Foreign Policy

November 17, 2014; Foreign Policy

Foreign Policy’s annual list of global thinkers—the 100 people who most influenced what has been happening in the world over the past year—is out, and we always look through the nonprofit or NGO lens to see where these thinkers, activists, healers, and troublemakers connect to our sector. In a way, everyone on the list has an effect on nonprofits, but we’ve picked out a few for very explicit nonprofit interactions. In this sixth annual FP list, the nominees are grouped into categories:

  • Agitators: Amidst the assemblage of ISIS, Boko Haram, and other extremists in this group is Vladimir Putin. Do note that Putin’s government has been cracking down on civil society, ostensibly with a concern to keep track of and regulate the flow of foreign capital into domestic NGOs, but Putin’s deeper motivations aren’t hard to discern. A vibrant, independent civil society in Russia is a distinct challenge to an increasingly controlling, nationalist governmental apparatus. Just ask the women of Pussy Riot, whose attempted exercise of free speech earned them prison sentences and, since the release of the band’s Nadya Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina from prison, extensive monitoring by the Russian police, even to the point of Federal Security Service agents bugging Tolokonnikova’s favorite Internet café.
  • Decision-makers: National leaders such as Angela Merkel and Hassan Rouhani always affect nonprofits in their countries and others, but we want to take note of Aydan Özoğuz, the first Muslim woman to serve as a state minister in Germany. The daughter of two Turkish guest workers, Özoğuz is Germany’s new “integration minister,” with a mandate to “reimagine citizenship” and help all people in Germany, whether from long histories of German ancestors or new residents from Middle East and elsewhere, feel that they belong. For the immigration advocacy community’s long efforts in the U.S., which is supposed to be a “melting pot” for immigrants, Özoğuz’s mission has no American counterpart in a nation which maintains a large number of people whose xenophobia belies the history and importance of immigration in this country.
  • Naturals: There is an outsider quality to the nominees of this group, for the most part activists committed to protecting the environment from the depredations of climate change and other hazards. Notable in this list are Ruth Buendía, president of Central Asháninka del Río Ene, which had mobilized the Asháninka people of Peru to fight the construction of hydroelectric dams that would destroy their homelands, and Aleta Baun, known as “Mama Aleta,” who has campaigned on behalf of the Molo, an indigenous people in Indonesia, against the marble mining companies ravaging East Timor.
  • Challengers: Not surprisingly, civil society shows up strongly in FP’s group of thinkers who are “challengers”: Benny Tai, who co-founded Hong Kong’s Occupy Central with Love and Peace; Joshua Wong, the college freshman who founded the student movement called “Scholarism”; Leopoldo López, the head of the Popular Will party—more like a social movement—currently facing a long jail term for daring to criticize the Maduro government in Venezuela; Houcine Abassi, the leader of the Tunisian General Labor Union, who has helped forge a post-Arab Spring consensus in the country that gave birth to the protests across the Middle East while other nations have virtually disintegrated or returned to pre-Spring authoritarianism; and Thomas Piketty, the French economist who documented the wealth concentrations and inequities in the U.S. and Western Europe that have animated some of the thinking of nonprofits and foundations concerned about social change and justice. To find nonprofit leaders on the outside pressing for change in the private and public spheres is exactly where the nonprofit sector should be, as opposed to being a handmaiden to ruling cliques and business oligarchs.
  • Advocates: There is no group of global thinkers in the FP list that is as clearly representative of the global importance of civil society than FP’s list of advocates. The list includes: Wendy Young in Washington, D.C., whose organization, Kids in Need of Defense, links young immigrants who have crossed the U.S. border only to find themselves in immigration court with pro bono attorneys; Hanna Hopko of Civic Sector of the Euromaidan who has been fighting for democratic reforms in Ukraine; Lena Klimova, the LGBT activist who founded Children 404, a support group for gay teens, and environmental activist Yevgeny Vitishko, an environmental activist, who stood up against the political restrictions enforced by the Putin government against protests during the Sochi Winter Olympics; Biram Dah Abeid, whose Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement, has been fighting slavery in Mauretania; Gloria Amparo, Maritza Asprilla Cruz, and Mery Medina, three Colombian women who work with a volunteer group called Butterflies to support women who have been victims of Colombia’s long-running civil conflict; and Rami Abdul Rahman, who runs from exile the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and Hagai El-Ad, who took over B’Tselem, a prominent human rights organization in Israel (recently criticized by Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, for “aiding terror”), for their dogged efforts to document and provide information on the civilian casualties that have been the cost of the Syrian civil war and the Israeli invasion of Gaza. In the “chroniclers” section of the FP list, one might have added Farah Baker to the activists. The 16-year-old Baker is better known as @Farah_Gazan, with some 200,000 followers who monitored her tweets from Gaza throughout the Israeli military incursion.

Among others on this Foreign Policy list are civil society types among the “chroniclers,” “healers”, and “artists”, but the striking inclusions are those activists like Tai, Wong, Lopez, Abassi, Klimova, Vitishko, Abeid, Rahman, and El-Ad, who, among others, are the kind of civil society exemplars who put their lives on the line for the cause of social justice. Brave men, brave women, all worthy of honor, respect, and hopefully massive support.—Rick Cohen