Paris It was the usual traveling ordeal of multiple plane changes, little sleep, weak coffee, and a lost bag when I hit Paris, but years of travel have taught that it’s best to solider on. Furthermore it’s worth it, as I found ordering a single espresso at a sidewalk café in the late afternoon in the city, as we moved from table to table to escape the moving sun.
I was meeting with organizers active in communities in France and Tunisia. A board member of ACORN’s French affiliate, Alliance Citoyenne, was originally from Tunisia and had talked to me about the extensive time he had spent working there with younger people in recent years after the Arab Spring, and this meeting gave us an opportunity to explore in more detail how events had developed in that country with other activists as well.
Tunisia had often been presented globally as the one bright shining success of the Arab Spring, especially given the disappointment that has marked so many of the recent events in Egypt. The narrative holds that a coalition of business, labor and other forces had come together to ally with the street protests and the anger of youth, many of them unemployed or underemployed, to win agreements for change in the country. The coalition, which remarkably included the largest national federation of labor, received a Nobel Prize in recognition of their accomplishment.
Talking at the café, it became clear that the opportunity was still immense. Local elections are set for the spring of 2017. Certain powers are being devolved from the national government to local governments. The World Bank had funded an extensive pilot in participatory budgeting. There were calls for citizen participation and input.
Assessing these recent years though the organizers’ conclusions were bittersweet. People had responded to the calls to participate with thousands individually attending meetings, but were coming away disappointed with the lack of action and follow through. They were being told that they had a voice, but still couldn’t be heard. NGOs doing the mobilization were being pressured for next steps as if they could substitute for community-based organization especially in some of the lower income areas of Tunis with populations between 20,000 and 50,000 folks where the needs were the greatest.
The problem wasn’t simple but it was common. No organizations were being build that could be sustained without donor assistance. Without organization there was no follow through and worse, there were no “wins.” People were finding themselves in an endless loop of frustration because their action wasn’t resulting in change. We found ourselves telling each other the simple stories of winning things large and small after building organization whether in the US or Canada, France or Cameroon.
There’s no substitute for winning. The question in Tunisia becomes whether in the midst of tremendous opportunity for change, it is just the right time for community organization, or whether or not we are too late for this moment and would have to build for another in the future.