What does the future hold for civil society organization?

I’ve been struggling to make sense of the changing landscape for civil society organizations, North and South, and could do with your help. Here are some initial thoughts, but please send in your own, plus useful references:

One door opens, another shuts
There are contradictory and ambiguous trends for civil society at national and global levels. On the plus side:GCE_campaign
· Growing size, strength and sophistication at national level and globally of CSOs of all shapes, sizes and coalitions. (For an example, see previous post on the Global Campaign for Education)
· Recognition from other actors (international institutions, aid donors, TNCs) of the importance of CSOs as partners and stakeholders

But on the negative side, according to a new report by Civicus, the crackdown in countries such as Ethiopia, Zambia and India has accelerated in 2009-10, affecting some 90 countries,:

“What began as a knee jerk reaction to a horrific event in 2001 (9/11), assumed a life of its own by the end of the decade. The world is presently witnessing a cascade of laws and regulatory measures to restrict the rights of citizens to freely express their views, associate and assemble. Peaceful demonstrators, activists, journalists, human rights defenders and ordinary citizens are increasingly facing motivated prosecution, harassment, physical abuse and threats to their lives for challenging well-entrenched power structures. The proffered justifications range from counter-terrorism to national security, cultural relativism to national sovereignty and government ownership of development processes as opposed to democratic ownership.”

The rise of the BRICS has had similarly ambiguous impacts, giving greater global prominence to civil society-led change in countries such as India and Brazil, and challenging the Washington Consensus previously opposed by so many CSOs, but also providing alternative, no-strings-attached sources of investment and diplomatic support that have made it easier for anti-democratic governments to ignore Western pressures to democratize.

In the North, the shift to the right in Europe and the US has had ambiguous results. Cutbacks have encouraged 2010-07-23-Big-Societygovernments such as the UK to highlight the role of the ‘Big Society’, including (at least rhetorically) a central role for CSOs. But this role is frequently restricted to service delivery, rather than advocacy – there may be a larger share of a dwindling aid budget available to CSOs, but it is likely to have a political price tag. Aid volumes are likely to stagnate or even fall, if history is any guide, leaving development NGOs with a choice between a defensive ‘stick to your promises’ campaign, a push for innovative forms of financing (eg Robin Hood Tax, tax havens), a rebalancing towards quality of aid rather than quantity, or a shift in focus towards domestic resource mobilization (commodity royalties, domestic tax reform).

So how does the zeitgeist feel to you?

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Comments

7 Responses to “What does the future hold for civil society organization?”
  1. May I ask why you think the rise of BRICS challenges the ‘Washington Consensus’? To quote Yang Yao, ‘The End of the Bejing Consensus…’Foreign Affairs, Feb 2, 2010, http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/65947/the-end-of-the-beijing-consensus: ‘But, in fact, over the last 30 years, the Chinese economy has moved unmistakably toward the market doctrines of neoclassical economics, with an emphasis on prudent fiscal policy, economic openness, privatization, market liberalization, and the protection of private property. Beijing has been extremely cautious in maintaining a balanced budget and keeping inflation down. Purely redistributive programs have been kept to a minimum, and central government transfers have been primarily limited to infrastructure spending. The overall tax burden (measured by the ratio of tax revenue to GDP) is in the range of 20 to 25 percent. The country is the world’s second-largest recipient of foreign direct investment, and domestically, more than 80 percent of its state-owned enterprises have been released to private hands or transformed into publicly listed companies’. (Brazil seems to have moved that way too, and so has India. Only leaves Russia, with its mafia-like governance, as as a possible dissenter from the ‘WC’.) What is different here from the prescripts of the ‘WC’?

    Duncan: Fair question Elisa, I think elements of the Washington Consensus (focus on growth, role of markets) have been carried across, but others (eg liberalization, esp of finance) have been dropped. See my post on the Seoul Consensus for more: http://www.oxfamblogs.org/fp2p/?p=3983

  2. Hi Duncan,

    Thanks for this post. I think this issue often gets more attention in human rights circles than in international development circles, which is strange given our emphasis in working through southern partner organisations. The Civicus report is useful overview for us, but we would like to see more attention to the more subtle forms of restricting civil society space, and especially how these impact our effectiveness on the ground. Legislation limiting fundraising and area of activity of CSOs has sprung up in a number of countries over the past two years.

    Currently all eyes are on Cambodia (see our blog post http://cafodpolicy.wordpress.com/2011/01/13/keeping-cambodian-civil-society-on-the-road/).

    Conversations about how best to react to shrinking space, but also how to create an “enabling environment” for CSOs, will be more and more important in the coming years. CSOs both north and south do need regulation, but the kind that help not hinder.

    Janet
    CAFOD Policy

  3. I recently wrote a post arguing that rather than being the lowest common denominator of international development assistance, it’s time to recognize local indigenous organizations as vital to supporting genuine, demand-driven development that can genuinely challenge power asymmetries and unleash social change. Why?

    1) Local indigenous organizations are key to the elusive “scale-up.”


    2) Local indigenous organizations have capacities that larger aid agencies just don’t have.


    3) Local indigenous organizations have vital expertise about how poor people cope day-to-day.


    4) Local indigenous organizations are better positioned to make communities more resilient and adaptive.

    5) Local indigenous organizations fill existing gaps in the government and international aid sectors.

    Read more: http://www.how-matters.org/2010/11/08/missing-from-diy-aid-debate/

    Some of the larger international NGOs working out of a rights-based approach have begun to recognise the importance of supporting local organisations and social movements to be sovereign. But despite the speak of “rights” we continue to witness Southern organisations or “partners” being assessed and rebuilt into more professional organisations that lose their character and represent only the interests of the community that align with funding or Northern NGO guidelines.

    Yet there are many initiatives, programmes and projects that hold great promise if practitioners in the sector can operationalise a deeper respect for what is local and indigenous, resulting in a subtlety of practice to give thoughtful, wise, and careful support to local organizations where it is needed. See: http://www.how-matters.org/2011/01/13/small-grants-part-2/

    This requires that Northern NGOs pay more attention to the concept of organisation itself and the practice of facilitating the development of authentic and sovereign local organisations and social movements. Global economic analysis is important but I believe that it is this “generalist” discipline that needs to be more widely learnt and become more central to the practice of the development sector as a whole.

    The Barefoot Guide to working with organizations and social change is a great resource to challenge development practitioners’ approaches. Read more at: http://www.barefootguide.org.

  4. A few random thoughts in no particular order:

    – Interesting how the NGO accountability debate sort of evaporated – you never hear about it now

    – Think there will be a big shift towards members expecting more participation and control – they want to do more than just donate and send in the odd campaign postcard (Q: do campaigns like Avaaz.org signify a shift towards this, or not that

    – Interesting question of whether single issues are dead and we’re moving instead towards broader values coalitions (c.f. MoveOn)

    – Are we witnessing the revival of what’s basically the anti-globalisation movement, in a new anti-austerity guise?

    – Social network technologies and activism: we ain’t seen nothing yet

    – Coalitions will increasingly be where it’s at – raising question what forms of coordination will work best (MPH at one end of spectrum as uber-command and control model; Climate Camp at the other as let a thousand flowers (and messages and advocacy asks) bloom

  5. Duncan is back and in full swing. Thanks for this post.

    The government has responsibility (duty bearer) for delivering services. They could outsource some of those services.
    The role of the civil society is to hold the government to account, in order to make sure the members get the services they think they have a right on.
    It is only when rights are asked, or even wrestled from the authorities, they will be obtained.

    The Aid Architecture bypasses this process by delivering directly to the poor (rights holder), through dependable local NGOs which are nearly never membership based.

    This means that, while poverty might be reduced in the short run, power relations are untouched.
    Moreover, as civil society organises against “the Authority”, the NGOs will organise against the “project grant” they can receive. A fragmentation of society: it is not necessary to strengthen the collective bargaining power against the national government or the local government, it is more efficient to organise on the neighbourhood level and get a grant.

    Haiti looms on the horizon, but this pattern, with the strengthening of the NGO type organisation and weakening of the membership based collective bargaining organisations seems a general patter where there are donor darlings.

    The services are offered to the poor in a paternalistic way, and delivery is sketchy as it is not a right obtained through struggle from the governemnt, but a gift by a foreigner.

  6. toby quantrill

    Hi Duncan

    It’s obviously an extremely good question – and one that most of us in working the sector are asking ourselves. Or should be.

    I find it a bit strange that you do not mention some work that Oxfam is quite closely involved with, and is attacting quite a lot of attention (maybe not so much with hard core policy wonks?). The ‘Common Cause’ report:
    http://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/common_cause_report.pdf

    Obviously this is most relevant to civil society in richer societies, but would love to hear your thoughts on this report and its implications?

  7. Tim

    It isn’t only ‘professional’ civil society that is being squeezed in the current climate – but grassroots civil society too.

    In many ways it resemble’s what Naomi Klein called the Shock Doctrine – Economic neoliberalism being aided by a crack down on civil society. http://www.naomiklein.org/shock-doctrine

    The green movement has experienced this for many years – as shown by the recent discoveries of undercover police officers.

    Grassroots development activists are also faceing repression for actions as small as collecting petitions – http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/jim-cranshaw/freedom-bill-must-restore-right-to-campaign

    Now anti-cuts activists are coming under increasing surveillance and repression

    The upcoming Freedom Bill could be an opportunity to put some of this right – but the government keeps delaying it

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