No one is better placed to offer valuable advice on tricky projects and ambitious, world-changing actions than the people at the sharp end – precisely the kind of individuals giving the benefit of their hard-won experience here.
This is, we will readily admit, an eclectic mix. An architect-turned-mayor, a couple of hands-dirty do-gooders, a bunch of revolutionaries, the boss of a public sector pension fund and a handful of New York neighbours. From Cairo to Congo, Brooklyn to Bristol, what links them is the practical way they have all gone about their jobs – the almost ordinary nature of their extraordinary actions.
When asked for their three top tips, it’s striking how many talk about the importance of belief; that you are able to succeed if you believe what you are doing is worthwhile. We don’t think you necessarily have to be plotting a revolution, setting up a refugee camp or running for mayor to learn something from them.
With the dust settling on the intense street battles that helped oust president Hosni Mubarak, a group of filmmakers began collecting activist footage of the 2011 Egyptian revolution to serve as a living repository of a historic transition. From an ornate Cairo flat just off Tahrir Square, the Mosireen media collective is taking advantage of a new space for activism and quietly sowing the seeds of a media revolution aimed at continuous agitation.
While many perceive the Egyptian uprising as an online revolution, the picture on the ground is more complex. In a country of more than 80 million people, many of whom live below the poverty line, internet usage is confined to major cities such as Cairo and Alexandria.
The concept behind Mosireen, which is a play on the Arabic words for “Egypt” and “determination”, was radical in its simplicity: preserve a historical record of the revolution and train a new generation of Egyptians to be citizen journalists who can harness the power of the internet. The collective began holding public screenings in Tahrir Square followed by highly popular training sessions on how to make short films.
“Filmmaking is so bourgeois,” says Omar Robert Hamilton (top), a UK filmmaker who is working with Mosireen. “We are trying to teach the process to ordinary people so their voice is heard and preserved.”
At a recent documentary screening in Tahrir Square, there was barely enough space to contain curious onlookers. One short work, shot at the height of the revolution in January 2011, provoked an older Egyptian man to ask the Mosireen members where he could find the film. A discussion ensued about YouTube; the man had never heard of it. This is the motivation behind the group’s work.
Ultimately, Mosireen’s humble goal is to perpetuate the Egyptian revolution until its promise of democracy is realised. Hamilton says simply, “We are trying to keep the revolution boiling over through any platforms we can.”
Hit the streets
In order to have a successful revolution online, you have to get offline. Public screenings and training will ensure greater participation.
Play the long game
Revolutions don’t happen overnight, especially in the Middle East. Be cognisant of the past and the future but remain in the present.
Shoot from the hip
Revolution brings the breakdown of authority; be ready to document, preserve and archive as much historical information as possible, because the state won’t.
Mary Kyle stands on the pavement looking at the shell of her shop on Van Brunt Street. Inside, men in overalls shear mouldy, waterlogged panels from the walls and floor. Kyle insists she has a future here. “I see a new wood floor. I see my plants going in and my new barrels in front – my other ones floated away.” This is the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Red Hook after Hurricane Sandy.
Kyle and her husband, Ron own Dry Dock liquor store, one of many businesses that mark the promise of this neighbourhood on the waterfront a stone’s throw from Lower Manhattan. Hurricane Sandy submerged businesses here in head-high water but the storm is just one chapter in Red Hook’s saga. Now Sandy has given those who live and work here even more reason to turn the page.
Risk is a theme here. In 1990, life magazine named the area one of the “worst” in the US, dubbing it “the crack capital of America”. Hal Brown, a longtime resident of the public housing that symbolised Red Hook’s marginal reputation, says of the drugs and violence, “People decided they were not going to take that type of behaviour anymore.”
For 10 years Brown, a doorman and community advocate, has been greeting tenants of what Red Hookers (yes, that’s what they call themselves) call the Fairway Building. He says his boss, the developer who decided the hollowed-out warehouses were worth something, was “the first to wake this community up”.
The neighbourhood’s tarnished past meant buildings came cheap, but the area was zoned for light industry. Save for a select few corridors, residential development was not allowed. “If you re-zoned Red Hook it would rival the Oklahoma land rush,” says Lee Weintraub. He’s the landscape architect who designed Erie Basin, a waterfront park wrapped around the mammoth ikea on the southeast end of Red Hook. The park, and the store, draw people from all over New York.
Along with the Kyles, these people represent the indomitable spirit of a community committed to revitalising Red Hook. Mrs Kyle, standing on the doorstep of her flat, remarks, “People who live at land’s end are different. They are more cantankerous, they are opinionated, and they love where they are.”
Get in the zone
Zoning laws can hit areas ripe for rehab. In mixed-use zones people can live, work and play.
Transit links are essential for a day or night out and a hop home.
Vibrant neighbourhoods take time. Residents need to be in it for the long haul.
The windows of the New York office of Avaaz overlook Union Square in Manhattan, a frequent site of collective action. With over 10 million members and 100 staff around the world, much of Avaaz’s communication is virtual but public spaces like this have been the stage for nearly 10,000 rallies, marches and vigils globally. Galvanising its members through online campaigns and petitions, Avaaz is a model of modern, borderless activism.
For founder Ricken Patel, the impetus to start the group came from a young age. “Growing up, I saw so many problems that were a reflection of people failing to shape the world we live in,” he says. From building a four-storey-high Palestinian flag in front of the EU Commission building in Brussels to calling for a ban on South Africa’s trade in lion bone, Avaaz’s remit and strategies are broad. But every campaign is tested on a sample of the membership; if less than 50 per cent vote in favour, the cause is abandoned, no matter how passionately the team may feel about it.
Patel estimates there is a tangible impact in around 30 per cent of campaigns. “We set a clear definition of success. We work on moments that we call “crisi-tunities” when the world could go one way or another. We are in a global “crisi-tunity” right now, with two politics waiting to address it: one of community and cooperation and one of demonisation and division. We have to embrace the right one. That’s a goal that Avaaz was born to meet.”
Community is king
Members make the final decision on every Avaaz campaign, assuring the community’s support.
Staff work in individual offices around the world in order to foster deep local understanding. Team meetings are held using Skype.
Don’t be bought
Although it’s partly member-funded, the group has a €5,000 maximum donation cap, meaning there are no large donors to assert unwanted influence.
The sight on news reports of thousands of people fleeing peril, whether a man-made or natural disaster, has become depressingly familiar. Uprooted from their homes, with few belongings and little food, water or shelter, these are people in a state of utter vulnerability.
Those who intervene confront misery on a scale most in the West will never see and face a mind-boggling logistical challenge.
No single organisation can set up and manage a refugee camp amid the chaos of a humanitarian disaster; co-ordination and teamwork between agencies is crucial, which means efficient organisation and distribution of information.
“We’re frontline in terms of collection of information. We’re the fluid that makes the machine work well,” says David Johnson of Première Urgence – Aide Médicale Internationale. Johnson is the co-ordinator of Mugunga III, a sprawling camp near the city of Goma in the war-torn east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
The wars that have plagued eastern Congo over the past two decades have forced hundreds of thousands of people into such camps. NGOs and agencies can supply shelter along with food and medical aid, but the process is co-ordinated by Johnson and his colleagues.
“We’re working with committees of IDPs [internally displaced people – refugees in their own country] to assess their needs, in order to direct humanitarian interventions so that work isn’t duplicated,” explains Johnson. “If interventions become ad hoc, things can unravel quickly.”
The capture of Goma by armed rebels on 20 November more than doubled the population of Mugunga III to 30,000. “It was a challenging day,” says Johnson, with some understatement.
Johnson says the situation in eastern DRC is the most difficult he has confronted as a humanitarian. “I’ve worked in Chad and Central Africa Republic, but I have never seen anything like this place,” he says. “The population is displaced again and again. If you are constantly displaced, you can’t build any kind of life.”
The hope of helping just one person is what keeps him going, he says. “Ultimately, my goal is to work myself out of a job.”
Do the math(s)
Identify numbers and precise needs. Keep track of IDPs entering and leaving the camp.
Never stop talking
Communicate and co-ordinate with specialist agencies.
Identify needs in IDP villages of origin and encourage return, security situation permitting.
The red trousers probably helped. George Ferguson has “at least 40” pairs, he sheepishly admits, and he wore them every day throughout his potentially quixotic yet ultimately successful campaign to become the first directly elected mayor of the British city of Bristol.
As an independent without the backing – financial or otherwise – of any of the UK’s major parties, Ferguson needed something to help him stand out. More important than his sartorial choices was his track record as a local social entrepreneur and architect as well as a liberal but limited manifesto that played on his independence.
The city of Bristol has an independent streak, too. It even has its own currency, the Bristol pound, which Ferguson has decided to claim his £52,000 annual salary in. Still, taking on a Labour party that was expected to win would require something a bit special.
The campaign began with an invitation. “I just emailed everybody I knew saying I’m going to do this and I’m going to have a meeting round at my café and if you’re interested come and support me,” says Ferguson. Around 300 people turned up, many of whom were willing to offer time, skills and money. The six-month campaign set Ferguson back around £50,000, roughly half of which came from donations. “If I’m going to crack this,” he recalls thinking, “I can’t do it on peanuts.”
The local media helped too. “They know I will provide them with stories whether by gaffe or by other means. I’m never a ‘no comment’ person. I’m very, very open.” As if to prove his point, he gladly accepts the offer of another glass of wine from a passing waiter.
Cultivate your history
“You can’t do it from zero. I spent a lifetime engaging with the city.”
“You’ve got to feel that you are the right person to put right what you feel is wrong.”
Get ready to spend
“Put your money where your mouth is. It is an investment.”
With assets including European airports, UK high-speed rail and landmark Canadian property such as the Eaton Centre Canada’s Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan has proven a more dexterous and savvy investor than the average public institutional fund. But Teachers’, with ca$117bn (€90bn) in assets, is something of a pioneer, and a very profitable one at that. Over the past decade Teachers’ posted the highest returns of any fund worldwide while cementing a reputation for bold deal-making; in 2010 its 14.3 per cent rate of return compared very favourably against an international benchmark of 9.8 per cent.
Aside from stellar returns, what makes Teachers’ unique among public funds is that it manages its portfolio internally and invests directly. Doing it in-house has huge benefits, as it avoids the hefty fees funds pay to external equity managers. But cheaper investments aren’t necessarily smarter ones. Teachers’ President and ceo Jim Leech credits success to the fund’s institutional “deep talent, knowledge and expertise”.
Teachers’ adopted this more aggressive approach in the 1990s, as it began shifting its focus away from Canadian stocks and bonds to global investments in everything from infrastructure and resources to public companies and property. The other big Canadian funds quickly followed suit. Four of them, including Teachers’, are now among the world’s 40 largest public pension funds, collectively rivalling the biggest sovereign wealth funds in size. They’re also more likely to look at a longer investment horizon, making them potentially friendlier, more patient partners than, say, a New York private equity fund.
Despite investment success, Teachers’ faces a demographic challenge as more of its members retire and benefit payments and investment returns outpace the contributions of active teachers.
Nurture your own talent
Build internal expertise to invest directly.
Consider investments in infrastructure.
Take the long view over the five-year horizon of private equity funds.