Navigating the fault lines

If change is unavoidable, what are ICSOs’ options? How does the ICSO of the future look and how could today’s ICSOs turn themselves into that new role and shape? Obviously, nobody can give a definite answer to these questions but there are an increasing number of developments pointing at a few tangible options. The future of ICSOs will most probably be defined by how they navigate three major fault lines: The first one divides corporate and activist approaches, the second one runs between mitigating the effects of a failing paradigm or driving the transition into a new one and the third one divides national and international perspectives. How ICSOs navigate these fault lines will very much define their future scope and relevance. Let us briefly review all three in order to better understand what is at stake.

Corporate – activist

Let us start by looking at the size of some of the largest ICSOs. We can see that these organisations are really large by CSO standards and we note that all of them have grown over the last decade, most of them enormously. The table below compares the 1999 income figures of some of the most prominent development and humanitarian ICSOs with the figures of 2011/12. The data shows that over the last 12 years the organisations in average have tripled their size, some of them growing over 400%.

Organisation 1999 2011/12 Growth
(m US$)47 (m US$)48 %
World Vision 600 2,790 465
Save the Children 368 1,578 429
Médecins Sans Frontières 304 1,147 377
Plan 295 821 278
Oxfam 504 1,189 236
CARE 525 765 146
TOTAL INCOME / AVERAGE GROWTH 2,596 8,290 323

This success story means: more resources for the poor, for women and children, better coverage in emergencies, more training to partner organisations and many other positive developments. But so much more money also means an enormous strain on people, structures and decision making processes; it means that much more professional governance and management are required. ICSOs experienced the enormous strain their well-established systems and processes were subjected to by fast growing income and expanding activities. There were no sector-specific tools for handling the doubling, tripling or quadrupling flow of funds. ICSOs looked for help from the corporate sector. After some hesitation and once we overcame internal resistance we employed corporate consulting firms. We hired managers with a corporate background and used corporate systems in our IT, financial administration and logistics. We raised salary levels in order to attract expert managers with the professional skills required for working at a more complex level. Today most ICSOs look much more similar to corporations of a comparable size than they did ten or twenty years ago.

The consulting firm accenture not only observes ICSOs’ increasing use of corporate tools, they also point to business’ growing acceptance of their corporate social and environmental responsibility and governments’ willingness to involve business and civil society in addressing issues which traditionally were reserved for the state. Accenture talks about convergence between business, governments and CSOs in international deve-lopment.49 They recommend building effective multi-stakeholder cooperation on the basis of convergence and see this as an important factor in overcoming major challenges in international development.

Based on similar observations – ICSOs are becoming more and more comparable to business and government – many civil society activists see ICSOs throwing away their civil society credentials, giving up their links with grassroots and losing their direction altogether. A recent letter, endorsed by CEOs and senior managers of several ICSOs shows that the sector is becoming aware of the widening gap created by the professionalisation of ICSOs. The letter states: “A new and increasingly connected generation of women and men activists across the globe question how much of our energy is trapped in the internal bureaucracy and the comfort of our brands and organisations. They move quickly, often without the kinds of structures that slow us down. In doing so, they challenge how much time we – you and I – spend in elite conferences and tracking policy cycles that have little or no outcomes for the poor. They criticise how much we look up to those in power rather than see the world through the eyes of our own people. Many of them, sometimes rightfully, feel we have become just another layer of the system and development industry that perpetuates injustice.”50

The question which arises here is whether large and complex ICSOs can be managed and governed effectively while at the same time maintaining their activist roots and credentials. We are convinced that both are not only necessary but also possible. However, it will require many in-depth changes in the way ICSOs think about themselves, organise themselves and secure their own accountability. We will come back to these questions later in this book.

Mitigating the effects of a failing paradigm or driving the transition to a new one

Practically all ICSOs have been founded as a response to a very concrete problem: the lack of medical treatment of wounded soldiers in the battle of Solferino (Red Cross), starving children in Hungary, Austria and Germany after the World War I (Save the Children), a test of nuclear weapons on the island of Amchitka, Alaska (Greenpeace), etc. Not coincidentally all three (and many more) examples refer to the terrible effects of war. However, the three ICSOs mentioned above moved on to extend their activities to many more fields of work. For instance, they engaged in projects helping the victims of natural disasters, saving children from slavery and prostitution, protecting whales and stopping chemical pollution. Over the years ICSOs learned how to increase the effectiveness of their projects by bringing many individual projects together in strategically aligned programmes. But even programmes usually address symptoms rather than their causes. ICSOs have been aware of this discrepancy from the very beginning and therefore campaigned for changes to and introduction of new national and international laws.

These advocacy activities marked a step up from the individual case towards a general rule. However, taking this step was not uncontested. I remember discussions we had in Save the Children about the merits of advocacy. Those national affiliates that were active in advocacy explained that it was not good enough to try to rescue one generation of children after another from starvation, exploitation and abuse: we had to stop the causes of children’s suffering rather than curing the effects. Other affiliates pointed out that it would be cynical to let children die because we were spending our money on attending conferences rather than feeding them. Obviously both perspectives are driven by honest concern for children and both are defendable. Save the Children, like most other ICSOs, came to the conclusion that they needed to do both, run quality programmes helping suffering children and influence political decision making to address the causes of that suffering. Today, many ICSOs have taken the next step towards addressing causes: they run public campaigns in support of their policy agenda.

However, as we have discussed before, our failing development paradigm leads us to overstepping our planet’s boundaries and thus addressing the causes means system change. This means the connection between addressing symptoms and causes is shifting: In the past we could address both the symptoms and the causes of our main challenges within the existing system. Now we have the choice between mitigating the effects of our failing development paradigm and driving the transition into a new one. Thus addressing the causes becomes a much bigger act which requires much more courage and the preparedness to aim for fundamental change which necessarily will have to start at our own organisations.

Let me give you an example: Recently a senior representative from one of the ICSOs which is intensely involved in humanitarian assistance pointed to the discrepancy between cause and effect. He provocatively said: “In business terms we should be happy with climate change and all the other looming disasters: they create ever more and bigger emergencies which mean more work and more money for our organisation.” This comment does not describe a possible future scenario; this is what we experience already today. The number and severity of natural disasters is increasing steadily, and not only humanitarian organisations but also insurance companies around the world have solid proof of this development. Even if we do get serious about climate change today and stop our unsustainable way of exploiting our planet immediately, we would still have to face stronger and more frequent disasters for some time to come. Against this background, more and better emergency relief is a moral obligation and an opportunity for ICSOs. On the one hand, leaving the field of humanitarian intervention in protest against the policies which create the disasters would deprive the victims of emergencies of the help they urgently need, and it would contravene ICSOs’ missions.

On the other hand, just engaging in more and bigger emergencies without addressing their man-made causes would expose ICSOs to the criticism that they are benefiting from the global humanitarian crisis rather than trying to prevent it from happening. In simple terms: a humanitarian ICSO can hardly afford to just step in any longer, when the crisis occurs they need to have an answer to the question; what have they done to protect the environment in order to prevent the crisis? As our planetary crisis unfolds, addressing its causes will be paramount to all ICSO activities. Just managing the fallout will neither do justice to ICSOs’ missions nor meet the public’s expectations. ICSOs will have to rebalance and recalibrate the way in which they mitigate the effects of our present dysfunctional paradigm and drive the transition into a new one.

National – international

The third fault line is even more complex than the other two as it contains at least five dimensions: individual, local, national, international and global. But let’s start with the main existing fault line: national versus international. Nearly all of today’s leading ICSOs were founded as national rather than international organisations. Only because they were successful at national level, have they been imitated in other countries. And once organisations of the same name had appeared in several countries they usually got together to form an international umbrella organisation. This history has led most ICSOs to constitute themselves in a range of federated models where most of the power remains at the national level. This was not a major problem in the beginning. But it turns into a serious challenge in a globalising world where the fault line between national and international perspectives quickly deepens.

ICSOs’ global leaders are fully aware of the growing gap between the demands of a globalised world and the realities of the traditional power allocation: when the International Civil Society Centre brought together the global chairs of the major ICSOs for the very first time, we asked them what their main challenges were and what they wanted to focus their discussion on. The answer was surprisingly consensual: ICSOs’ international governance. The chairs, who had never met before and had rather limited knowledge about the other organisations, were very astonished to find that practically all of them had difficulties in securing consistent international strategy, policies, programmes and branding across all of their affiliates. Most of them were looking for a way that they could secure much faster, more consistent and more effective decision making at the international level. Meanwhile ICSO governance has been the subject of many discussions at the Centre but the challenge has not disappeared.

Let us briefly look at another dimension which is increasingly coming into sight: the individual level. As we discussed in our chapter on disruption, digital communication has empowered the individual and created the basis for very different approaches to project support and campaigning. Today, activism no longer needs well-established organisational structures to flourish. On the contrary, many activists would see such structures as a hindrance rather than an asset. The question, how ICSOs will redefine their relationship with the individual – donors, recipients, activists, etc. – will very much define their future. Secondly there is the local level. ICSOs have come under increasing criticism for not involving local CSOs enough in shaping their policies and taking their decisions. Often ICSOs are challenged to leave – or at least share – their space at international negotiation tables with local civil society representatives. While I disagree with this demand – governments do not send a village politician and business does not send a local shop owner either – ICSOs clearly need to find ways to better reflect local needs and expectations.