Patrick Watt

14 November, 2017

10 reflections on the big challenges to civil society

MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - NOVEMBER 01: during the first day of Global Perspectives 2017 conferences of the International Civil Society Center in the NH Hotel on November 01, 2017 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images)

I recently returned from the Global Perspectives conference in Mexico City, an annual gathering of civil society leaders from around the world, for three days of discussion on the big global trends, and how they’re impacting on the work that we do. It was a diverse group, spanning the international development, governance and environment sectors from across the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia. It included big, mid-size and small international CSOs, platforms, and national organisations, plus a smattering of participants from donors, foundations, think tanks and academia.

Despite our very different contexts, and the spread of issues on which we’re working, there were some clear themes that emerged from the meeting. I’ve picked 10 of them:

  1. Stay mission driven. In a world where there’s growing distrust of institutions, and where people connect with causes, we’re finished unless we keep sight of the change we want in the world, and find effective ways of communicating that vision to publics. Too often, CSOs organise themselves around solutions, regardless of the problem that needs to be fixed, and get too heavily tied to the agendas of major institutional funders.
  2. Scale and sustainability. These are the holy grails for any change-maker (it was good to hear from a World Bank official that it’s also a challenge for the world’s largest development lender). Even the efforts of the largest civil society organisations are a drop in the ocean, so unless we take our catalytic role more seriously, we are never going to achieve change on the scale that’s needed to end extreme poverty, protect the planet and realise fundamental rights. This requires us to be much more deliberate in how we leverage governments and the private sector.
  3. Who are the change-makers? There has been lots of social and economic development in the last quarter century, especially in Asia, but how much of it is down to the development sector? Several speakers talked about the need for humility and a sense of proportion from civil society about what we achieve through our programmes. There was also debate about the extent to which the change that’s happened has primarily been driven from ‘above’, through technical fixes (with one speaker urging CSOs to be more ‘politically smart’), or from ‘below’ through popular pressure for change. In practice, we need a two-pronged approach, but it’s often difficult to pull off both these approaches in the same organisation.
  4. The perils and opportunities of size. There were searching questions about whether big international CSOs are best placed to achieve impact at scale. Federated international CSOs like my own have spent a lot of the last decade building more unified organisational structures. But this has sometimes also made us unwieldy and cumbersome, and ill-prepared to cope with disruption. On the positive side, larger CSOs can, in principle, achieve economies of scale; bring global perspective and resources to local problems; and act as a buffer between funders and genuine social movements.

    MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - NOVEMBER 01: during the first day of Global Perspectives 2017 conferences of the International Civil Society Center in the NH Hotel on November 01, 2017 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images)
    MEXICO CITY, MEXICO – NOVEMBER 01: during the first day of Global Perspectives 2017 conferences of the International Civil Society Center in the NH Hotel on November 01, 2017 in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Manuel Velasquez/Getty Images)
  5. Coherence and context. Several participants raised the tension between ‘adaptive’ models and ‘global-scale’ models. Lots of international CSOs are creating standardised programme approaches that they can then pitch to prospective donors. The danger is that unless these are applied intelligently, we lose the ability to test hypotheses, and allow learning from failure. Some participants cautioned against us over-claiming what we already know does and doesn’t work, and emphasised the need to take proper account of the diversity of local contexts in which we work.
  6. Managing disruption. There were differences of view about the extent to which disruption was coming, or already upon us: from shifting donor demands, to shrinking civic space, to the growing ability of individuals to support their favoured cause directly, without the mediation of an CSO. What was agreed is that in a fast-changing world we need to be clearer about when it’s useful for international CSOs to act as middle men, and that it’s difficult to balance the sometimes contradictory demands of different funders in terms of the kind of intermediary they want us to be.
  7. Power matters. Several participants, especially those from organisations which receive donor funding via international CSOs, raised the importance of us being more honest about the power that comes with money, and the balance between accountability to funders, and to partners and communities with whom we work. Some people spoke of international CSO’s entering new markets for public fundraising and cannibalising local civil society, and of the risk that major international CSOs operate as a cartel with institutional funders. At the same time, there was a recognition that many donors are looking to shift international CSO cost ratios, and to get more money to direct programming and advocacy – and that this is a trend that’s set to continue.
  8. Getting the right revenue mix. In a world where institutional funding for civil society is often stagnant or falling, unrestricted mass-market income is gold dust: it enables CSOs to innovate, make genuine strategic choices, and go into sectors and contexts that are neglected by traditional donors. For national CSOs, fundraising locally helps to blunt the accusation that they are a front for foreign interests, at a time when this charge is increasingly being used to justify repressive regulation. If people in growing middle-income markets gave the same share of GDP to CSOs as happens in the UK and South Korea, it could inject another $300 billion into civil society organisations by 2030. But chasing the mass market dollar/peso/rupee is challenging, with several participants commenting on the challenge of building a culture of giving to CSOs in countries where none currently exists.
  9. Don’t (only) talk to yourself. A speaker from Greenpeace encouraged the conference to spend less time talking to people who fervently agree with our take on the world, and spend more time engaging non-believers and agnostics. This is the only way we can grow our work, increase impact and lock-in change. It’s also a useful discipline, in that it forces us to stress-test whether what we say is correct, and what we do is effective.
  10. Ride waves. In an increasingly digital world where campaigns bubble up from below, and people organise horizontally, the challenge for many CSOs is not to create waves, but to learn how to ride them. Unexpected events, whether an economic crash, a sudden change of government, or a new technology, can be a powerful window for change if civil society organisations can be agile enough to respond, and pragmatic enough to follow as well as lead.

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