Let’s dismount

Let us briefly recapitulate the course of this book so far: As we approach the planetary boundaries we reach the limits of the resources earth can supply and of the pollution the planet can absorb. And, as the idea of affluence for all is not viable, we will have to consider questions of fair distribution of the limited resources and absorption capacities for pollution. A change in key aspects of the world’s dominant industrial civilisation is unavoidable. This change can happen peacefully and in an organised fashion or chaotically and possibly driven by violence. Civil society will play a key role in conducting this change. Whether ICSOs will be able to contribute to the transition, very much depends on whether they are capable of fundamentally changing themselves. ICSOs’ readiness to change will also be tested from a different angle: a number of disruptive changes to our sector are building up at the moment. There are a range of options as to in which direction ICSOs may change, but staying where they are today does not seem to be a viable one. ICSOs that are unable or unwilling to change will probably fall victim to disruption, but, more importantly, they will miss the chance to revitalise their mission, reinvigorate the organisation and become a driver of disruption and a leader of the transition towards a just, equitable and sustainable world.

Against this background we looked at the fault lines between corporate or activist approaches, between addressing symptoms or causes, between national and global perspectives. And, finally, we briefly sketched three different directions ICSOs may take in the future. We found that in order to play a meaningful role at the global level ICSOs need to overcome their national past and develop much more effective global strategies, management and governance. Today, there are literally millions of local and national CSOs working in practically every location worldwide, but there is only a handful of ICSOs with a global reach. If these few organisations do not effectively contribute to the global debate and to global decision making, who else in civil society can and should? The fact that most ICSOs still behave like a coalition of national CSOs means that they cannot optimally fulfil their global tasks. If ICSOs want to be influential global actors they will have to fundamentally change.

Many ICSOs have been founded as agents of change: the Red Cross created humanitarian rules for wars and developed approaches and infrastructure for supporting the victims of violence and natural disasters; Save the Children established the concept of children’s rights; Greenpeace introduced the use of non-violent resistance and campaigns for the protection of the environment; Amnesty International narrowed the gap between the globally acknowledged concept of human rights and their practical implementation; and Transparency International firmly established the fight against corruption on the global agenda. In these and many other examples, ICSOs have driven change. Even though they come from a range of different directions and promote different world views and approaches, all ICSOs work for a better world: driving change is part of their DNA. However, changing themselves is quite a different story. If you look at the key features of ICSOs such as vision, mission, strategy, key programmes, management and governance you will find surprisingly little change, and many in the sector complain that their organisations are too conservative and very difficult to change. My own explanation for ICSOs’ reluctance to change themselves sees the strong ethical foundations as the main reason. Instinctively all of us want to preserve the ethics of our organisations and suspiciously look at each and every major change as a threat to our holy grail. Not being willing and able to change is probably the biggest single danger ICSOs face in a situation where change is imminent and unavoidable. But riding a dead horse doesn’t take you very far…

So, let’s dismount and take a good look around. ICSOs have been founded as part of an existing, seemingly well-functioning system. They aimed to address specific gaps of that system but did not question the system as such. They believed and propagated that the lives of the European and North-American middle classes were desirable and achievable for all people worldwide. Today we know that our planet does not provide the resources to secure affluent lives for everybody and preserve the ecosystems and guarantee our children and grandchildren a comfortable future. In our present system we will find it difficult to achieve even one of these three objectives, let alone all three of them together. If we want to succeed, we need an in-depth system change. And if ICSOs take their missions seriously they will have to work for system change. However, if we look at the revolutions of the past we will find that they were rarely driven by existing institutions. ICSOs are existing and well-established institutions and as such part of the system which needs to change. ICSOs are part of the problem, but can they still turn themselves into part of the solution? I believe that ICSOs have a unique opportunity to turn themselves into global drivers of the transition. Some may have the courage and farsightedness to step up to the challenge, some may move in a different direction and some may silently fade away. In our next chapter we will specifically look at the first category: the courageous ICSOs that will embark on a journey of change, that will dare to re-invent themselves as dynamic drivers of the transition towards a sustainable and more equitable world. We will discuss the five key components of the change agenda they will have to take on and identify strategic steps on their way ahead.