Civil Resistance Against Corruption: A Conversation with Shaazka Beyerle

By Metta Spencer (interviewer); Shaazka Beyerle (interviewee)

METTA SPENCER: You’ve expressed an interest in linking the civil resistance field with the conflict transformation field. Traditionally peace workers think we have to choose between trying to reduce conflicts and trying to wage conflicts effectively, fairly, and ethically. So let’s talk about combining both options.

SHAAZKA BEYERLE: In the past the fields of civil resistance and conflict resolution were seen as two different fields, but they are both about rights and justice—about how to address collective grievances. Those fields are now coming together. For example, the Alliance for Peacebuilding, which is based here in Washington, holds a fantastic annual conference. It is now exploring the synergies between civil resistance and more traditional types of conflict transformation and peacebuilding. Another development in the two fields is looking at how conflicts change from violent to nonviolent conflicts. For example, I’m happy to tout a new book by Veronique Dudouet, who is at the Berghof Foundation in Berlin. Her edited volume, Civil Resistance and Conflict Transformation, looks at recent historical transitions from armed to nonviolent conflict.

SPENCER: Really. My assumption is that it’s generally a one-way street—that you can do nonviolence until blood is shed. After that it’s hard to turn it back into a civil process. Describe some examples when it has been reversed.

BEYERLE: I reviewed Veronique’s book for a journal. The best-known example could be the Palestinian struggle over the past thirty years and the first Intifada. And then in Egypt during the 1980s and 1990s there was a group called Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya, which was the largest violent Islamist entity in Egypt. They transformed from a violent nonstate actor into a completely nonviolent state actor. Also, one could look at Western Sahara and the struggle for self-determination. There was an armed phase and now an extremely brave nonviolent phase. The leader of the movement is a woman named Aminatou Haidar, who is called “The Western Sahara Gandhi.” In Colombia, there were armed struggles by minorities. In Mexico, the Zapatistas went from armed to nonviolent conflict. And then, of course, South Africa.

Veronique Dudouet found that there’s not one clear trajectory in such cases. Sometimes when an armed struggle is underway a nonviolent conflict emerges in parallel, gains traction, and ultimately gains more impact. But sometimes you find that an armed group just switches, as in Egypt. She also looked at Nepal and the armed Maoist insurgency against the absolute monarchy. Toward the end of the struggle a nonviolent movement emerged and united the different parties toward nonviolent resistance.

SPENCER: I assumed such reversals are rare.

BEYERLE: I don’t know how rare it is but there are some compelling cases. She says it is important for the international actors to be able to discern the signs that such a thing may be going on.

SPENCER: In such cases I would guess that maybe a third-party intervention was involved— that somebody was mediating and stimulating a rapprochement.

BEYERLE: Not necessarily. In a couple of the cases—such as West Papua, which is a self-determination struggle, and to a small extent in Nepal— there were opportunities for learning about effective nonviolent struggles from other parts of the world. But hands-on intervention? I don’t recall that there was anything like that.

SPENCER: Is it generally a merger between nonviolent and violent movements, or do the violent movements themselves just say “Let’s cool it. This is no fun.”?

BEYERLE: Both happened. In the Egyptian case, the violent group decided on its own to become nonviolent. And in some cases, the armed groups didn’t officially renounce armed struggle. They just stopped engaging in it.

SPENCER: I think that was the case in South Africa. I think the ANC gave up violence without ever saying they were a nonviolent movement.

BEYERLE: Yes, but a parallel nonviolent organization emerged, the UDF, and became very powerful. Toward the end, the ANC could see that their methods were more effective.

SPENCER: We tend to think of Mandela as a great figure—almost a Gandhi—but he wasn’t always so. Anyway, I still bet that the shift is usually in the other direction, as in the case of Syria. There was a nonviolent movement there, but then someone brought in weapons and urged military action.

BEYERLE: Erica Chenoweth says that the Syrian nonviolent movement had gained a lot of traction in the first year and had led to quite a few defections from the military—which is a core dynamic of this kind of struggle. But then these defectors felt that they knew best and that military means were the right way to change the dictatorship. They took over the movement and their views became dominant. This was after the conflict in Libya, when everybody was looking at how quickly Gadhafi was overthrown by military intervention. They expected the same outcome in Syria. It didn’t happen that way and today Libya is in very bad shape too. There’s no positive outcome to the military intervention there.

SPENCER: Let me ask you about corruption. You have found so many amazing tactics that people have invented.

BEYERLE: Yes, one tactic in fighting corruption is monitoring. Citizens monitor power-holders in government, as well as corporations, educational institutions, and health care providers. Citizens even monitor members of parliament: How often do they attend meetings? Are they present for votes? Are they responding to constituents? They monitor budgets, spending, policies, reconstruction and development projects, anti-poverty programs. Right now I’m studying the monitoring of a state social investment fund in Paraguay by a youth organization called reAcción. In Toronto I showed a clip of a group in Afghanistan monitoring the building of a road.

SPENCER: That was amazing. Those guys were out there with a tape measure! “Is this asphalt four meters wide, as it’s supposed to be?”

BEYERLE: Yeah! And there’s a group like that in Mombasa, Kenya. They are “Muslims for Human Rights,” empowering communities in slums to monitor the use of their Constituency Development Funds. They measure things in schools, tracking what happened to equipment. Traditionally we would not have thought of such actions as nonviolent tactics but they certainly are.

SPENCER: Yes, you showed one of kids carrying textbooks on their heads.

BEYERLE: That was in the Philippines. It was called the “textbook count and textbook walk.” This was a campaign for social accountability done with the department of education—possibly the most corrupt institution in the Philippines in the early 2000s. It also involved the public services labour unions, parents’ associations, Boy Scouts, and Girl Scouts. They monitored the production and distribution of textbooks. They were able to prevent corruption and even saved money after they found that the price of textbooks had been inflated. The children took the deliveries of the books and counted them.

SPENCER: What did they do in a few years when the watchdogs stopped monitoring?

BEYERLE: You’re asking about the long-term sustainability of success against corruption. The results are mixed.

SPENCER: I suppose the effectiveness of an anti-corruption campaign must depend on how violent the crooks are. How about case of the Khimki Forest in Russia, or the Mafia in Sicily? You’d expect only a very gutsy person to stand up to either the Mafia or the people running Russia today, for they don’t mind killing people. We have published articles about the Khimki Forest. I hear that the leading activist, Yevgenia Chirikova, had to emigrate to Estonia for her own safety.

BEYERLE: Yes, commonly the oppressors will use violence—usually when they feel threatened because the movement is gaining ground. But violence has costs. One reason why violence often fails is because of “backfire”—when a violent action against the nonviolent movement brings negative consequences upon the perpetrators themselves. This shows the power of numbers. When a lot of people participate together, it makes repression against them harder.

For example, in Sicily, Italy, when people opposed the Mafia alone, they were murdered. After two judges were murdered in 1992 there was public outrage, so the Mafia went into “soft repression.” They realized that their violence was turning too many people against them. However, a new generation of youth emerged in 2004 and started resisting, knowing they had to stick together. They wanted to empower businesses to refuse to pay extortion money. After the Mafia bombed one business, there was such backfire against it that they didn’t try that again.

SPENCER: Was this the case of the ice cream parlor that was bombed? I read that the community helped the owner rebuild his gelato parlor, and then held a big party in the street where everybody ate ice cream cones!

BEYERLE: They do hold big street parties for the businesses, but in this case the guy was selling building supplies and the Mafia burned down his warehouse. The community supported him, which shocked the Mafia. They had expected the opposite—that the minute they used violence, everybody would go back indoors and be scared. That didn’t happen.

SPENCER: How well is that movement doing now?

BEYERLE: Addiopizzo is still functioning. They have developed a tourism business for people who want to visit Sicily and stay in Mafia-free lodgings and take Mafia-free tours. They have some kind of shopping card with money on it that you could spend in Mafia-free businesses.

SPENCER: And these businesses have posters in their windows saying “Mafia-free zone,” or something like that?

BEYERLE: They do. They got their idea from the “fair trade” products.

SPENCER: That’s a reverse boycott. Some people call these reverse boycotts “girlcotts.” (We laugh.) Can you also describe the 5th Pillar group in India that issues zero-rupee notes?

BEYERLE: Sure. The 5th Pillar, based in Tamil Nadu, wants to empower every citizen to say no to corruption. When a citizen is faced with a bribery demand, they can give a zero-rupee note to that person. On the back of the note, there’s information about 5th Pillar showing that the citizen is backed by 5th Pillar. They also give workshops and teach citizens how to use India’s wonderful Right to Information Act, which is very user-friendly. You just need a piece of paper and a pencil. You pay fifty rupees to submit your claim for information. Suppose a citizen needs a document—a birth certificate, say, or a driver’s license, tax records, or property deed. Without bribe money, he can wait months or years. If a poor woman needs her ration card, 5th Pillar helps her to submit the following questions: “What is the name of the person issuing the ration card which I applied for on _____ date?

How many ration cards were pending on that date? How many ration cards have been processed since that date by that official? On what date can I get my ration card?” After she submits this, strong steps immediately kick in and there are consequences for the officials. Usually she will get her ration card right away.

SPENCER: Brilliant. And even the US has a problem with political campaign financing. That’s a legal form of corruption! The Koch brothers can legally “buy” congressmen with their huge donations. So there’s a movement to stop it with new legislation: “End Citizens United.”

BEYERLE: Yes, corruption is not only about illicit gains but also legal ones. “Abuse of power for gain” is not only for private gain but may be for a group’s gain. There’s financial corruption —such as money laundering—as well as political corruption.

SPENCER: A lot of Canadian mining companies harm the health of workers or the environment abroad. Sometimes anti-mining organizations hold demonstrations outside their headquarters on Bay Street. I hadn’t thought of that as an anti-corruption activity, but you can see it that way.

BEYERLE: I co-authored a paper about the Rosia Montana movement in Romania, which stopped a toxic gold mining project involving a shady mining company listing itself in Canada. I think Peace Magazine also described that campaign. In the global south, lobbying is considered to be a legal form of corruption. Our understanding of political corruption is broadening, especially in the US and Europe. Global financial corruption is a major issue—the Panama Papers showed that. Civil society is fighting tax evasion, and there’ve been organized campaigns against it in Britain for example. Often women and young people are catalysts in nonviolent movements and campaigns targeting corruption. I am going to India next month to a big conference for women and nonviolence. They want me to talk about gender in relation to corruption. Women are playing big roles at the grassroots level. They, and young people, are considered less corruptible. So when a campaign is associated with them, it has more legitimacy and credibility.

SPENCER: Are women seen as less corruptible everywhere?

BEYERLE: It depends on the society. It’s not true in all societies. And investigative journalists are at great risk. They are like the individual whistleblower, or the single business that speaks out against the Mafia. They are on their own. They need the power of numbers as much as anyone else. I researched a case in Bosnia and Herzegovina where journalists uncovered corruption on the part of the prime minister. A youth movement, DOSTA!, built a campaign around the findings and magnified what the journalists had reported. It was successful; the PM resigned halfway through his term.

Remember the case in the Philippines where one million schoolchildren counted textbooks? That sounds like a simple, low-risk tactic. But the Philippines is not an easy place to oppose corruption. It has one of the world’s highest rates of murders of journalists, and whistleblowers are often “disappeared”—kidnapped and never seen again. It’s very dangerous, but even in such places, it is still possible to fight corruption.

The people I’ve interviewed are fighting for justice. When civil servants take bribes, they are not only depriving people of the things they are entitled to, but are also depriving people of democracy. Allow me to acknowledge those in the movements I researched. They taught me about courage and the capacity of people coming together to claim their human rights and dignity.

Shaazka Beyerle is the author of Curtailing Corruption: People Power for Accountability and Justice . Her book’s website,, has a free, downloadable self-study manual called Freedom From Corruption: A Curriculum for People Power Movements, Campaigns, and Civic Initiatives. Beyerle is also a senior adviser with the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. Her comments are her own, not those of ICNC.

Metta Spencer is editor of Peace and president of Science for Peace.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2016

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2016, page 12. Some rights reserved.

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