What is solidarity and why is it important?
Community solidarity is the foundation of every successful advocacy campaign against powerful actors. Collective action is much stronger than individuals acting separately.
Authoritarian governments and bad corporate actors know that collective action can threaten their power, so they often employ tactics to divide and weaken communities. In cases of land grabbing and forced evictions, for example, government officials and company representatives often meet with each family separately to try to convince them to move away or stop their opposition to the project. They may make a “take-it-or-leave-it” offer of compensation and threaten those who refuse. Many individual families in this situation feel intimidated and reluctantly agree to the company’s demands, even if they are not satisfied with the compensation offered.
However, if affected people get organized and insist on negotiating with one voice, it is much harder for the authorities and the company to ignore their collective demands.
How to strengthen community solidarity
Some communities will be highly organized and unified when you start working with them. Many Indigenous people and other local communities have their own protocols, including customary laws, governance structures and decision-making processes. It is important for outsiders to respect and act according to these protocols. Other communities may be less organized and might have divisions and even conflict. If this is the case, you may need to spend more time working with the community to discuss the issues to improve communication and develop trust and coordination.
Community solidarity can either be strengthened or weakened by the negative impacts of the project. The common problem that people face can unite them, but the stress caused by the impacts on their land and livelihoods and other aspects of their lives can exacerbate intra-community (and even intra-household) tension and conflict. The use of threats or bribes by the company or government can also cause tension and divisions in the community, as some people succumb to the pressure, making others angry that they have weakened the community’s position.
While community organizing is a long and intensive process, there are a few things you can do in the short term to help strengthen and unite the communities you are working with. First, if they don’t already have them, you can suggest that the community selects representatives whom they trust and will effectively present their messages. It is generally a good idea for the community to select a few representatives. This makes it more difficult for one community representative to be pressured by the company or government officials. It is also a good idea to select a mix of people that represent different segments of the community, such as both women and men, as well as minority groups.
The main roles of community representatives are to:
- Organize and facilitate community meetings to discuss the situation and develop the community’s message and advocacy and negotiation strategy.
- Be the main point person for the community, by communicating with others, including your organization and other supporters of the community, as well as advocacy targets.
- Represent the community in mediation or negotiation meetings.
- Inform the community of any new information and developments.
- Communicate with journalists about the community’s case.
- Lead and coordinate other forms of advocacy based on the instructions of the community.
- Report back to the community about what actions they have taken and the results of this work.
A good community representative should:
- Be honest, responsible and reliable.
- Be committed to achieving the community’s advocacy goals and willing and able to devote time to this work.
- Act in the best interests of the community and defend the community’s interests, including different groups within the community.
- Listen to community member’s concerns and ideas.
- Be a good communicator.
Another way to improve community solidarity is to organize regular meetings with the community to discuss the situation, share information, ensure people understand their advocacy options, and give everyone an opportunity to ask questions and express their ideas. At these meetings, the representatives can make sure they understand the various views and interests among the community.
If there are particular households or groups within the community that are less engaged in the process and whose views are not being included, it may be worth visiting them individually to discuss their situation and ensure that they understand their advocacy options. If women are less active in community meetings, try to arrange a separate women’s group discussion.
There will inevitably be disagreements among community members during the time you are working with them. Be patient and try to listen and understand the different views. Try to play a role in facilitating communication so that everyone feels that their views and interests are being recognized and incorporated into the community’s messages and advocacy strategy. Regular meetings and community support can help people feel stronger in the face of threats and resist accepting bribes from the company.
Remind the community that they will have a much greater chance of success if they do not quarrel among themselves and instead work together to fight for their rights. You can even bring inspiring representatives of other communities that have been successful in their advocacy to come and talk to the community about their experience and what it takes to win.
Developing the community’s message and setting demands
It is important to hold meetings with the community to develop its message. If you have already conducted an impact assessment, this will be much easier to do, because you will have a good understanding of the project’s impacts and how people want it remedied. The recommendations of the impact assessment report should reflect the community’s messages.
To develop the advocacy message, you will need to discuss the following at community meetings:
- The latest situation in the community, including the various impacts of the project.
- What the community wants to remedy the problems or to prevent harms.
- The investment chain analysis and the key pressure points in order to decide which actors you will communicate the message to.
The community’s message and demands should incorporate all the different interests within the community. They should also be realistic. There is no point in sending a list of demands that will be impossible to achieve. Sometimes it may be necessary to manage community expectations by helping them think through what they want and what their rights are, as well as what they think could be a practical outcome.
The community’s message and demands may be specific or general. For example, the community may state that it wants the project to be stopped, or that it wants land to be returned. In other situations, the message may be that the company must suspend the project activities and enter negotiations with the community to reach an agreement to remedy negative impacts or prevent future harms.
Alternatively, the community may want to try to change the way the project is designed so that they can receive development benefits. For instance, a hydropower dam might be exporting electricity to a neighboring province or foreign country. In doing so, the project is not providing one of the primary benefits of the project to local communities, many of whom might lack access to electricity. In addition, the company operating the dam might employ migrant workers from outside the area, thus depriving local communities of jobs and training opportunities. In these cases, local communities do not receive any benefits from the project. The community may want to try to change this situation so that the impacts of a project are beneficial and/or to ensure communities don’t lose control over their land. Presenting an alternative project design can be a powerful element of the community’s advocacy message.
The community’s message and demands will be used in communications with the company managing the project and other advocacy targets along the investment chain, as well as in the media and other forms of advocacy.
While messages and demands can evolve over time, and the community may decide to make compromises on its demands in a negotiation, advocacy is more likely to be successful if the message is clear and consistent. It is therefore important to take the time to work with the community to develop clear advocacy goals that everyone agrees with — and a message that reflects these goals. It may take more than one meeting to develop the community’s message.