Lars Gustavsson

30 August, 2016

Futures work in the CSO sector: Where we stand and where we are headed

We need a new type of civil society organisation (CSO), one that is free of the constraints, mindsets, limitations and compromise of today’s norm. The prevalent ‘charity/aid’ model is clearly creaking; it’s failing both to capture the imagination of the emerging generations, and to enable sustainable transformation for people in poverty. The co-dependency between donor and aid organisation stifles innovation and creativity. Yet, we’ll never ignite the new from within the old; we need to start over with a clean slate.

Architects and entrepreneurs must convene to frame the new: naming, connecting, nourishing, and illuminating the required elements of the ‘beyond aid’ CSO. We’re fairly sure we know what some of the ingredients are: market-based mechanisms; long term capital; donors becoming investors; voices of the poor in the driving seat; disciplined and transparent intermediation spending; and real impact measurement that has meaning to front-line communities and investors alike. Other ingredients are still to be uncovered.[1]

Development-aid goals have all been structured around a set of ‘reductive’ ideologies which have in the best cases moved marginalised societies from poor to maybe less poor – and where the reduction of some threat has been the bonus prize. Led by false premises, it is impossible to achieve prosperity and well-being by reducing something: this comes only by adding.  Although charity was never designed to address root-causes, or play the principle role in addressing macro-level systems and structures, this is precisely where the whole aid sector has made its home.

On the other hand, the world has seen tremendous advances in perhaps a quarter of the world’s nations, each having affirmed another path – an ‘additive’ set of ideologies, where these have rejected the idea of spending eight hours per day asking ‘how can we reduce poverty?’, but rather ‘how can we achieve prosperity?’. ‘Additive’ ideologies invite the charting of a completely different path where investment models dominate. This ideology assumes a starting point of plenty as opposed to one of empty. It readily identifies local resources, local capacities and capabilities, and harnesses the best of society.  It readily invites investment from local, regional, and global actors.

Perhaps the true answer lies somewhere between, where market-mechanisms, public-mechanisms, and societal-mechanisms leverage each other’s best practices.

The traditional CSO, constructed in the fashion of post-World War II realities, and slowly adapted over the decades, is still not a fit-for-purpose instrument that adequately responds to the issues of the 21st Century.  Addressing root-causes, structures and systems, ideologies and identities, poverty and vulnerability, state and macro development agendas, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and urban fragility cannot be done by today’s CSOs, nor addressed through today’s charity-based mechanisms.

Whatever emerges as the most appropriate set of choices, here are some core ingredients that, in my opinion, should become the minimum set of imperatives for an organisation – especially for those within the CSO sector who seek to make a material difference beyond that of the current aid paradigm. These core imperatives will point us in the right direction. Organisations should:

  • Be driven by market-based mechanisms, leveraged by philanthropy, enabled by technology;
  • Be legitimate convenors and catalysts, supporting transformation as an open network of networks;
  • Facilitate global and local exchange of life-cycle value;
  • Utilise open-platform mechanisms that create shared ownership, and be supported by clear discovery and delivery management support vehicles;
  • Drive action defined by root-cause issues, addressing systems and structures with results measured by a distributed return on investment (ROI) mapped against the Global Development Framework;
  • Establish a new emergent pricing mechanism, showing true costs of actions/inactions by private, governmental, and CSO actors;
  • Work within a long-term view taking into account planetary boundaries.


As societal sectors are bending or converging to a more common middle, new mechanisms and platforms will be formed. It is precisely for these reasons that more scanning of futures is necessary by all global development sectors in order to create and optimise emerging development actions. Evidence-based scanning, early observation scanning, and shared analytics can only sharpen the set of tools we have, and those that have yet to be developed or deployed.

This blog is the second in our series on Scanning the Horizon – based on a project of the same name facilitated by the International Civil Society Centre, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. For more information on the exciting new endeavour, or joining our community, please visit our website or get in touch with Marianne Henkel (

[1] Content cited from working papers on “Beyond Aid” with original drafts by Matthew Frost

Leave a comment