My Enemy’s Enemies ...

by Nicholas Hildyard

first published 1 March 1993


“My enemy’s enemies may not be my friends ... but they may be useful”. Many groups campaigning for change make alliances with other groups. But when alliances are made without reference to specific struggles and the grassroots groups involved, when common ground is found only by setting aside critical issues, and when none of the parties have to live with the consequences of their actions, such alliances can marginalize those for whom political struggle is not just another campaign but a defence of livelihood.



In opposing destructive developments within their own communities, local peoples are often cannily opportunistic in the actions they take and the alliances they forge to increase their bargaining power. Rivalries between those who would impose a project -- different government departments, for example, or companies competing for the work -- may be exploited to good effect; outside pressure groups approached to bring their support to the local cause; the vanity (or genuine doubts) of officials played up to in order to obtain inside information; and the cause of species or social groups few had previously concerned themselves with adopted as symbols of resistance, if to do so wins the day. Who, for example, had heard of the snail darter before opponents of the Tellico Dam in the USA found that its possible extermination by the dam offered the opportunity of using an obscure law on the protection of a threatened species to stop the project in its tracks?

Such opportunism is often cynical and frequently manipulative, but it is eminently human. Faced with a direct threat to one's livelihood, and confronted by forces more powerful than oneself, it is not always possible to insist on the luxury of keeping "one's hands clean" in what can quickly become a very dirty world, however much one might like to remain aloof from compromise and unsavoury deals. In such circumstances, the old dictum that "My enemy's enemies may not be my friends but they may be useful" can become a key consideration in deciding the tactics of opposition.

Even in the context of a local fight against a local project that will have a local impact -- be it a dam, an incinerator, a shopping centre or a road -- opportunistic alliances are not to be entered lightly: whatever the short-term advantages, supping with one's enemy's enemy can disastrously backfire. There are too many examples of communities which have made common cause with city-based environmentalists to stop a forest being logged or dammed, only to find those same environmentalists subsequently clamouring for the forest to be made a national park and declared off limits to local people. Not surprisingly, who gains and who loses from specific tactics, who is empowered or disempowered by possible alliances, are generally subjects of heated debate within communities -- though the debate may not be framed in these terms. The personality clashes, backbiting and in-fighting may appear frustrating and morale-sapping to outsiders, but for the community itself, they are often an inescapable part of the process whereby factions within the community attempt to place checks and balances on each other. Where livelihoods are involved, the question of who sets the campaign agenda and how is, in many respects, as important as the campaign itself -- for, win or lose, the community must ultimately live with the consequences of the alliances it forges and the tactics it adopts.

"Saving the World"

The same is not necessarily true for "professional" campaigners, those employed full-time in pressure groups. Ungrounded in the struggles of a specific community, our campaigns are often not a response to direct threats to our livelihoods or to an environment on which we depend for our immediate needs, but to threats to other peoples' livelihoods and environments -- or even more abstractly, to "people" and "nature". The issues we professional campaigners tend to embrace are not limited to achieving specific objectives (stopping a dam here or banning a given harmful chemical there) but are driven by open-ended, amorphous ones -- "saving the planet", "social justice", "human rights", "gender equity", "fair trade" or whatever. And, just as the global reach of multinationals permits them to evade political control by any given community, so there is a danger that the very globalism of our concerns make our work equally unaccountable. Increasingly driven by the organizational needs of the groups we work with (be it the need to raise funds, maintain a high public profile, or increase our credibility within government circles), support for the struggles of local communities is too often given not out of unconditional solidarity, but because it serves as a means of promoting the goals of our organizations -- on the assumption that what is good for, say, Greenpeace or The Ecologist, must be good for the environment or oppressed peoples. The "grassroots" comes to be viewed not as the political base to which we are accountable, but as convenient political muscle to be mobilised in support of an agenda set by professional campaigners. The key question "Who does our work empower or disempower?" is set to one side.

Empowering Whom?

Yet, in ignoring -- or glossing over -- that question, there is a danger of professional campaigners, however well-intentioned, pursuing tactics or promoting policies that actively undermine the attempts of local people to reclaim their commons. In India, Medha Patkar, a leading activist against the Sardar Sarovar Dam, warns of "an upcoming breed of 'neo-bureaucratic NGOs' who live in urban areas, profess solidarity with the downtrodden, have the right 'contacts' for funding, give up nothing and still [call themselves] activists."1 Likewise, as Mark Dowie reports of the US environmental movement:"Grassroots activists complain that the nationals have become arrogant, elitist, insensitive to local efforts and more concerned with wildlife than human life. At best the nationals are seen as service organizations providing occasional legal or moral support in grassroots issues or projects. When nationals do get involved in local campaigns, however, decisions are often made in Washington, where deals are struck in private without local consultation and without concern for local consequences."2

Dowie goes on to give the following example:

"Recently, in North Carolina, such collusion took place when the state Department of Agriculture, advocates for the agro-biotech industry, and a representative of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) met to draft the North Carolina Genetically Engineered Organisms Act (and accompanying regulations). The law, a consensus bill that took roughly a year to develop, explicitly prohibits municipalities throughout the state from blocking the release of genetically-engineered organisms in their county. The EDF representative approved this precedent-setting provision and EDF leaders believe to this day that the best interests of the environment were served by the bill. According to grassroots environmentalists, however, EDF aided and abetted the enemy, guaranteed the unchallenged commercial introduction of genetically-engineered organisms into local environments, and traded away community rights for a few dubious short-term gains. In such cases, when the environmental movement is approached by industry to 'negotiate', local representatives ask only that they be invited to sit at the table."3

North and South

Some campaigners may riposte that they would never become involved in such compromised deals. Yet, however radical one's agenda, there is always the danger that the further distanced one becomes from local struggles, the greater one's chances of adopting campaign tactics that disempower local peoples and empower the interests they are fighting. Within the UNCED negotiations, for example, the debate quickly became polarized along traditional North-South lines, a polarization that was encouraged by Southern governments and by many development and environment NGOs, fearful that UNCED would be used by "Northern" interests to impose new forms of control on the "South". But the alliance that emerged only "worked" because all sides were seemingly prepared to equate the "South's" interests with those of the G-77, the UN grouping that consists exclusively of Third World governments. Discussion of the internal divisions within this eponymous "South" -- divisions of race, class, gender and cultural priorities -- were thus set to one side, with the result that issues considered central by grassroots groups were scarcely raised in UNCED for fear of undermining the bargaining power of Southern governments. Yet it is precisely these governments, in alliance with domestic and international business interests, that are viewed by many peoples' organizations from the South as constituting the major threat to local livelihoods. As a statement issued at the International Peoples' Forum in Bangkok in 1991 put it:

"The UNCED process is legitimizing and increasing the authority and control of states, intergovernmental agencies and transnational corporations over natural resources at the expense of local communities and affected peoples. Crucial issues concerning popular rights to land and other natural resources are not being addressed. Instead these are being sidelined as the internal affairs of sovereign governments ... The issue of popular participation in decision-making is only being given token consideration."4

None of this is to say that tactical alliances should be avoided -- nor that one's enemy's enemy may not be useful. Nor is it to underestimate the pressures that lead groups such alliances. It is, however, to argue that in cases where alliances are forged without reference to specific struggles and the grassroots groups involved; where common ground is found only by setting aside issues that might bring into question the power enjoyed by any one party; and where none of the parties have to live with the consequences; that such alliances are at best dangerously unequal and at worst a means of marginalizing those for whom political struggle is not just another campaign but a defence of livelihood.

Notes and References

1 Sekhar, R., "An Interview with Medha Patkar", The Eye, Vol.1, No.3, May-June 1992.

2 Dowie, M., "American Environmentalism: A Movement Courting Irrelevance", World Policy Journal, Winter 1991-92.

3 Ibid.

4 "Resolution of the 1991 Peoples's Forum on UNCED", International Peoples' Forum, Bangkok, October 1991.