Environmental Degradation and Climate Change

Climate change has been described as the “greatest long-term threat facing the world.” Catastrophic weather like droughts, storms, flooding and heat waves are warnings of the consequences of the rapidly rising global temperature.

The most adverse effects are being felt in poor communities, particularly those in the least developed economies of the "global south." That is where drought, diminishing water supplies and flooding are resulting in famine and poverty. That is also where the lack of potable water is so acute, that its sale and distribution is in some regions controlled by criminal gangs. In many of these formerly colonized states, people face the immediate problem of having to expend far more time and energy on meeting their basic daily needs.

As Sheela Patel, co-founder of Slum Dwellers International, says, “In cities, poor people are living in the most wretched places, that flood all the time, that have landslides. So climate change is also about that. All of us in climate change [activism] say, there’s the green, the blue, and the brown agenda. The “brown agenda” is not sexy. It doesn’t tickle everyone’s imagination. But it affects people in their day-to-day situations. So now, we are grappling to say, how can we own that?”

In response to the acute problems caused by environmental degradation and climate change, grassroots organizations have sprung up. In Nigeria, for example, the Green Belt Movement (profiled on this site) works to empower communities with tactics aimed at conserving the environment and improving the ability to make a living. We see similar grassroots movements around the world, all with the same goal: To simultaneously empower local communities, while lobbying governments for change.

Informal Sector

They clean your hotel room or your home and take care of your elderly parents; they sweep the floor at the hair salon and polish your nails; they chop the ingredients for your take-out food; they shovel snow, mow grass and haul concrete at construction sites. They live in informal housing settlements. They sell refreshments from street carts on the street, or collect garbage for recycling. They are among the millions who make up the informal economy. It’s difficult to imagine how large cities around the world would function without the millions of people who labor for low wages while often residing in informal housing.

The informal service economies are the fuel that keeps the modern economy humming. But the workers, while essential, are usually underpaid and frequently deprived of basic rights — like time off for illness or family emergencies. They are also disproportionately women. Many of them are undocumented. In other words, they feel vulnerable. Call in sick and lose your job. Stay away from work for a day and there won’t be enough money for food or rent. Complain about ill treatment and perhaps be deported by the immigration authorities. There are few paths for these workers to assert their rights.

In recent years we have seen the growth of grassroots organizations for and by domestic workers and workers in the informal economy. In New York State, domestic workers organized themselves and learned how to lobby for legislation that grants them basic rights, like sick leave and overtime pay. Across continents, women who work in the informal economy have similarly learned how to organize themselves and lobby local governments for their rights under the umbrella of WIEGO (profiled on this site). The struggle for workers’ rights is very much a work in progress, but the achievements of the last few decades in terms of tangibles like realizing legal rights and in the less tangible areas of empowerment and self-confidence are salutary and undeniable.

In another aspect of the informal sector, the struggle for the rights of slum dwellers arose out of two salient circumstances. The first was that the global trend of massive urbanization means the growth of slums could not be stopped. The second, related, circumstance is that the people who live in those slums provide vital services to the cities in which they live. The high cost of housing in major urban areas in emerging economies, relative to income, means that people who migrate from the countryside are forced to live in slums. They are not just the destitute or the working class, but also employees of the service industry and manual laborers.

Municipal authorities know that the functioning of their cities depends on the labor force that lives in the slums. But those sprawling, unplanned urban areas also present them with infrastructure problems that can seem all but insurmountable. In areas where hundreds of thousands of people living without any urban amenities — no electrical grid, sewage system, reliable clean water supply, municipal transport or even street names — the results are easy to imagine. For years, the authorities’ response to the crowding and filth was to arbitrarily destroy the slums and try to force the inhabitants to the cities’ peripheries. This, of course, imposed huge hardships on the people who were now cut off from their workplaces and from their community structure.

In the struggle to assert their rights, grassroots activists in the slums have started working with the authorities to win certain provisions, such as property ownership. They have also based their activism on international precedents, such as the 1976 Declaration made by the UN Conference on Human Settlement, which stipulates that, "Adequate shelter and services are a basic human right which places an obligation on governments to ensure their attainment by all people.” They are indirectly supported by international institutions like the World Bank, which has recognized the economic importance of slum dwellers and as a result links government aid to recognition of their rights.

Youth Activism

The populations of the emerging and non-industrialized economies are exploding. In Egypt, more than half the working population is under 30. In Nigeria, half the population of 167 million is between 15 and 34 years old. In Afghanistan, Angola, Chad, East Timor, Niger, Somalia, and Uganda, more than two-thirds of the population is under the age of 25. More than 300 million Indians are under 15 years old.

It is no coincidence that youth led the 2011 Egyptian uprising. They were fighting for their own economic future, in a country with a stagnant economy, a high unemployment rate and a poverty rate of 25 percent. Similarly, in recent years youth led non-violent collective action movements all across North Africa and sub Saharan Africa — with some of the most notable in Tunisia, Morocco, South Africa, Ghana, Kenya, and Malawi.

In each case, youth have mobilized in collective non-violent actions directed at civil society issues. OccupyGhana targeted the government’s failure to provide sufficient infrastructure and social service. In Nigeria, where Boko Haram abducted schoolgirls and held them captive, local youth led an international campaign called Bring Back Our Girls. And in Egypt, millennials established a Utopian village in Tahrir Square -- a place where sexual harassment was banned, political discussion was facilitated, and Christians joined hands to protect Muslims at prayer.

The most striking example of youth activism is evidenced is student activism. Students are leading the fight against austerity in Puerto Rico, UK, France, India, Ghana, and South Africa. Many are fighting for the same rights and opportunities. Advisors to this project have suggested youth activists would benefit from being networked globally, and developing a “playbook” in their fight to sustain the rights they gain for subsequent generations.

The challenges faced by youth in civic society are many – not least of which is the resurgence of authoritarianism the world over, and the tendency of security forces to use violence as a means of repressing civil society.

Civil Rights and Nonviolent Struggle

The struggle for civil rights is an unending one. Rights to freedom of thought, speech, assembly, movement, and press; the right to feel physically safe; the right to be protected from discrimination: We speak of these as basic and inherent, but rights are in fact largely aspirational and therefore vulnerable without vigilance and the fight to ensure them. Even in many well-established democracies, basic rights that are now taken for granted were denied just a few decades ago. And history shows that even the hardest-won battles for rights can be rolled back.

Peasants struggle against multinational agricultural corporations for their right to earn a living from their small farms. Women struggle for the right to vote, for equal pay,for access to health care and, in many cases, simply to be an equal contributor to the discourse. Slum dwellers struggle for basic urban amenities. Indigenous people battle for autonomy and land rights. Journalists battle for freedom of the press.

One of the most salient and inspirational strategies is the use of non-violence. Rooted in practices derived from Gandhi’s satyagraha movement to MLK’s resistance and beyond, today there is broad recognition that nonviolence is a best practice when it comes to a successful mobilized struggle. The metaphysical argument over when or if violence is merited is a separate conversation. The relevant questions to TCL are: What does your movement want to achieve and what kind of society does it want to build?

Indigenous Rights

When the U.S. government proposed in 2016 to allow an oil pipeline to cut through a Sioux Indian reservation in North Dakota, it precipitated a struggle for indigenous rights that captured international media coverage. Local and international grassroots activists camped out at Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota to protest the route of the pipeline, which would cut through sacred burial lands and threaten the quality of their water. It also violated indigenous land rights. To combat the pipeline, the Sioux combined three types of activism – simultaneously suing the government in Washington, D.C., organizing protests on the ground in North Dakota, and spearheading a social media campaign.

As a result of the well-managed and widely publicized protest in Standing Rock, awareness of indigenous struggles – already gaining momentum and profile as a highly networked global movement – was again raised around the world.

The past few decades have seen the mobilization of aboriginals in Australia, the Amazon jungles of Brazil, and in Canada, where the First Nations are in an ongoing struggle to gain not only recognition and compensation, but also improvements to the dismal conditions on their reservations.

In many cases, indigenous people around the world are fighting to have the rights they won decades ago in the courts, implemented on the ground. Native Americans, for example, are supposed to have sovereignty over their reservations – which would mean the right to refuse Army engineers to build a pipeline on their land (a right that has continually threatened as of this writing).

The strategy of combining grassroots activism with lobbying at the governmental level and the pursuit of legal rights in the courts is the latest iteration of the decades-old struggle for the rights of aboriginal peoples. It builds on the lessons learned over the years, and is led by people who understand the struggle ahead is a long one.

Refugee and Migrant Rights

In the second decade of the 21st century, the world is witnessing the greatest number of displaced persons since World War II. Millions of people are on the move, primarily from the south toward the north, with many crossing borders as refugees, migrants, or asylum seekers, while others are internally displaced. Whether they are refugees from war, famine, or extreme poverty, they are all driven by desperation to undertake prohibitively expensive, arduous and perilous journeys, knowing they might die on the way.

This massive population shift has led to political upheaval in Europe, where the Brexit vote in the UK has led to speculation that the European Union is in danger of breaking up. Right wing populism, already on the rise in countries like France and the UK, received a shot in the arm from fear of immigrants. In the United States, Donald Trump was elected largely on his anti-immigrant platform.

But in tandem with this rise in xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment, we see grassroots civil society organizations springing up to care for and integrate refugees. In Greece, already crippled by economic crisis, civil servants who have seen their salaries halved or not paid at all are volunteering on behalf of refugees. In Southern Italy, despite government slowdowns and rising xenophobia, entire towns are opening up to house refugees, and search and rescue missions for crossers in the Mediterranean are carried out through community-based efforts. In Canada, ordinary people raise money to house and integrate Syrian refugees under a government-sponsored program. Countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Kenya, Pakistan, Ethiopia, and Uganda have taken in millions of refugees, swelling their populations. Civil society organizations are opening up programming to address integration, employment, and education.

Efforts at addressing the rights and needs of refugees (as well as migrants, internally displaced people, and asylum seekers) have not necessarily burgeoned into a cohesive global movement. This is a result of various economic and political factors, not the least of which is the varied frameworks that affect refugees at points of leaving, journey, and entry, but a global coordinated effort to lessen the effects of migration is desperately needed.

Women's Rights

When women in industrialized democracies talk about their rights, they usually look back at what are often described as the three stages of modern feminism. The first stage was suffragism, or the struggle for the right to vote, which peaked roughly around 1920; the second was the liberation movement of the 1960s/70s, or the struggle for equal civil and economic rights; and the third stage, which is ongoing and continuous from the second stage, pushes for inclusion and equality at home and in the workplace.

The feminism movement has in recent years been broadened as a struggle for gender equality. The right for women to make their own choices and have control over their bodies and lives; right to education, economic production, and equal wages; eradicating discrimination at the workplace; and paid maternity leave are some of the current challenges that women’s rights organizations are working on. Despite efforts and commitments being made to gender equality; progress has been slow and uneven across the world. The UN estimates that only two-thirds of the countries in the developing world have achieved gender parity in education.

There is a huge sphere of work emerging around the issue of violence against women. The UN estimates that about 35% of women worldwide have experienced physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives with some national figures rising up to 70%. Furthermore, there is a staggering amount of emotional, mental, and economic repercussions that are a result of this direct violence. Discriminatory social norms or commonly held beliefs, traditions, habits and practices perpetuate and maintain systems of gendered power and hierarchy in the society. The government, military, police, healthcare, media, and other systems reinforce and regulate such social norms. In order for these systems to change, there is widespread work being done by activists and organizations on challenging and changing these mindsets. There is also a failure to acknowledge the care work and unpaid work that is mainly done by women all around the world.

Some of the most important advances in women’s rights have come as a result of collective action between organizations and movements. Economic policies such as cuts in public services, privatization, and deregulation are seen to disproportionately affect women in general but even more so women in marginalized and vulnerable communities. For instance, poor women are more likely to work in the informal economy and are susceptible to the loss of basic legal rights. In such cases the work of organizations can expand rapidly to form cooperatives and other structures that provide mutual support and fight for the establishment of legal protections.

Global Public Health

The global landscape of health today has gained importance, with countries and organizations spending large amounts of money on development assistance for health. According to the World Bank it rose from US $2.5 billion in 1990 to almost US $14 billion in 2005. Even with advancements in medicine and technology, some of the global threats that we face today are more complex and unexpected.

Countries such as China, India and UAE are on high alert with rising air pollution causing respiratory and other health troubles. A study shows air pollution as the cause of 6 million deaths in China every year. Climate Change, with rising sea levels, and increase in temperatures and CO2 levels, is suspected to usher in more unprecedented health problems around the world.

New diseases such as SARS, Zika, and Ebola have emerged, each requiring different vaccines and treatments. The survivors of Ebola faced further social exile and chronic health problems. Additionally, for the approximately 63.5 million refugees around the world currently, the challenge of providing care and services is increasing. There is also a rise in mental health cases with trauma survivors of wars, displacement, gender based violence, and natural disasters.

At the same time, there is a shortage in the number of health workers and specialized trained professionals that can provide such complex healthcare. The World Health Organization in 2013 identified a global shortage of 7.2 million doctors, nurses and midwives. The rise of work performed by community health workers (such as those found in Shibuye Community Health Workers, profiled on this site) will stem some of the rising need. But health systems on the whole have become so complex that they are often immediately impacted by changes in leadership and policies, which can result in less funding and global aid.


The fight for LGBTQIA Rights is still in the nascent stages across the world. It was just in 2013 that the United States Supreme Court ruled that marriage between two people of the same gender was equal under the law to marriage between a man and a woman. The court’s decision capped a decades-long struggle in the United States. Canada, the Netherlands and Belgium had legalized same-sex marriage a decade earlier, while in the U.S. individual states had granted limited rights via legislation.

There are about 10 countries in the world where homosexuality is punished by death – including Saudi Arabia, UAE, Nigeria, and Afghanistan – while there are 65 others where it is illegal. Today same-sex marriage is legally recognized in approximately 17 countries. In 2015, the European Union passed a non-binding resolution that recognized same-sex marriage as a human right. One might argue that this is enormous progress, but this sphere still faces other big challenges.

There are rising levels of violence against people who identify themselves as LGBTQIA, even in countries where it is legal. Lack of social acceptance, stigma, and social isolation of people who identify as LGBTQIA can cause long-term emotional and psychological trauma. There isn’t adequate knowledge, or care and treatment services available to support their physical, mental and psychological health. Furthermore, there is lack of access to medical resources for people who want to transition to their true genders.

Much of the work that is done by organizations around the world revolves around trying to establish legal human rights for this community, such as freedom of choice over their bodies and lives, access to healthcare and legal resources, and freedom of marriage.

Income and Wealth Inequality

Global consciousness of wealth and income disparities has been on the rise in recent decades. Data gleaned from work done by NGOs such as Oxfam International have shed light on the nature of inequality worldwide, attuning people to findings such as the world’s wealthiest 1% hold more wealth than 95% of the global population. Perhaps more starkly, the eight richest people on the planet are as wealthy as half the world. And this reality is not limited to disparities between countries with high GDP and countries with low GDP. Individual nations are also showing a trend of increased inequality within their own borders. The issue is widespread, and it suggests that the benefits of a globalized economy are not being distributed equitably.

In response to this issue, workers at the grassroots level are organizing to advocate for their rights. Politically, movements have sprung up demanding a greater piece of the economic pie through policies such as an increased minimum wage. In the realm of public discourse, the topic of inequality has been given a renewed sense of urgency, most famously through Thomas Piketty’s analysis of inequality in his book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Even prominent institutions preoccupied with questions of economic growth have identified inequality as a problem. In 2015, the International Monetary Fund critiqued ideas like “trickle down economics” and emphasized the need to invest in low and middle-income people in order to drive economic growth.

Organizations dedicated to transformation on this issue are advocating for policy shifts such as more progressive tax codes to make funds available to their middle and low-income citizens; tighter controls over offshore tax havens that shield wealthy individuals’ assets from taxation, in effect raising revenue for government programs that should have been paid in taxes anyway; and investment in making services such as health care free to the public.

The work to fight income and wealth inequality is varied and decentralized, but those who are working on the cause are guided by a similar vision of a richer, more balanced, and more equitable world.

Civic Participation and Governance

In a democratic state, when citizens are actively participating in the process of governing they are exercising their right to shape the institutions that affect their lives. Civic participation has been a consistent theme for international development practitioners in the past, and it is considered an essential component of the future of sustainable development, as an engaged citizenry is seen as a key to the success of developing societies around the globe.

However, civic participation cannot be taken as a given. It must often be encouraged through strategies that foster civic engagement, and it is not always obvious what these strategies might be. Certain high-level concepts are taken to be good for democracies – accountability, transparency, access, etc – but determining what these will look like and how they will be measured when put into practice is a challenge.

Zahra Langhi, Edmund Yakani, and Septima Clark (all profiled on this site) provide models for encouraging civic participation in various contexts. Civic participation and governance efforts do not always look the same, but they are united by a common ambition of a world with greater security and greater representation.

Education Rights

Receiving an education is beneficial not only to an individual, but also to that individual’s community. Education has a positive causal effect on a wide range of social issues – for example, poverty, child mortality and maternal health, public health outcomes, and conflict resolution, among others. Consequently, education is a powerful tool for achieving a range of development goals that will improve overall prosperity and wellbeing for people worldwide.

By the end of 2013, 59 million children did not attend primary school and nearly 65 million adolescents failed to attend secondary school. Furthermore, disparities across gender, ethnicity, language and geographical location increase the likelihood that certain groups will be denied an education. Hunger keeps children out of school and negatively affects their performance when they are in school. Migration and forced displacement disrupt continuity of access to education. Poverty incentivizes parents to send their children to work instead of to school. Structural barriers – even things like required uniforms that are prohibitively expensive for some families – limit access and decrease enrollment. The list of challenges is long, but not insurmountable.

Social protection programs such as cash transfers, for example, reduce the need for impoverished families to generate more income by sending their children to work and frees up the children’s time so they can go to school instead. Also, school food programs can increase attendance and improve performance by alleviating hunger. There are even programs, such as Shining Hope for Communities in Kenya, that are working to influence local cultures so that they attach more value to educating their girls.

Education is widely acknowledged as an important asset for a society’s development. The right to education is enshrined in the Universal Declaration to Human Rights, and its value, both human and economic, is undeniable. This understanding is at the core of the fight for education rights, and every victory that expands access to quality education has a compounded positive effect on the quality of people’s lives.