Civil society must change itself before it can change the world


Danny Sriskandarajah, Secretary General of the Civicus global civil society network, has some heretical thoughts Danny Civicusabout CSOs putting their own house in order

This week, more than 900 activists from more than 100 countries are meeting in Bogotá, Colombia for International Civil Society Week. We will come together at what feels like a momentous and difficult time for civil society. My colleagues have documented serious threats to civic freedoms in over 100 countries, funding streams for CSOs are drying up, and many of those who dare to speak truth to power are being silenced. Our gathering will take place in the shadow of two brutal murders: that of Berta Caceres in Honduras and Sikhosiphi Rhadebe in South Africa.

While we must find ways of pushing back against these incursions into civic space, it seems the time has also come for more inward reflection. Having been in this job for three years and having met hundreds of CIVICUS members across the spectrum of civil society, I think the sector’s internal challenges – some of them discussed openly, many often left unsaid – are just as important as any external threat.

Many of these challenges stem from the unbalanced distribution of power, resources and profile within civil society: an imbalance between big and small CSOs, between organised bits of civil society and the rest, and between actors in the Global North and Global South.

Sometimes I worry that we in professionalised civil society are simply replicating what is going on in the capitalist economy. We focus on growth, we push our ‘brands’ at almost all costs, and often see each other as competition rather than colleagues. One CEO of a big development NGO once told me that his aim over the coming five years was to go from number 6 to number 3 in the sector.

The result of this growth fetishism has been that the big have been getting bigger – multi-billion dollar NGOs that are now global brands. This comes with welcome economies of scale and scope: we can deliver bigger, more stable programmes across the globe; we can lower the cost of raising marginal income; we can invest in innovation. But my worry is that that consolidation undermines diversity, a unique and essential characteristic of civil society.

ICSW2016_live-banner_en-esThe problem is that resources are limited. One could argue that in countries like the UK, private giving and public aid are close to peaking – so growth in one organisation probably means shrinkage somewhere else. That may be good in terms of efficient delivery; not so good if you want to support participation, or if you see a vibrant civil society as a good in itself.

But, we can’t just blame the big boys. If we work in professionalised civil society, we’re all at risk of being infected by corporatism. We are schooled to put our organisational interests first; if we do work with others, we often do so in an instrumentalised way. We spend too much time talking to ourselves, and not enough engaging those who choose not to work through organised civil society channels. We recognise the importance of social movements, of volunteer groups, and spontaneous formations of civil society, but we struggle to interact with them.

All of this is overlaid with a fundamental and noxious North-South imbalance. So much power, money and profile is still held in Northern-founded, Northern-funded bits of civil society. For every one aid dollar given direct to a Southern NGO, twelve are channelled through NGOs in the North. Our playing field is far from level. Certainly, it is far from reflecting the ideals that most of us share.

In our work, we strive to challenge power imbalances across our societies, economies and governments. I’m just not sure how effective we can be until we’ve got our own house in order.

In my experience, there are very few spaces in which folks in civil society are having these conversations in a meaningful and constructive way. We hope that our meeting in Bogota will help, but 900 people spending four days together in the Andean high plateau is nowhere near enough. All of us in civil society, especially those of us who have the privilege of being paid to do what we are passionate about, have to take concrete steps to pursue a more diverse and multi-polar civil society, foster new ways of organising and mobilising, and strengthen the linkages between us all.

Follow discussions in Bogota, 25-28 April at ICSW Live or via #ICSW2016 on social media. Also Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah (@civicussg) and @CIVICUSalliance.


Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our Privacy Policy.

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.


5 Responses to “Civil society must change itself before it can change the world”
  1. Duncan Green

    Hi Danny,
    just got off the plane from a week in India, which included a lot of discussions on the dilemmas facing Indian CSOs. They face a pincer movement of being pushed towards service delivery and away from advocacy by government pressure on civil society space, and falling international funding as India’s economy grows. One of the striking features of the discussion was the lack of any serious attention to domestic resource mobilization (we talk about DRM all the time for governments, but not for civil society). Some CSOs have built a business model that generates revenues (eg SEWA, or various microfinance-funded institutions in Bangladesh), but the rest remain focussed on international funding, even thought that makes them easy targets for accusation of being tools of foreign powers. 7% growth may not be reaching India’s poor, but it throws up huge amounts sloshing around in terms of religious giving, corporate CSR funds etc – surely one way to strengthen domestic CSRs is to encourage them to raise money domestically? I feel international NGOs have paid far too little attention to this, as I argued on
    If this is incoherent, please blame the jetlag!

  2. Last week I was in The Netherlands to beginning to write a new Barefoot Guide – working title ‘on Inclusive Development’. I found myself writing about changing ourselves to change the world i.e. starting from looking at ourselves in the mirror and through others’ eyes. Why would marginalised and excluded people trust us when they see we embody the systems that exclude them? How do we do this? I have used and found this film on expressive change inspiring and motivating – it also has some useful tools on how to change –

  3. Leigh

    Would there be any raw data available to support the claim “For every one aid dollar given direct to a Southern NGO, twelve are channelled through NGOs in the North.”?

  4. One of the problems with the INGO/NGOs /CSOs transnational system is that you/they are not adressing the “pooest of the poor” challenge. The neo-liberalist approaches and priorities of the Bretton Woods institutions, the elitist UN organisations and bilateral agencies are being copied reating more poverty. And they are primarily tying their aid/investments to own national business interests. Why: in order to obtain funding and thus becoming copies of the statal SIDAs, NORADs, DFIDs, DANIDAs and BMZs . The foreign NGO caravan is primarily cloning itself through country “filials” instead of supporting local movements and organisations that advocate the interests of the marginalized poor and deliver services to them. Poverty oriented ODA to the urban poor – an increasing 1 billion people according to the latest UN statistics- today consists of approx. 5% of the total. Concessional lending is far less than 10%. Support peoples’ movements directly.

  5. Danny

    Thanks for posting this piece Duncan. I hope it was useful to your readers. Agreed on your point on the importance on domestic resources. In fact, we have been interviewing Southern philanthropists to get a sense of how they see civil society, particularly those of us interested in social justice. We hope to publish this in the coming months.

    To Leigh, you can find the latest ODA stats on funds to and through NGOs at

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.