Citizen local initiatives: the new force for a global change

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

This post was originally published on the United Nations Development Programme’s blog Voices from Eurasia.

I am working with UNDP’s Knowledge and Innovation team in Bratislava as web communications intern. One part of my work is publishing posts from all the country offices in Europe and Central Asia. It is a great opportunity to learn from all the projects being implemented by UNDP in the region.

I’m especially interested in projects related to local governance, territorial development or social innovation.

And for me, these areas of development are closely linked to what I call “the citizen local initiatives.

Graphic explanation of the paradigm shift

Paradigm shift by François Rouillay

Today, many people think that human development and well-being is the responsibility of big institutions, including governments, that claim to know the best solutions to address economic and social problems and how they must be implemented.

Unfortunately, these institutions are stuck in heavy bureaucratic and hierarchical procedures that make them often totally disconnected to the real concerns of citizens.

Their capacity for adaptation is extremely low, and by the time a project or a measure is ready to be implemented, the diagnosis on which they based their intervention is already out-dated.

Many citizens in the world acknowledge this fact and duly note the failures of the past. They prefer not to wait for the help to come anymore. Instead, they decide to act. Directly and concretely, with no underlying ideology, to answer very specific problems in their specific areas.

A million peaceful revolutions

These people are not famous but they are growing in number. And little by little, in the shadow of the busy agitated world, they pave their own path toward a better world.

These “million peaceful revolutions” (in French) are not created against governments, but rather in parallel.

“The citizens who implement new initiatives do them because they must be done. Very often, the political power doesn’t support them because they believe more in big infrastructures for development. The simple means are not in their mind”.
Bénédicte Manier, “One million peaceful revolutions” (this is my translation, and the book is in French).

In every single area of life, there is now an alternative way of living and thinking about our society, based on cooperation instead of competition, on sharing instead of keeping for oneself.

Food

People grow their own food everywhere (the incredible edible movement), they consume differently (organic food, direct selling, community-supported agriculture, the international slowfood movement), they produce differently (agroecology, biodynamic agriculture), they take action for saving agriculture biodiversity (Kokopelli, Navdanya) and keeping the soils alive (LAMS).

“Take care of me, food to share”

“Take care of me, food to share”

Business

The cooperative model expands everywhere in many different sectors. In India, the Lijjat cooperative society employs now more than 43,000 women. Check this non-exhaustive list on wikipedia.

Knowledge and education

People share their knowledge for free everywhere, reinventing education: on the Internet of course (look at this Pearltree example), but also doing woofing, or competency and knowledge sharing in many citizens-led workshops like the Reciprocal Exchange Networks of Knowledge French organization.

Housing

People share their house in many ways: couch surfing, family house exchanges. They invent of new ways of living in community creating community land trusts, cooperative housing (Coop Lezarts in Canada for example) and they even collaborate to build their own high environmental quality houses like the ecovillage of Ithaca in New York, USA.

Energy

People collaborate to invest in renewable energies creating green energy cooperatives like Enercoop in France. They reach autonomy, and even more. In India, the Barefoot College educate poor women in building solar panels for their village. In Belgium, Vent d’Houyet educates people on renewable energies and jointly invest in citizens’ wind-pumps.

Shopping and trade

People now share, give, reuse, recycle, repair, help and consume in many untraditional ways. Here is a blog that makes a list of consumption’s alternatives in almost every aspects of life.

Politics

People literally skip the traditional politics: they help themselves and make the best decisions for their community. Here is the edifying example of Kuthambakkam village in Tamil Nadu, India.

Transportation

Car-sharing becomes very common (more than 3 million people do it in France). Hitch-hiking is not seen as a poor transportation anymore: it’s a new way of traveling. And bikes become more and more popular.

Health

People manage their own health centre and open them for free (or based on income) to everyone. Many examples are in the USA such as the Ithaca Health Centre or the Berkeley Free Clinic but similar alternatives rose in Belgium with the Community Help Service, or in India with the Tribal Health Centre.

Money

People create their own local currency to support their local economy. They create cooperative banking systems like La Nef in France – more accounting for real economy. They crowdsource their projects like with Kiva, and create social and environmental investment funds like the Cigales in France.

Ithaca banknote

Ithaca banknote

The future is here and now

The few initiatives I presented here are only examples: but they are real. They are not coming from some high idealist hippie of the 70′s. And they represent thousands (millions?) of similar projects implemented in the five continents. They exist and they work, today.

Considering that, what’s the role of traditional institutions?

I believe that they must support citizen initiatives since citizens have generally more intelligent, responsive, resilient and sustainable solutions than their bureaucratic governments: they know what to do, with what, and how to manage resources in the best way for their community.

To me, our future is already here and now. And this paradigm shift needs to be supported as much as possible if we are to improve human development. This implies that top-down policies must be completed (or even replaced) with bottom-up policies. It is the only and best way to solve the multidimensional crisis of our time (financial, economical, social, environmental, spiritual), which should be seen as a great opportunity to evolve.

A new world is rising and brings a great wind of hope for our common future.

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About me
I'm passionate about sustainable lifestyles and urban agriculture. I believe that community-supported initiatives and bottom-up policies are key to foster necessary societal changes. I'm an advocate of degrowth, agro-ecology, sharing economy and participatory democracy. Based in Bratislava, Slovakia, I like learning, reading, writing, sharing, hiking, dancing, eating, and celebrating.
Nicolas Giroux
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