Communities of resistance – Why we need more of them

02/2024 | Themrise Khan

The world is in desperate need of a global resistance. Not just a silent resistance, but one that will shake humanity to its core to bring about permanent, indelible change. Some of the biggest changes in the world have been because of people’s resistance against power and  injustice. But no longer do we witness such era-defining challenges to power, which are now being met with equal measures of resistance by the state against its own people.

The global development sector has never been one about such mass dissent and defiance. It has always been, and always will be, a sanitized, controlled model of orchestrated change. Anything that speaks of mass people’s resistance is akin to a threat to this artificially created world of “aid” and “development” – which is why the sector is nowhere geared towards the scale and extent of social change we require today to meet the unprecedented challenges we face. 

But without mass physical resistance, how can we talk about change that will impact the world at large? And why does the assumption hold that such resistance can only be violent? And even if it is violent, what does the violence signify? Freedom from oppression or more unjustified power? 

There is great talk nowadays of solidarity and movement building amongst the global development fraternity. But in fact, movements must be the opposite of this. They must signify the act of defiance against a current system of oppression. And they can only come from those “communities” that the global development sector so proudly holds up as a trophy, but whose true voices are carefully curated and selected to suit the artificiality of change.

In reality, these communities, which include Indigenous peoples around the world, are worth far more than being simply “stakeholders.” They are the change themselves, but global development and nation states have held them back from being so by trapping them in a cycle of projectized dependence and state-fuelled control.


 

But many levels of communities are now defying their silencing. I call these “communities of resistance,” i.e. those who organize themselves for civil disobedience to fight for their rights against the state without any external support. The importance of such forms of resistance within nations cannot be understated. Such resistance brings out core issues in countries which global development and the state choose to conveniently ignore, but without whose resolution we will continue to spiral into chaos. Two examples illustrate such resistance; one at the global level, and the other at a very national, local level.

The global example is of the rising tide against the Palestinian genocide across the world. Millions have consistently been gathering around the world to express their solidarity with Palestinians to their own detriment; losing their jobs, being arrested, blacklisted, or harassed by law enforcement. Hundreds of thousands of people across a range of professional sectors, religions, and cultures have been calling for a ceasefire. More than four months into this horrific war, the momentum of civic resistance continues in all corners of the world. It has ultimately led to what many of us in the sector have been unsuccessfully trying to achieve over the last few years – the Global South standing up to the political might of the Global North. 

Baloch protesters continue a sit-in outside the National Press Club in Islamabad. — Dawn Newspaper; Baloch Yakjehti Committee/ X

At the opposite end of this spectrum is a growing, non-violent resistance movement in Pakistan. For several months now, hundreds of women from the marginalized province of Balochistan have been marching to the capital, Islamabad, children in tow, and camping out in the open air. Their objective is justice from the state for the return of their missing family members. These are sons, fathers, brothers, and husbands who have been “forcibly disappeared” by law enforcement – some for many years – simply for asking for their basic rights, something Balochistan province has been deprived of for decades. While these women are relentless in their peaceful pursuit for the safe recovery of their family members, they have been met with increasing subjugation and violence by the state. Yet they continue to persevere, building a community of resistance that is fuelled only by their courage and determination for justice. They are gradually receiving attention from international human rights organizations, and have given rise to a new woman-led movement in Balochistan with a growing following of supporters throughout the country. 


 

Neither of these cases could ever be addressed by the global development fraternity, nor does one ever actually hear them mentioned. The sector has never wanted to address issues of oppression, occupation, and subjugation, especially those that go back decades. Palestine has always been a red flag for most international donors, devoid of any interest in its freedom. Likewise, the province of Balochistan has always been considered one of least interest in Pakistan, despite its extremely low indicators of human, economic, and social development. Both Palestine and Balochistan have been pawns in a global/national tussle for political power, while its people have suffered relentlessly. 

But it is the people’s resistance that has now brought this suffering to the fore. Not global development, not INGOs, not philanthropy, not aid. It is the sheer scale of atrocities and deprivation suffered by the peoples of these geographies that have created these communities of resistance around them and within them.

Both these examples highlight the dire need for the growth and sustenance of mass people’s resistance movements for change. Not within the confines of the global development sector, but outside it. 

If the global development sector hopes to save some face in lieu of its failures, the calls for balancing power between Global North and South must now move to calls for mass resistance and dissent against oppression and injustice. The “soft and safe” approaches that all of us have been guilty of pursuing all these years, in conferences, through projects and programs, through advocacy, were never designed to lift oppression and occupation. If anything, they have further entrenched them. If there is one thing that global change across the world should stand for today, if we want the positive change we seek – it is people’s resistance.

Themrise Khan

Themrise Khan

About this article

This blog was written as part of the “From where I stand: Unpacking ‘local’ in aid” series, designed to listen to people most affected by aid as they explore and amplify their leadership experiences, stories, and lessons for the aid sector. 

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About the author

Sarah Cechvala

Themrise Khan is an independent development professional and researcher with over 25 years of practitioner and policy-based experience in international development, aid effectiveness, gender, and global migration. She has worked with a vast spectrum of multilateral and bilateral organizations, INGOs, and civil society organizations globally and has a number of publications and articles to her credit. She has just published a co-edited book; White Saviorism in International Development. Theories, Practices and Lived Experiences (Daraja Press, Canada, 2023). She is based in Pakistan.