AEFJN’s 25th anniversary - Changing power structures


It is an understatement to say that the world has changed since the AEFJN started 25 years ago. Back in 1988 we still talked about the ‘Third World’, referring to developing countries in the southern hemisphere. The economic and political power of western countries was barely challenged by other countries. But all that has changed. Since then, China has rapidly become a major player on the world scene, and other countries like India, Russia and Brazil have followed suit. African countries have more choices to negotiate deals than they had in the 1980s and 1990s. The discovery of the enormous mineral wealth in Africa has resulted in quick economic growth within many African countries. What do all the shifts in power balances mean for our activities as antennae of the AEFJN?



With this question in mind, the Dutch antenna invited René Grotenhuis to its celebration of the 25th anniversary of the AEFJN, which took place on the 31st of May. Mr. Grotenhuis is director of Cordaid, the largest development aid organization in the Netherlands, author of several books about international development and president of the Society for International Development. In his view, the essence of the work of any organization that wants to improve the living conditions of the marginalized is to change power structures. The million dollar question is of course how to do that. Power is a multifaceted phenomenon. It is not just concentrated in the hands of government leaders or CEOs of international corporations. Groups and individuals on the grassroots level also have a certain power to change things. Grotenhuis thinks that the biggest challenge for us is to connect the different agents and levels that can play a role in social changes. A top-down approach in and of itself will never lead to deeply rooted social changes. Grotenhuis pointed to the dramatic failure of the international community to bring about a just and stable society in Iraq or Afghanistan. There needs to be a fruitful cooperation between the different levels.



The European attitude towards countries in the South has for too long been marked by arrogance and feelings of superiority. That must change, said Grotenhuis. Still, the way European societies developed in the course of recent centuries, can in some ways serve as an example to others: namely in the way power has been more evenly distributed within European societies. There is a world of difference between the 17th and 18th century societies where the European aristocracy could almost do what it wished, and the present democracies in Europe. Even though many African countries nowadays show tremendous economic growth rates, all this wealth remains in the hands of a small elite. It doesn’t benefit society as a whole. The African elite must be held accountable for its behaviour.  Maybe Africa can learn from the European lessons about how power and wealth can eventually be shared more evenly.



Grotenhuis has a lot of respect for the experiences of missionaries. They learned to listen to others with respect, to cooperate with the local people and to be patient, because it takes time for changes to take place. These lessons learned by missionaries are tremendously important now. In this respect, Grotenhuis encouraged us to not put our lamp under the bushel.



Even though there often doesn’t seem all that much reason to be optimistic, Grotenhuis expressed his belief in the fundamental goodness of human beings. He quoted Vasily Grossman, a Russian writer and journalist, who even after having witnessed the horrors of the German concentration camps, wrote that evil can never crush human goodness.



The lessons that we, within the AEFJN, can take from the words of Grotenhuis is first of all to continue working towards a more equal distribution of wealth and power. In order to do that, we should engage individuals, groups and institutions on both the grassroots level and the highest social levels. Changing power structures is something that will not happen overnight. But the missionary tradition can inspire us to remain strong, while we patiently do what we can to work towards more justice and peace in this world.



Gerard Moorman

Member of the Dutch antenna



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