Lila Buckley

2 August, 2016

Getting good at disruption: learning from Southern CSO leaders

Southern CSO leaders

Caption: Women from Paraguay’s Ita Guasu indigenous community discuss their community development plan. (Photo: USAID, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Mulugeta Gebru, Chief Executive of the Ethiopian civil society organisation (CSO) Jerusalem Children and Community Development Organisation (JeCCDO), was in a candid mood when we spoke to him about his rich leadership experience. Twenty years ago, he led JeCCDO through a challenging organisational shift from running orphanages to promoting community engagement. Today, like so many other Southern CSOs, JeCCDO faces new challenges, and the imperative to find new ways of doing things is as strong as ever.

“We have such deep experience, strong engagement, and good learning and processes … Big donors are telling us they want us to sustain ourselves, but no one is willing to invest in helping us stand by ourselves.” (Mulugeta Gebru, JeCCDO, Ethiopia)

Disruption and organisational uncertainty are daily facts of life for Southern CSOs. But many are having to focus on disruption in the present to ensure survival – let alone innovation and resilience – in the disrupted development futures that most anticipate.

It can’t simply be assumed that Southern organisations which thrive in the turbulence of daily life are also those that can anticipate and thrive in the disruption of the future. The challenge for International CSOs (ICSOs) is to square the circle between serving the lived reality of disruption in the present, and helping build stronger Southern CSOs for the future.

The dynamic of disintermediation that currently so preoccupies many ICSOs needs to be much more closely connected with empowerment of Southern CSOs.

“We no longer live in a static world. Those who survive are the ones who make this part of the everyday.” (Ousainou Ngum, Kenya)

Southern CSOs are forging ahead

We’ve been asking a range of Southern CSO leaders from low and middle income countries about their experiences of tackling disruptive organisational change. We’ve been looking at good and bad disruption (for it’s clear that both apply). And we’ve also been exploring in conversations what international CSOs could do to help more, and to help better, along the path to ‘getting good at disruption’.

There was plenty that was familiar in our conversations about organisational responses to disruption. We heard about experiments with new business models (like the Alliance for Responsible Mining’s income from Fairmined certification, or technology disruptor Kopernik’s Last Mile Consultancy); about bringing private sector know-how into boards and core staffing; about commitment to distributed leadership approaches that can empower staff in lean times (as with the African Model Forest Network); and the value of conscious organisational learning as a core capability (as practised by many of our interviewees – often against the odds).

“Our style of leadership is ‘distributed’: everything is based on personal responsibility; each one of us is a leader one way or another …”  (Mariteuw Chimère Diaw, Cameroon)

But what should international CSOs be doing to help?

ICSOs could help by playing a positive role in ensuring that lived experiences of disruption help to build ‘future-fitness’ among Southern CSOs. But our interviews also left us with some hefty questions about what it might take for ICSOs to be the best possible partners to Southern CSOs facing uncertainty and disruption.

First, partnerships with international CSOs are often a source, rather than a smoother, of disruption. An ICSO’s core funding can easily become a Southern CSO’s restricted funding.

“For local NGOs, it can be hard to access donors directly, so they have to rely on international NGOs – who make their own restrictions.” (Allan A. Calma, Pakistan)

Sudden changes of policy, campaign or funding direction (each of which featured in our interviews) make it difficult for Southern CSOs to chart clear strategic courses or to build sustainable organisational capacity to address disruption, and to disrupt in positive ways.

Second, resilience in Southern CSOs is a good thing. But it’s a mixture of adaptive resilience (bouncing back) and innovation (forging ahead in new directions) that’s needed. ICSOs could be more effective in their support, and could help to amplify the outcomes of Southern CSO-led disruptive innovation.

“Adaptation is dancing to somebody else’s music. Innovation is composing and playing your own music – and having the others dance to it.” (Alfredo del Valle, Chile)

Third, how many ICSOs partner with Southern CSOs as equals on issues of organisational (rather than project) strategy or learning? Our bet is not many.

“[International CSOs] should be here to support our work, not to be a bottleneck for it.” (Alda Salomão, Mozambique)

Where next?

Some pointers for ICSOs:

  • Consciously seek to share organisational development and strategy funding with Southern partners so that they can properly resource responses to disruption, and integrate systems for reflection and learning from these responses.
  • In grant-making or subcontracting and consortia be prepared to engage more deeply with Southern partners on how they want to do things.
  • Think about developing and piloting a funded facility to respond to partner requests for support or advice on organisational change.
  • Strengthen advocacy on the importance of Southern CSOs in implementing the Sustainable Development Goals

You can download a full report on our work so far from the IIED website, along with summary slide-decks for international CSOs and for DFID. In 2016, we’re convening a learning group for Southern CSO leaders, and taking a critical look at IIED’s own relationships with partners. Do drop us a line if you’d like to stay in touch.

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