Between Citizens UK and SAAYE. Supported by the Commonwealth Foundation


Photo Credit: patchattack Flickr CC

This year's learning exchange was designed to explore, trial and share experiences and techniques of organising for civil society. 

The Foundation holds its Partners Learning Exchange each year.

The exchange brought together all the core members of the Southern African Alliance for Youth Employment (SAAYE) with Citizens UK - a civil society alliance including faith, education, trade unions and community associations from across the UK that builds civil society skills to advocate and act.

SAAYE's young leaders, civil society practitioners and trade unionists interrogated what we mean by 'power’ for social change. In particular, the exchange emphasised the importance of building relationships and explored the notion of 'relational power’ - a key ingredient for organising and enhancing the power of civil society organisations towards a change agenda.


SAAYE's core members come from seven Southern African countries. Both of the Citizens UK representatives are based in the UK.

Scroll down to see a list of attendees or click on the map pins below.


The facilitation was led by Citizens UK's, Emmanuel Gotora and Yasmin Aktar. 

The facilitation approach allowed for open questioning and discussion, which was also facilitated by the open, circular seating arrangement, free of any tables. Role play exercises and presentations were made within the circle. 

The exchange was structured around the key themes and techniques for community organising. Each session built on the next, drawing learning from the exercises, discussions and national teamwork. 

Music and dance were an important element of the exchange - to energize the group as well as to motivate and connect with one another. Songs and dances were important expressions of the different identities of the SAAYE members, representing different languages of the region, their faith and history of the liberation struggle in many of the Southern African countries.

You can read Yasmin Aktar's experience of the exchange here


'If you had our power, you would act the same way' Athenian General' - The Peloponnesian Wars by Thucydides

On the first day, SAAYE members participated in the Athenian Melian dialogue. This was referred to frequently throughout the four days.

Prior to the start of the Exchange, participants were given an extract from ‘The Peloponnesian Wars’ by Thucydides. It is a script of a debate between Athenians Generals and leaders of the island of Melos (Melians) in the context of escalating conflict between the two ‘super powers’ of Athens and Sparta (c.431 BC). Melos was a colony of Sparta at the time. Melos had tried to remain neutral in the growing conflict between Athens and Sparta. Athens, however, was putting pressure on Melos to form an allegiance with Athens against Sparta.

In the end, the Melians refused to make any deals with the Athenians and as a result, the Melians and Athenians went into battle. The Melians eventually surrendered and the Athenians killed the Melian army and sold the women and children into slavery. Melos was then occupied.

Deal or no deal?

In the role play, SAAYE members played the role of the Athenians and Melians with the objective of negotiating a deal between themselves to meet their mutual interests and for the Melians, to save their people.

The participants had the opportunity to sit on both sides of the table. The Melians then became the Athenians and assumed the opposite role.

Following each negotiation, the wider group and those taking part in the role play gave their thoughts about the exercise.

This was a fascinating exercise. Its lessons matured as the Learning Exchange progressed in the following days.

Are civil society the Melians?

The main reflection was whether participants felt the position of the Melians reflected their own position as leaders in civil society and whether the Athenians was the government, or corporate power.

Many felt it did reflect their own experience as leaders in civil society. Some felt it reflected their feeling of powerlessness when tackling the big issues. It also generated discussion around the Melians’ inability to compromise, backed by their position of what is just. But without power it is difficult to get any justice.

Some other reflections that emerged:

· Civil society need to have a clear agenda when they go into negotiations. Putting forward an agenda early on is an important tactic to set the agenda of a meeting, provide legitimacy and keep everyone on point around agreed topics.

· Caucusing as a group before you enter your negotiation is essential. In a caucus: agree your position, agree the negotiable and non-negotiable positions, and roles in the debate.

· Knowing your power. What do you bring to the negotiation that the people on the other side of the table might need or be interested in?

· Bring representatives of the beneficiary group who can tell their story and provide testimony rather than CSO managers who might speak ‘for’ those in need.

· Ensure that all parties presenting have a clear role. This also means that different individuals can speak on a subject that most affects them or they are most knowledge on.


The organising context: State-Market-Civil Society relationship

Foundational to Citizens' organising technique is an understanding of where power lies within society and how that affects governance. See Figure 1.

· The public sector (state): values administrative responsibility and carries its position of power

· The private sector (market): values profit and its power lies in organised money

· The civic sector (civil society): Values relationships and its power lies in organised people

Effective community organising requires that civil society leaders build relationships with key people (game changers or change agents) in each of these three sectors.

Some key discussion points that came up were:

· In a number of Southern African countries, where there is limited democratic choice, ruling parties become the state. Where the state is dominant, the private sector has limited influence, can be fused with the state and citizen voice may not be welcomed. The role of civil society as an accountability mechanism can be viewed as a threat.

· Some CSOs that are well established, instead of representing their constituents they legitimise whatever process they are part of without always adding value. Therefore, when CSOs gain access to the decision-making space, they don’t work towards creating change. In the words of one of the participants: "[they] take a photo for the media; but for what?". Civil society can often get stuck in a comfort zone – how do we refresh what we’re doing – be ambitious?

· In addition to the three 'bubbles’ of state-market and civil society, donors also play a highly influential role in governance, affecting all three sectors. Should donors also be reflected in the diagram at Figure 1?

relational meetings

'Without power, you can only be a supplicant, a serf, a victim, or a wishful thinker who soon begins to whine.' 

          Gecan, M. 2004. Going Public: An Organisers Guide to Citizen Action

The Citizens organising model works towards building power around the people you’re trying to get recognition for (e.g. young people unemployed and in need of work); so they cannot be ignored. Civil society first needs to build its own power – to organise – before engaging in advocacy action.

A key aspect of organising within civil society is building relational power. Through developing relationships with other organisations, institutions and individuals in civil society around their self-interest, your common understanding and relational power can be built.

'Face-to-face meetings are the truly radical acts of effective organising … You are saying to the other person: you have values, ideas, dreams, plans, lessons, insights that are well worth listening to.'

             Gecan, 2004. Going Public: An Organisers Guide to Citizen Action

Conducting one-to-one conversations (1-2-1s) is the best way to get to know the self-interest of other people. Relational meetings or 1-2-1s are the cornerstone of Citizen’s organising approach.

Conversations are important ways in which to connect with people, find out their story, build your constituency and conduct research. 

Self Interest

"The fact is that it is not man's better nature but his 'self-interest' that demands that he be his brother’s keeper."

                                         Alinsky, 1971, Rules for Radicals

Understanding what drives an individual can be an effective way of making a connection with the individuals you aim to target in your advocacy or as part of your coalition. To build relationships with people in power as well as in your network, it is important to understand 'what makes them tick’.

Self-interest is not selfishness. Healthy self-interest is what makes a person whole; it is the source of the initiative, creativity, and drive of human beings. Understanding what drives an individual can be an effective way of making a connection with people and understanding what aspect of your advocacy will have most meaning, relevance and around what aspects you might be able to use and develop in your negotiation.

Participants worked on exercises to help develop their thinking around their own as well as the self interest amongst their peers. 

Power analysis

Sometimes it is unclear who are the best people to build relationships with, who the decision-makers are and where to target your advocacy action. Finding out who can say yes or no to your advocacy ask, or who has the power to influence the decision is critical, otherwise civil society leaders spend time and money lobbying governance representatives who are powerless and can't change anything.

For SAAYE, as it develops its advocacy strategy, a power analysis is a crucial step that will provide a relational map of how the Alliance at both a regional and national level interacts with others regarding youth employment and can build its power.

Citizens emphasized the importance of finding out key individuals – potential change agents, within target institutions in the public and private sector that SAAYE can build relationships with. Who are the people who have the potential to drive and champion the change needed in youth employment policy and practice nationally? In the discussions some moments of tension arose:

· Some SAAYE members were uncomfortable about singling out and building relationships with individuals. They felt this would lead to corrupt relationships and practices. Within the political context in Southern Africa, many civil society organisations are actively working towards holding government accountable for its institutional responsibilities. By working with individuals does this not perpetuate unaccountable relationships?

· The importance here is to make the distinction between public vs. private relationships. Although as leaders in civil society we build a relationship with an individual, we make it clear that this is a public relationship with an individual who represents his/her institution. This is an important difference so that we act appropriately in our public lives and are always accountable.

· Targeting individuals in their public role is important because in the end, it is individuals who drive and lead change within their institution.

Some key questions in a power analysis for SAAYE:

· What is the official decision-making structure around youth/employment nationally?

· What is the real or unofficial decision-making structure regarding jobs and employment policy? Who has the influence and power – relational power and money power?

· What are SAAYE’s most significant relationships inside the institutions and with the individuals that have been identified?

· How can SAAYE build relationships with those that have power?

Case studies

Citizens UK shared two case studies of successful campaigns around unemployment which have led to change in policy and practice: The Living Wage campaign and the Good Jobs Campaign.

Living Wage campaign

The Living Wage campaign began in 2001 with a group of working parents, mobilised by Citizens UK, who were struggling to make ends meet. In 2005 following a series of campaigns with civil society and a small group of employers (private sector), a Living Wage Unit was formed at the Greater London Authority (public sector).

Additional funding was secured and by 2011 Citizens UK brought together grass roots campaigners, leading employers and social policy organisations to agree a methodology for calculating the UK Living Wage. Today, the campaign has become a Foundation. In 2016, the Government introduced a higher minimum wage for over 25 year olds – calling it the 'national living wage’. However, although an improvement, the wage is not yet calculated on what people need to live. 

Find out more:

The Good Jobs campaign

The Good Jobs campaign was formed as a result of concerns expressed by parents and young people in the Citizen’s UK Alliance on the levels of youth unemployment. The campaign includes a multi-stakeholder group of leaders from London’s communities (civil society), growth industry employers (private sector) and training institutions (public sector).

Selected growth industries - engineering, creative industries, technology, digital media and health – are also the sectors most impacted by skills shortages. Through their organising work, Citizen’s UK identified thousands of diverse and talented young people from poor communities in London and matched them with various growth industry employers to take on fast-track apprenticeships. 

Find out more:

Winnable actions: Key to developing a habit of action

As civil society leaders we have huge and ambitious change agendas. The Citizens model underscores the importance of the distinction between problem and issue; unpacking the problem into issues. Emmanuel and Yasmin referred to ‘slicing’ the big problem of youth unemployment into smaller issues.

SAAYE participants worked in national teams to identify and share what issues at a national level they could act on to tackle the big problem of youth unemployment. These issues will be further developed into their national action plans for 2017-18.

The notion of winnable actions and the importance of maintaining regular action was also discussed. Actions are an important way in which civil society organisations relate to the public and tell their story. Actions help build your constituency and the momentum for change.

at its core, what meaningful action is: the collective equivalent of relating. Through action, we relate to the other powers in the public world…

Action is profoundly relational. It is the public and collective equivalent of the individual meeting. It is the way the organisation creates and ‘tells’ its story to other power centers in the public and private sectors. It is the only way that organised people can get the other powers to listen in a respectful way.’

Metro Industrial Areas Foundation, 1999

After each action, evaluating the successes and what could have been done better is important. Did the action receive the reaction that was hoped or intended? Why or why not? This learning should then be fed into the next action. A cycle of research-action-evaluation is foundational to the Citizens approach.


The progress and learning during the exchange was evaluated on an ongoing basis. 

At the end, the participants shared one word impressions of the exchange. These included:

Inspired, Empowered, Educated, motivated, Capacitated, Enlightened, Curious, Overwhelmed, Developed and Grateful.

A survey was also conducted which emphasised areas of learning and insights for action in the future on organising and advocacy. 95% strongly agreed or agreed that the exchange lived up to their expectations, stimulated learning and that there was value in the PLE in national broad based organising and advocacy. 71% of participants are planning to action a 1-2-1 as introduced at the workshop in their national context and 95% strongly agree or agree that their 1-2-1 skills has been improved which will help them build relational power and communicate with people in power. These are crucial to the advocacy strategies and national planning.