How powerful is people power?

Updated Tuesday, 9th August 2005
The late Anita Roddick explored the strength of 'people power' for the Open University series Ever Wondered. We delve into what she discovered

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Antia Roddick Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop, was used to persuading people to improve their lives and everyone else’s. She worked with the attitude "If you think you are too small to have an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito".

Anita: Downing Street is the centre of British political power, it’s an address that every aspiring politician dreams of. But I believe in another kind of power - community organising, consumer protest, call it what you will it all comes down to this, people power. Most of us use our people power in one way or another. We support good causes, we support charity shops, we buy fair traded products, we’re concerned citizens on issues like child labour, global warming, third world debt. The right to stand up and be heard is personal and profoundly effective when it is channelled through NGOs or non governmental organisations. You just have to think Friends of the Earth, War on Want, Oxfam. These organisations, big and small, are campaigning on an enormous number of issues both here, locally and internationally. But what do they actually do?

Anita begins by meeting Dr Alan Hudson, an NGO Researcher…

Anita with Dr Alan Hudson Anita: Alan what is an NGO?

Alan Hudson: An NGO is any organisation which is not governmental and which is working towards social change. They tend to be value driven, they’re not about profits, they’re about values and promoting certain sets of values.

Anita: So what do they do, how do they challenge traditional power?

Alan Hudson: They do things ranging from direct action through to campaigning, through to quiet lobbying of politicians and other decision makers. They are also building a constituency of people, supporters in the UK for what they do, and the values that they promote.

with Dr Alan Hudson, NGO Researcher

Anita: We hear so much about them now, but what is their history?

Alan Hudson : An early example of NGO activity would be about slavery and about opposition to slavery. In the middle half of the 20th century, many NGO’s were about development, development issues, organisations such as Oxfam and Christian Aid and Save the Children Fund. We could say that the prominent rise of NGO’s has really been over the last 10-15 years.

If you would like to know more about how people act individually and collectively then have a look at course DD100 An Introduction to the Social Sciences: Understanding Social Change

So it looks like NGO’s are on the increase but how powerful are these citizens organisations? Anita goes to talk to one of the big players to find out…

John Sauven John Sauven: NGOs are becoming more powerful, support for these kinds of organisations, such as Greenpeace, is growing, more and more people are engaging with Greenpeace and getting involved with Greenpeace.

Anita : How many members do you have now?

John Sauven: Well we’ve now got about 200/250,000 members and that’s growing. Also a lot more young people are joining Greenpeace which is also a very good sign. But I think it’s not just Greenpeace, I think it’s across the board, the NGO’s are becoming more powerful and more influential and I think that this is a good thing because compared to the power of the corporations and governments that we’re up against, we’re just like a drop in an ocean. You know our power only can come from people supporting the issues that we’re campaigning on.

Anita: Who audits the actions of Greenpeace, you’ve got millions of supporters who are paid up, but is it a democratic process where the members bring in some of the ideas?

John Sauven: Greenpeace itself doesn’t have power I mean we’re not a corporation or a government or a UN body or whatever. We can’t make rules or laws or products or whatever. But what we do is just inject ideas, we challenge, the aim of Greenpeace really is to persuade, it’s not to persuade people to act differently.

So this is how a big international NGO works, but what about the thousands of small ones, how do they wield power? Anita meets Barry Coates founder of World Development...

Anita: You’re not a particularly big organisation, I mean you’re not as big as Greenpeace, how do you wield so much power?

Barry Coates: One of the ways is that we work with and through our members and supporters, we’re actually a democratic membership organisation, we’ve got 100 local groups across the country, who all are very active campaigning groups and these things are really important in terms of building a strong voice.

Anita: What do you campaign for?

Barry Coates: For 30 years we campaigned on a number of different issues related to injustice in the third world, basically campaigned for rights for the exploited poor people in the third world. Over the years we’ve become increasingly aware of the centres of power, with paths of influence to really influence governments, international agencies and big corporations.

Anita: And where are they?

Barry Coates : They’re increasingly becoming remoter from any kind of democratic process.

Anita: What are the big successes that you’ve had?

Barry Coates: One of them was when the government gave aid money for a dam in Malaysia called the Perigard Dam, which was tied to an arms deal, a billion pound arms deal, and we took them to the High Court, which we won, and that was £234 million that got returned to the aid budget to spend on what aid should be spent on.

Anita: World poverty is not the easiest of issues it’s not quite like hugging a tree or saving a bunny rabbit. You’re dealing with a huge problem in far flung places, how do you leverage people to get them involved in this issue?

Barry Coates: You’re right, you can’t walk out of your back door and see people in poverty on the other side of the world but you can start to see them on television screens. When people see these kind of images on television screens they reach in their pocket and give money without really realising that we’re actually part of the system that is making those people poor. One of the reasons that the World Development exists is to make people aware that if we’re going to start reducing the numbers of people who live in starvation and deprivation, then we’ve got to start with ourselves. We’ve got to start with our society.

Anita: I’m such a passionate believer in the ability of people to stand up and be heard and I see absolutely no danger in this at all. But I wonder, are there any dangers?

Barry Coates: One of the key challenges which NGO’s are increasingly facing at the moment, is one of legitimacy, who do they speak for, who do they represent? If they don’t represent anybody, where do the values that they promote come from?

Anita: Do they want to be law breakers?

Barry Coates: Standing up and making their voices heard about issues which concern them is certainly a legitimate thing to do and it’s part of a healthy civil society.

Anita: They’re advocacy groups then aren’t they?

Barry Coates: They’re advocacy groups that don’t want to replace government, they’re non governmental organisations, they want to shape and influence government but not be government.

Taking it further

Greenpeace organisation

International NGO Training and Research Centre

Also on this site: join Kris Akabusi as he asks is there any limit to physical power and philosopher Jon Pike as he presents Machiavelli’s approach how to achieve political power

If you think you might be interested in studying more about these subjects, find out what the Open University has to offer.

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