Civil society must change itself before it can change the world
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.
The 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.