Shift the Power: What does it mean for civil society in Zimbabwe?
By Dzikamai Bere
There are a few things that excite me like the convergence of activists in our place. The energy is electric. That was the situation in Bogota where I joined over 700 activists from all over the world for the Shift the Power Summit between 5 and 7 December 2023.
I am aware that there has been a lot of disinformation, misinformation and in some cases outright malice regarding my participation on the summit. Well well well, if the lies carried by Zimbabwe’s dubious publications are anything to go by, it did not take long for power to fight back. I would like to take this opportunity to reflect on what this event meant for me and the movement building work that we are pursuing at ZimRights.
But before I get there, allow me to briefly share what the Shift the Power movement is about so as to clear the air after last month’s campaign of disinformation. Shift the Power movement is a movement of activists who believe communities must be in charge of their own development. The movement believes that current international funding system can and must be re-shaped to be more locally owned and locally led. The hashtag #ShiftThePower emerged seven years ago at the Global Summit on Community Philanthropy in Johannesburg where it signaled a rallying cry for change on how development aid is designed. In every true sense, the movement is a decolonization movement that calls all of us to build better relationships with the communities we serve.
As for me, the 2023 Shift the Power Summit aligned with the views of the many activists I speak to who are concerned that civil society today is suffering elite capture, and we must turn the tide. At ZimRights, our strategic priorities revolve around building a critical mass and achieving sustainability. ZimRights aims to move away from the traditional top-down approach to human rights, which often portrays citizens as passive recipients of rights bestowed upon them by the State and the elite. Instead, our Shifting Power to the People Strategy (SP2P) focuses on two fundamental pillars: people-centeredness and a struggle approach to human rights.
The decision to develop this SP2P came after a period of introspection and a strong demand from our members to prioritize the people. There is in some spaces the perception that civil society has fallen victim to elite capture, always in the pockets of the donors with no motivation for shifting the power. The SP2P became a commitment for us as ZimRights to change this narrative and to work together to shift power back to the people. Our vision is a society in which communities actively lead in creating and sustaining a culture of human rights. This places emphasis on “community leadership”.
Given this, our strategic plan aligns perfectly with the #ShiftThePower Summit.
After three days of powerful conversations, a few things stand out for me. These are the two values in the ZimRights SP2P Strategy: activism and community. I found both at the summit. I was amazed by the growth of the movement and realized that there are many of us who are interested in approaching development differently. There is a whole community out there that shares our vision of how development must work for the most marginalized. Sometimes, it can feel lonely and challenging when you are pushing for a specific agenda, such as shifting power to the people.
Secondly, the diverse wealth of knowledge gathered at a global level really struck me. This was highlighted through poster presentations and the bucket sessions. I was able to draw practical examples of models that other organizations are using to shift power. One quote that resonated with me at the summit is that “it’s not enough to promote the #ShiftThePower agenda at a national level if we continue to replicate toxic power dynamics and behaviors in communities, stemming from colonial legacies”. Our goal is to dismantle and streamline power dynamics. We want to hold ourselves accountable using the #ShiftThePower manifesto. We must know, as Zimbabwe’s biggest and oldest human rights movement, that as we go out there, we possess some power and privilege. We too have the obligation to dismantle it.
Thirdly, the concept of speaking truth to power also caught my attention and made me reflect on how we engage with donors. The summit encouraged us to be courageous and challenge some of the distasteful behaviors and practices exhibited by donors. Most of these relations are not on an equal footing. Ask yourself, how many times have you been asked to change something in your policy because it did not align with donor expectations, and you did it without question? This is just another way of perpetuating a colonial agenda. How do we promote genuine dialogue in donor relations with partners? What is the language that shapes these relations? Recipients. Beneficiaries. Targets. We seat there and call ourselves human rights defenders and yet we allow this injustice to sit in our contracts. As Arnold Tsunga, former ZimRights Chairperson said to me, “We become obsessed with meeting contractual obligations with the donors and yet forget our social obligations to the community we serve.”
This discord was captured in the mantra of “out with the logos and egos” which was so powerful at the summit. I did not see a single donor logo at the summit. And yet they were there, with their egos right on the leash, as they must be all the time.
I decided to experiment on this just before the new year and went to a community outreach in Kariba without any banners or branded materials. This was an eye opener. It allowed us to have meaningful conversations with the community as people who just want to make a difference. We tend to believe that displaying all those logos at a meeting is a way of showcasing that our brand is trusted. But wait a minute – how do you encourage community philanthropy when your members already think you are overfunded by all those logos? In any case, instead of giving, they will want part of the money from those logos. But at the same time, this is not just about donor logos. It is also our own logos as local organizations that can be an unwelcome and vulgar display of power. “Out with the logos!”
Then came the Manifesto for Change. Having launched our own People’s Human Rights Manifesto, I was fascinated by the Manifesto for Change at the Summit. The Manifesto presented nine powerful points. But if I must choose, I think number nine would be very important for us as a movement. It challenges us to change ourselves. I agree. This is because we are the most important actors in this matrix. We need humility and boldness. We need humility to allow our own power to be challenged and the boldness to also challenge those who wield power over us. Also equally important is number two, which charges us to creatively find ways to unlock the inherent power of communities in determining their own development course, however they define it.
At the end of it all, I believe we need to prioritize civic education to help people understand what shifting power truly means. After my participation at the summit, a local newspaper published a propaganda article claiming that I had attended a meeting where organizations were being taught “how to topple governments.” This shows that we have a lot of work ahead of us in educating the masses about the fact that shifting power aligns with Africa’s ongoing liberation agenda.
As I reflect on the impact of the summit on me and what I can bring back home, I believe the most important thing for us as ZimRights is to free the movement from the pangs of non-predictable sources of funding and give the membership an opportunity to go beyond mere association with the organization and establish ownership. True ownership will never be achieved with the current funding models that perpetuate a colonial balance of power.
The Shift the Power agenda is a liberation agenda. It is a freedom agenda. However, the problem we face is that people with power are addicted to defending their power. The greatest challenge for us is how do we shift that power without violence. That is an invitation to disruptive innovation. The answer to that is the key to the future that we are pursuing.