“I have learned a lot from these activists and will share ten of these lessons as my response to the topic of challenges and opportunities for advocacy on the right to education.
The first lesson: In any work we wish to do to advance the right to education, we must be accountable to the people in whose name we work: the students, the teachers and the parents. These are the constituencies which must drive our work. The real work is at the grassroots of their lived realities and this requires solid and sustained political work, political education and mobilization. We cannot run ahead of this and ascribe to ourselves the right to speak on behalf of those living the reality of the conditions we seek to change.
The second lesson is: Teachers are a powerful and an organised constituency and are critical to the political work. One of the greatest strengths of the Global Campaign for Education is the active membership of Education International. I do not know the answer to the question I am about to ask – but I wonder if the affiliate organisations of Education International are consistently and sufficiently part of national and local struggles for making rights to education real? This is an important question to me as teachers occupy a unique position – they are part of the delivery mechanism of education and their work is hugely impacted upon by deficiencies in the framework of provision. This often places them in the firing line rather than being seen as a key constituency for meaningful education change.
The third lesson is that rigorous research is required for credible evidence based arguments and holding government accountable. There are several examples of this. The human rights and privatisation project under PERI (the Privatisation of Education Research Initiative which is an OSF project), has centralised empirical data to inform parallel reports submitted to the human rights committees in Geneva, and has demonstrated that solid evidence and deliberate mobilisation can have an impact on national policy debates. This has been the case in Morocco, and is gaining traction in Uganda. In South Africa, Equal Education has based its campaigns to achieve a firm regulatory basis for the provision of school infrastructure on careful research and firm evidence. Whatever the specific instances of education injustice, whether these are around access, quality, or governance, or human rights frameworks, compelling arguments must have the integrity of valid information and valid arguments.
The fourth lesson is that, however great the expertise, it is impotent if it remains an elite activity, which is not driven by and accountable to a significant and credible mass base. If excellent work is done, but it is not organically led in governance and decision making by the participation of those in whose name we speak, the potential impact is dissipated. When the voices of a democratically organized mass base are summoned as an occasional convenience and a tokenistic acknowledgement and these voices and their structures do not profoundly shape the content and shape of struggle, legitimacy is compromised. There should be no space that is reserved for experts alone.
The fifth lesson is that public interest litigation can be a powerful vehicle for advancing educations rights. South Africa’s anti-apartheid struggle won significant civil and political rights. Our Bill of Rights provides comprehensive social and economic rights, which the State is obliged to fulfill, and which are enforceable in our courts. Several South African NGOs have used this to great effect: the victories of Equal Education, Section 27, the Legal Resources Centre and the Centre for Child Rights have deepening the statutory content of the constitutional right to education and entrenching this in enforceable judgments.
The sixth lesson is that even exemplary public interest litigation cannot be a substitute for social mobilization.
The seventh lesson is that litigation is unlikely to correct implementation failures that arise from lack of capacity rather than lack of will. Remedies have to be crafted on the basis of a clear understanding of the constraints, structures, challenges, powers, and functioning of the State. Litigation should be a last resort when accountability cannot be achieved through other means. Every possible democratic space must be probed so that these mechanisms work – and that includes working through elected representatives and formal parliamentary committees.
The eighth lesson is that it is impossible to have equity in education in the context of growing inequality, mass unemployment and poverty. Too much research, discussion, advocacy and planning around education is narrow and divorced from the broad socio-economic injustices that prevent quality education. A discussion about equity in education, or education as a public good, must situate education within a broader project of expanding democratic spaces, defending and advancing equity and broader rights. Too often the struggle for education rights has been depoliticized and treated as a purely technical issue. Too often researchers are looking for a magical solution which will not question or disrupt the status quo, and which will not challenge the way that power and wealth are distributed in our countries and the world. An education movement that is serious must be part of broader movements focusing on justice and sustainability in housing, healthcare, water and sanitation, and unemployment. Locating our struggle for quality and equal education for all in this way also forces us to continually pose the question about what education is for.
My ninth lesson is that local struggles must draw strength from international advocacy efforts – but activists should not allow their work to be subsumed into international politics to the detriment of local work and democratic process. This is a particular challenge in the South because of the efforts to correct the imbalance in representation of the south in global fora and the ‘gobbling up’ of emergent leadership – which is often the case with women in particular. Those with responsibility to lead globally must draw their inspiration and strength from local struggles and make significant investment in listening and learning from the ground. That work is the primary locus of struggle, and that work must drive international positions. Our theory of change must have a more measured appreciation of how change happens at local level, and the important – but limited role of international victories. These only have meaning when they are translated into change on the ground through activism.
My tenth lesson is a simple one: We must build a local resource base to fund our work – preferably by individual donor subscription. This is critical to legitimacy and to counter the accusations made of manipulation by foreign donors.
Only by maintaining democratic practice on the ground can representation at the national and global levels be legitimate. Only in this way can a national, regional or global network be not only legitimate but also credible. Only when legitimacy and credibility go hand in hand can advocacy undertaken by a multi-scalar network be effective.
In closing, I must ask a final question: What is the real struggle, is it effective advocacy at the global level? As important (or unimportant) as the Millennium Development Goals may prove to be, this cannot be the sum total of our focus as activists. The real struggle is to respond to challenges on the ground and to build resilient structures and strategies based on that. What flows from this is the need to craft robust and enduring democratic practice and structure within our organisations. In this way, and only in this way, is any representation at the global level legitimate.
My generation in South Africa has been privileged to learn lessons from anti-apartheid struggle, and we must embrace the learning from this new generation with its rigorous and vibrant discoveries of the current mission it seeks to fulfill as it addresses our failures both in implementing our vision but also in rebuilding the tradition of struggle that is essential for ensuring the survival of our ideals.“