Interview with Dr Feyzi Ismail, Convener of Summer School course ‘NGOs and Social Movements: The Politics of Protest and Change’

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your academic interests and research focus?

I finished my PhD in Development Studies at SOAS in 2013 with a thesis focused on analysing the relationship between the left parties and the NGOs in Nepal – two social forces that have had an enormous influence on the shape of political and social change in the country over the past three or so decades. I continue to write and research on Nepal and am currently working on two projects, one on the financialisation of development and the other on women’s labour in the construction industry. My academic interests also include social movement strategy in Britain and globally, the role of NGOs, neoliberalism and imperialism, and I teach courses on neoliberalism, the working poor and labour and social movements.


What led you to design the course ‘The Politics of Protest and Change’?

Pick up any newspaper on any given day and you will find reports of protests, strikes, demonstrations, occupations – some sort of resistance to capitalist crisis and the state of things, large or small, in practically any country around the world. So a course like this grounds these developments, considers some of the history behind the current wave of movement struggle and its pre-history: the end of the 1960s and the subsequent rise of neoliberalism. NGOs became key players in post-Cold War politics in the neoliberal era, and this course analyses their structural and ideological roles. At the same time, the course would be incomplete without a consideration of the movements that have been built to attempt to overcome the global problems we face – poverty, inequality, war, climate change etc.

NGO protest pic 2
Jim Aindow Photography

What do you think makes it distinctive from similar courses available at other summer schools?

Very few summer schools will offer courses such as this. But this course also brings with it a particular critical approach that is hard to find elsewhere. It involves academics who have done a great deal of thinking and writing about the issues they are teaching – democracy, civil society, humanitarian intervention and wider questions of social change – but who also possess vast experience of the issues covered in the course: NGOs, social movement organising, trade unions etc. It therefore combines theoretical knowledge and practical experience, supplemented with a range of activities, fieldtrips and documentaries. To draw on that wealth of knowledge, in the format offered, is priceless.


What are some of the activities and projects you have planned for this year’s summer school?

This year is a particularly special summer school because we have planned all the activities as in previous years but more. We will take students to visit the protest archives at the Bishopsgate Institute – the archivist there is outstanding and knows a lot about the material available. We will visit the British Library for a discussion about feminism and radical politics, and we will hear from Marion Molteno, a novelist who has written about aid work. We will watch two films – one on the politics of humanitarian aid, the other on democracy movements – and we will participate in the protest against Donald Trump’s visit to the UK. This protest will form the material for a photo essay that students will present in the final tutorials.


What makes London/SOAS a good place to study?

London in the summer comes alive and there is always a buzz at SOAS, whether cultural, political or social. SOAS is an amazing place to get to know, and it challenges and changes everyone who studies here. One of the highlights of the summer school at SOAS is that we organise a walking tour called Rebels and Radicals in 19th Century London which brings the content of this course to historical and contemporary London, and also situates the other courses in the summer school. London is not only one of the world’s biggest financial centres, but has also been a site of resistance – a city of pamphleteers, agitators, exiles and revolutionaries – which has at times changed the course of history.

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