Development: If you want something done right, do it yourself?

In my previous blog I expressed a need for the power of development to be given to the people directly affected by it. In this blog I will explore instances of people taking that power for themselves. I will begin by looking at a single case study of the Zapatista Uprising and assess its success. I will then explore smaller scale movements, what they have achieved and assess how ‘independent’ they really were. After which I will draw a conclusion as to whether or not I believe ‘peoples movements’ are the most effective way to meet the needs of the people or not.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead


In this section I will look at the Zapatista uprising. I will begin by explaining what happened, and will then go on to assess its effectiveness. In January 1994 The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) temporarily captured the major cities and towns of Chiapas using arms. The reason for this was to rebel against a system of government which represses the Indigenous and Camesino people of Mexico. Since then they have called a ceasefire and are trying to achieve their aims without violence.

They have hosted various conventions and international meetings, attended by both Mexicans and international observers. They formed a political party called The Zapatista Front of National Liberation (FZLN) to protect indigenous rights. The Zapatistas have inspired other indigenous movements and the establishment of a National Indigenous Convention, as well as encouraging land seizures and many regions in Chiapas to declare themselves autonomous multi-ethnic regions. In reaction to this the government backed paramilitaries have killed thousands of indigenous people and made over 20,000 people internal refuges (Johnston, 2000 p.463-493). This begs the question – is it worth it?

In my eyes it has been. It is a move towards progress. They have shown the struggle of indigenous people to the world, and high lightened the weakness of the current system of government. They still have a long way to go, but they have achieved a lot more than if they had done nothing. “No matter what, we were dying… We didn’t go to war on January 1 to kill or be killed. We went to war to make ourselves heard” (Subcomandate Marcos, Johnston , 2000 p.466).


The Zapatista uprising is an extreme example of a ‘Peoples Movement’, however there are many other small scale examples of people bringing about their own change across the world without any use of violence or breaking the law. In this section I will look at two examples of small scale peoples movements and assess their effectiveness. One example of this is the 1981 Residents’ Association of Conjunto Palmeiro (ASMOCONP) which started a few concerned neighbours meeting at one of their houses. The association went on to address issues such as sewage, buses, construct a canal and even set up their own community bank and local currency. “Residents have achieved social and economic success” (Neumann, Mathie, Linzey, 2008 p.39-58). They achieved most of this alone, but sought help from outside in matters in which they weren’t so experienced.

Another example of a small scale peoples movements is the Self Employed Women’s Association in India. SEWA has grown into a movement of solidarity among self-employed women workers around the world and has steadily transformed the conditions of work and livelihoods of its members who work in an otherwise unprotected, yet substantial, sector of the Indian economy (Chen, 2008 p.181).

SEWA began as an independent force run by workers for workers, but has since collaborated with a “public-private partnership scheme” and various “government schemes” (Chen, 2008 p.185). This shows the difficulty of independent people’s movements to remain independent as they often lack the resources or expert knowledge to bring about real change. The important thing is that the outside help doesn’t have its own agenda and try to change or influence the movement itself. (Rahman, 1993 p.196)

To conclude, I believe I have illustrated that “the best promise for development lay with the initiatives of the ordinary people” (Rahman, 1993 p.179). This is because it actually addresses what the people really need, and not what the government/outside organisations think/claim that they need. Yes it can be a struggle, but no more than living through years of oppression and poverty. The most important thing therefore is that they are very careful when seeking outside help in order to make sure it is still their needs which are being met.




BAYAT, A. (1997) Un-Civil Society: The Politics of the ‘Informal People’. Third World Quarterly 18 (1).p.53-72.

CHEN, M. (2008) A spreading banyan tree: the Self Employed Women’s Association, India. In: MATHIE, A. CUNNINGHAM, G. (eds.). Communities changing the course of their own development. Rugby: Practical Action Publishing.

JOHNSTON, J. (2000) Pedagogical guerrillas, armed democrats, and revolutionary counter publics: Examining paradox in the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico. Theory and Society. 29(4).p.463-505.

NEUMAN, R A. MATHIE, A. LINZEY, J. (2008) God created the world and we created Conjunto Palmeiro: four decades of forging community and building a local economy in Brazil. In: MATHIE, A. CUNNINGHAM, G. (eds.). Communities changing the course of their own development. Rugby: Practical Action Publishing.

RAHMAN, A. (1993) People’s Self-Development: Perspectives on Participatory Action Research. London: Zed Books.

WEBB, M. Success stories: rhetoric, authenticity, and the right to information movement in north India. Contemporary South Asia. 18(3).p. 293-304.

(All photos used in the blog were taken by myself)


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