Solidarity is Key to Stem the Global Wave of Oppression


November 20, 2019
Stockholm, Sweden

CPDE Executive Secretary Roberto Pinauin delivered this powerful speech at the Power of Voice: Testimonies of inclusion segment of the Stockholm Civil Society Days (SCSD) 2019. Gathering CSO actors involved in Swedish international development cooperation, SCSD is co-organised by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), and CONCORD Sweden, a platform of Swedish civil society organisations working towards sustainable development.


Early this year, my friend was killed in his sleep inside a bus on the way to his hometown. My friend’s name is Randy. He is a gentle soul who is passionate about peace and social transformation.

Years before, he was imprisoned for more than five years on trumped-up murder charges.   When he was finally released for lack of evidence, he joined the peace negotiation as adviser to the National Democratic Front.

Finally, I thought, with such a high profile and diplomatic-type role, his dance with danger is finally over.  Months after the peace talks failed, he was killed, execution-style.  

When we were young activists he used to sleep over and the gentle sounds that came from him once in deep sleep, sounded so peaceful it lulls me to sleep.  So, on the day I heard of his untimely death, the first thought that crossed my mind was, ‘was he snoring in his sleep when the gunman pressed the trigger?’.   That I cannot know the answer to this question ushered waves of deep sadness and fury. 

The police and the palace unanimously condemned his killing publicly. The utter senselessness of it offers no answers. Just one thing is clear, he suffered and died because he was an activist.

We heard time and again that inclusion is about leaving no one behind. The thing is, Randy is just one of thousands of community leaders, activists and human rights defenders who faced and still face persecution. In the safe space of international community, they join the statistics of violation of civil liberties and deterioration of civic space. And many, myself included, often use these numbers as a punchline. But in the harsh light of on ground realities, each one is someone’s friend, loved one, or family member. And the results of such violent acts unravel the very fibre of our shared humanity.

Two weeks ago, our offices suffered surreptitious attempts at harassment, we got ominous phone calls, text messages and plainclothes and uniformed police around our office premises.  Randy’s fate, something I have experienced from a safe distance, is coming close to home.

When I was asked to speak in this conference, I looked up the programme and it said: ‘testimonies of inclusion’. It hit me that all over the world, it is easier to find ‘testimonies of exclusion’. The pattern observed in the Philippines is also present in India, Indonesia, West Papua, Turkey, Kenya, Nigeria, Egypt, and so many other countries and territories: progressives are being abducted, illegally detained, tortured, or murdered, in many cases by members of the police and military forces, and particularly after having been tagged as terrorists.

However, I stand before you not to tell numerous sob and scare stories that will pull your heartstrings, appeal for sympathy and understanding. To honour those who sweat, bled and died for a better world, sympathising and understanding is well and good but, in my mind, we have to do better than that.

The question that you may be thinking is ‘how?’.  To tell you the truth, I ask myself the same question many times.  In the overwhelming waves of rightist populism that continues to repress our hard-fought rights, it is easy to lose heart.  I cannot claim to have the answers but I have experiences and insights from being an activist and a development worker for more than three decades. So here’s my contribution I throw right there with the others: 


Yesterday there was a lot of talk of the media. Its important role.  It’s evolving. To me what is clear is that whatever its role and form, the forces against us have more access and control of it than we do. So, we have to speak, or speak clearer, or speak louder or speak like we’ve never spoken before. More importantly, speak until we are listened to. And remember, media or not, that we still have what we have been good at for the longest time, communicating face to face, one human being to another. 

Now more than ever, we should put the year of communications work to good use and utilise lessons in the past to quickly learn new trends.  I believe we know how to do this.  In my mind there are two things we can do better:

  • Have common messages expressed in different ways.  Repeat. We all need to stand together and say, ‘enough is enough’, ‘stop the killings’, ‘activists are not terrorists.’ ‘people over profits’.  Or even something I heard yesterday, and I’m paraphrasing here: ‘LNOB is not about getting the poor to catch up but getting the rich to own up’. Say these in context. Say these to show to many what the system would rather stay unknown. Say these in ways that capture imagination. Say these in ways that mobilise people to action.

  • Underline the unity in diversity. In one of our breakout groups, some participants from Nordic countries shared their experiences and sheepishly minimised them as ‘first world problems’ perhaps because these don’t amount to persecution.  For me, the differences are not as important as our similarities in our efforts to address the inequities and injustices whatever form they take in our specific experience.  Which takes me to my next point:


I am the Executive Secretary of the CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness or CPDE.  Our mandate is to ensure that effectiveness principles are upheld in development partnerships and cooperation that is expected to deliver the aspirations of the SDGs.  To many, this work seems highly specialised and appear to be the territory of policy wonks. Yet, from its inception we were clear that we can only realise our mandate in the context of an enabling environment for civil society.  In the Senior Level Meeting in Nairobi in 2016, we got all parties of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation to commit to reversing the trend of shrinking civic space. In the Senior Level Meeting in New York, we sought audience up to the UN Secretary General to underline that this trend is no longer just an issue of space, but on the extreme, violations of rights to life and basic liberties. All this global work is buttressed by the evidence, experiences, and work of members we are still learning but increasingly able to support. Our work, once largely viewed as the exclusive purview of those who can engage in the centres of global policy discourse became more and more about (1) giving voice to what our members’ experience and struggle against on the ground and (2) leveraging international standards and resources to address those challenges they struggle against.  It took some time, but today, I believe we are increasingly able to demonstrate the linkages.

Development cooperation cannot be effective cooperation without inclusion. It is only through inclusive development that peoples’ rights can be realised, that structural issues emanating from the growth model of the mainstream development paradigm can be challenged.  In a situation where those who fight for rights and inclusion are excluded and persecuted, CPDE cannot just limit its work in the comfortable silo of policy reforms but need to bring the voices millions who struggle to the places where the very policies that cause this repression are made. 

I guess this is a collective challenge to us all. Whatever we are working on: connect the dots.  Stand with all the others.


A week ago, at the height of police harassment, organisations who worked with IBON International from the trade unions, urban poor, youth and women’s groups held a vigil in the office premises to make sure that whatever happened, even in the middle of the night, it will not go unwitnessed and unprotested.    

Five years ago, Karin Fallman who was then the Sida Programme Manager assigned to CPDE visited the Philippines. She talked to small miners in the mountain communities of Itogon, to fisherfolk leaders of Kalibo and leaders of Payatas making a living out of garbage. She did not promise funds nor held placards in protest. She just listened and gave her own views. The communities appreciated that someone from Sweden would be interested in their plight and talked to them as equals. They said this gave them strength. And I like to think – maybe I can ask her later on – that this experience along with similar others serves Karin well in grounding the policies and programmes she would later go on to design and decide on.

The common thread between the groups in the vigil and Karin is solidarity. 

The challenge in front of us is daunting.  We need to speak out. We need to stand together. Two tasks that are more effective if done in solidarity. Thus, solidarity is key to stem the wave of global oppression. 

I never got to eulogise my friend, Randy.  When I was asked to speak in a tribute gathering when he died, I refused because I was afraid that the pain would just result in a rumbling emotional mess. With time I now have the strength and will to finally grieve and honour his legacy in a meaningful way. As others before him, he is a person. He is not just an anecdote or a statistic. Like you and me, he lived and loved. I hope by sharing with you his story and my own thoughts and experiences, in some small way, I have encouraged you, whatever your context or whatever issues you feel committed to, to speak against injustice and exclusion, to connect the dots and stand with others and to work in solidarity for a better world.# 


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