Burkhard Gnärig

22 December, 2015

What did the year 2015 bring for international civil society organisations?

For the last five years, 2015 has held a special place on international civil society organisations’ (ICSOs) agenda. The development and climate communities have both worked key strategic trends of 2015 scribingtowards the UN meetings in New York and Paris where the global agenda for the coming decades would be set. But while we were preparing for these crucial events, the world hadn’t stopped moving – on the contrary, it went on changing at an ever faster pace. Here are the key strategic trends of 2015 as I see them:

1. The absence of effective global governance (and government) is becoming more painful by the day

Two major trends are causing increasing pain: Climate change and migration.

Climate change is rapidly turning into a source of concrete and immediate harm to people, especially to poor people, globally. The aggregated voluntary pledges of national governments in preparation for Paris add up universally to between +2.5 C and + 3.0 C. Given the experience that most governments don’t keep their promises, this provides a bleak picture for humanity’s future.

Migration is turning into a global phenomenon. Until very recently, migration has been mostly limited to the national and regional levels. With the exodus of millions of refugees from Syria and other countries towards Europe in 2015, migration has acquired a global dimension. With increasing pressure on limited global resources, this trend can be expected to accelerate significantly in the future.

In the absence of legitimate and powerful universal governance, the implementation of both the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the climate decisions will be entirely dependent on the farsightedness and goodwill of around 200 national governments. If ICSOs are serious in pursuing their missions towards a just, peaceful, and sustainable world, they must become much better at influencing all national governments, in a simultaneous and synchronised way, towards strategic global goals.

2. As authoritarian government is on the rise globally, the space for civic participation is shrinking

Over decades, we have seen that increasing living standards and growing stability in living conditions have enabled people to start fighting for their democratic freedoms and civic rights. Today, we can observe the opposite trend. A growing number of citizens around the world are willing to forego their democratic rights and accept, or even demand, a reduction in the space for civic participation, hoping that authoritarian governments can protect them better from persistent economic crises, the arrival of large numbers of migrants, or threats from terrorism.

In an increasing number of cases, civil society organisations that have always supported citizens in defending their rights against government restrictions, find that growing parts of the citizenship are in favour of reducing the space for civic participation. While local and national civil society activists and their organisations are most threatened by this development, ICSOs are increasingly coming into focus. Russia and India are two prominent examples of countries in which many ICSOs are perceived as “foreign agents” – not only by governments, but also by a significant number of citizens.

Local, national, and international civil society organisations need to work together much better not only in the defence of civic space against governments but, even more importantly, in the dialogue with citizens on their aspirations and fears, and on the value of democracy and civic rights.

3. Many ICSOs are strengthening the role of the Global South in their governance and management

The year 2015 has seen the acceleration of a trend which could already be observed in recent years: with their European and North American roots, and sometimes colonial past, most ICSOs understand that they need to find ways to diversify their management and governance in order to better reflect the work they do and the stakeholders they have. Organisations have chosen three main routes towards a more representative and legitimate set-up: some are systematically looking for Board members and senior managers in the Global South; some are inviting national organisations from the Global South to become affiliates of their federations; some are moving parts of their global secretariats to locations in the Global South; and some are pursuing all three approaches simultaneously.

There is no question that it has taken ICSOs far too long to come to terms with a post-colonial multi-polar world, and the present trend towards a balanced global representation is very welcome. However, moving secretariats from Europe to Africa or complementing US-American, British and German dominance in the federation with Indian, Chinese and Brazilian, one increases diversity and legitimacy but does not necessarily improve ICSOs’ performance at the global level.

ICSOs’ future will not only be decided by the question whether they are truly representative of the global community, but also by the one whether they are able to bring this diverse community together behind strategic policies for the planet, and not just a weak compromise between the interests of their most powerful national affiliates.

4. ICSOs’ incomes have been increasing, but recently sources of income have been drying up

At the International Civil Society Centre, we are producing an annual income overview of the 30 largest ICSOs. Our latest update of this list – which is mainly based on the organisations’ annual reports from 2013 and 2014 – shows an increase from a total of approximately €18bn. to almost €19bn. While this growth is distributed unequally across different organisations – some have stagnated and others have even been shrinking – it reflects a vibrant and highly successful sector.

However, we have seen several developments recently which indicate that, for the future, a number of sources of ICSOs’ incomes are not secure. In several European countries, (new) governments have dramatically reduced the financial support they provide for ICSOs’ projects in development cooperation. Some governments have announced that they will use development funds to finance the reception, accommodation, and integration of refugees entering their countries. Increasingly, funding is being channelled directly to organisations in the South. Altogether, this appears to indicate that in many countries, government funding for ICSOs will shrink significantly over the next few years.

Over the past 12 months, the Centre’s work on new business models for ICSOs has been discussed widely. Many colleagues agree that a reduction of income from individual donations has to be expected as well – and some ICSOs are experiencing this already. Consequently, ICSOs are looking for new sources of income. However, new income streams will most likely also mean different approaches towards the organisations’ missions, different activities, partners and programmes. Thus, developing new business models doesn’t mean finding new money for old programmes and projects, it means reinventing the way ICSOs approach their mission, starting with programmes and not with fundraising.

So, what does all of this mean for ICSOs’ future? I would very much like to hear your views: what are the exciting transformations your organisation is embarking on?


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