our objective is to allow the people to take control of their own destiny. Our movement does not aim to take power ourselves, but to build a powerful civic society, capable of keeping a watchful eye on politicians, because, as we say, we can change the world without taking power."

Gustave Massiah, founder of the Tribunal Permanent des Peuples and an instigator of the world social forums spoke about how policies can be built within social movements, a question which was at the heart of the World Forum of Alternatives, as well as the challenge of respecting the diversity of different movements while building a union between them:

"This World Forum of Alternatives, at which we have come together at Emmaus International's invitation, is part of the movement seeking alternatives to globalisation. This very convergence of social movements which have historically been separate is exactly what this movement is about. Therefore, within social forums and the alter-globalisation movement, we find all the movements from earlier periods, including social, civic and grassroots movements. We find the labour movement, the peasant movement, the women's movement, the decolonisation movement, and the indigenous people's movement. And the most important movements at this forum today are those of the poor, the excluded and victims of discrimination. A movement, therefore, is created when the stakeholders come together to take action and bring about policies to improve their situation.

[…] If we embrace the diversity of these movements, how can we build unity? What can we build this unity around? Building unity means coming up with a policy strategy. What is a strategy policy? It's how we arrive at a fundamental transformation, a profound change, from an initial response to an urgent situation, because that initial response itself does not allow us to fundamentally change anything. For us, today, the initial response is to resist, to lead struggles to resist the current forms of domination. And the transformation is coming up with alternatives. When I say that, I feel that I am paraphrasing Abbé Pierre, as we've heard over the last few days, in other words that we must fight but at the same time we must build alternatives.

[…] And what is the alternative that we are proposing? It's equal access to rights for all. And today, this idea represents a change, even a revolution, and marks a new era. It's not simply a revolution of the capitalist system, it's a revolution of civilisation.[…] That is where proposals that bring forward new ways of thinking can start to be built: shared goods rather than property, living well rather than consuming, and different forms of democracy. Coming up with new alternatives requires us to completely rethink the propositions that our social movements have been based on until now. These are fundamental questions that social movements need to ask themselves."

Finally, Mônica Benício, architect and Brazilian human rights activist, reported on the current situation in Brazil, a country built through extreme violence, which still characterises the country today and is personified by Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right politician who is set to win the presidential elections:

"In order to understand our political situation, we must remember that this country was built through the use of extreme violence: we lived through three centuries of slavery and two bloody dictatorships. Today, Brazil is still killing its indigenous peoples, as well as black people and those from the favelas. The rate of femicide is on the rise as women are being killed just for being women. We are the country that kills its LGBT people the most and that assassinates the most human rights activists. We are also one of the countries with the highest-growing prison population. And who is it that is being put in prison? Young people, especially poor, black young people.

[…] We are therefore living through a very dangerous time in Brazil and at this moment we are in the middle of a presidential election campaign, with an openly fascist candidate leading the polls. This candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, a clearly identified fascist, is a man who is openly racist, sexist, and homophobic, and who defends the right to bear arms legally. His speech contains strong messages of hate and violence, and this is the candidate who is rising in the polls. Personally, it is not only him that worries me, but above all the kind of society that intends to put him in power, thinking that this will somehow bring benefits to the country, while it is clear that with him, women, black people, LGBT people and those from the favelas will continue to die. Brazil will remain at the top of those tragic rankings that I mentioned earlier."

In the face of this threat to democracy and individual rights, Brazilian social movements have sprung into action, particularly the feminist movement, but they lack coordination as well as the support of the large majority of the population, which is disengaged:

"There is a wide variety of social movements in Brazil today. Some have a very strong voice, such as the MST (landless workers' movement) or the MTST (homeless workers' movement) which are present here today, but the feminist movement is the one which is best-organised. It's a movement that fights with considerable strength against fascism and which takes to the street to demand that women's lives and bodies should belong only to themselves, and in particular campaigns for abortion to be legalised and femicide to be condemned.

In spite of the resistance they offer, social movements in Brazil today face difficulties when it comes to organisation. The left is highly fragmented and the right, which is very well-organised, is still killing us, is still rising in the polls, and is still building a political project which shuts out most of the population of Brazil, a country where a tiny majority have a lot and the vast majority have absolutely nothing.

[...] For me, one of the questions that should be addressed is that of a new model for discussing social issues and the media, since Brazil is also tightly-controlled by its media, one of the most powerful industries in the world, with absurd amounts of power! In terms of cultural processes, the media has shown that we are extremely passive and that we will watch all types of barbaric acts on the television, telling ourselves that this is the way that politics is, and that there is nothing to be done about it.

I believe therefore that we must above all bring about a cultural change to change our values and to understand that, yes, we can build a different society. This is true of the whole world, not only Brazil. We need people who share the hope that another world is possible but who, as well as hope, also have the resilience, resistance and bravery to do what we are in the process of doing today: coordinating our initiatives, building together and fighting for social change. "

The World Forum of Alternatives represents a first step towards building alliances between Emmaus groups and their allies, all of whom are already putting into place concrete alternative solutions to fight poverty and exclusion on a daily basis. Bringing together the struggles and actions of all of these grassroots groups will allow us to give greater visibility to the alternatives offered by the most excluded, who are the best placed to appeal to decision-makers to implement public policies that truly protect fundamental rights.