Challenges and opportunities for activism in 2021


HOW has the pandemic affected the work of activists around the world and how can we collaborate to build change in the time ahead?

These were some of the questions addressed when SCI brought together 40 activists from ten countries, who make up part of the global activist community we work with.

The online convening began with updates from the United States, Greece, South Africa and Ireland, before hearing wider contributions.

The event focused on current priorities, how tactics have changed and how to respond to future threats and opportunities.


The US-based SCI Fellow Deepa Iyer opened the discussion, noting that the end of the Trump administration was a watershed moment, but she cautioned that there should be no complacency around the work required to secure meaningful change from the new US government.

Ensuring the transition led to “really bold solutions” is now a key priority, as was the push to “really centre racial equity”.

Deepa said there was considerable relief at the change of government, that rebuilding was now a priority, while a ‘reckoning’ was happening in the wake of the insurrection at the US Capitol with a fresh focus on white supremacy.

Activists in the US, as elsewhere, also face challenges posed by the pandemic.

Eleni Takou, Deputy Director of HumanRights360 in Greece, said it was now more difficult to reach vulnerable groups. Addressing this was a priority.

Zelda Holtzman spoke for many when she said activists were in “survival mode”. Traditional ways of organising had “come to a standstill”, with conditions in South Africa exacerbated by new variants of the virus.

Zelda reflected how difficult it was for activists to be relevant in the political moment and she worried about the long term consequences of the ‘digital divide’ which barred many from participating in online activity.


Seán Brady, an SCI Fellow, is Assistant Director of Programmes at the Belfast-based Participation and the Practice of Rights (PPR).

He echoed the challenges presented by the pandemic, but added: “We have really reformed our organisation in the last ten months to be responsive to that and to inject digital organising, software development and bespoke inhouse coding into the heart of the organisation so that we can develop our own systems in response to problems and not always be waiting on the state.”

He said PPR was reaching a larger number of people, across geographies, thanks to digital organising and imaginative responses to the changed circumstances. Retraining and learning from others was key.

Many others faced similar challenges and underlined the need for imaginative thinking. Activists working in the field of immigrant rights in the UK found it was possible to mobilise action, carry out research and lobby unlikely allies despite the barriers to more direct campaigning.

There was a general reflection that international solidarity and collaboration is vital to ensure the survival of campaigning groups and to capitalise on emerging opportunities.


Speakers from a range of countries raised the long-term implications of healthcare inequalities, made worse by the pandemic.

South African activist Brad Brockman also highlighted global vaccine inequality.

Brad said: “It was entirely predictable, but it is really something to see, the way in which wealthy countries have bought up the majority of the supply of vaccines and are going ahead with these mass vaccination programmes, while poorer countries are waiting around either to get left-over doses or trying to find ways in which they can secure the vaccine for their populations. That’s a really big issue.”

The threat of extremism emerged as a further theme.

Eleni from Greece said: “We have had a major development with far right extremism and hate crime. Back in October there was a conviction decision for the neo Nazi party of Golden Dawn which was a major breakthrough.”

However, Eleni noted that Greece has nevertheless seen a mainstreaming of far right politics.

Restrictions on human rights in Poland and the authoritarian regime in Hungary were cited. They demanded an international response, to raise awareness and build pressure for change.

In an era of increased fake news and disinformation, the debate on regulating social media was highlighted as an opportunity for change. But protecting activism and freedom of expression, especially under authoritarian regimes, posed a challenge.

New projects on these issues were discussed, including an initiative involving SCI Fellow Craig Dwyer (See here).

It was agreed that bridging societies’ digital divides, plus digital training for activists, also presented opportunities.

SCI Director Martin O’Brien said activists were dealing with huge challenges but had achieved significant breakthroughs. He congratulated them for the work they and their organisations were doing and said SCI would continue to use its networks to support international solidarity and collaboration.

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