There are no shortages of challenges facing civil society, but one that we don’t talk enough about is the relationship between the formal and informal parts of civil society. If civil society is to have to have any chance of tackling the biggest challenges facing the world, we have to work out to how to work together more effectively.
At International Civil Society Week 2017 — a global gathering of some 700 activists and civil society organisations being held in Suva, Fiji from December 4-8 — the differences and, in some cases, distrust between professionalised NGO staff and social movement leaders were very clear. Pacific feminists worry about international NGOs being extractive of their causes, contacts and context. An Arab activist is concerned that NGOs are so inept at security that their involvements risk undermining the safety of protesters. An NGO staffer frets that social movements do not have the institutional breadth to cover issues beyond their immediate cause; they are a flash in a pan, not a driver of wider systemic change.
As my colleagues at CIVICUS showed back in 2011 (‘Bridging the Gaps’), the activists at the vanguard of some of the most prominent social movements – from Occupy to the Arab uprisings to online platforms – often had little regard for those of us in the professionalised NGOs.
The charges against us are many. We have become slave to our brands, logframes, donors and our growth strategies. We have been co-opted and corralled by states and funders, signing away our independence and voice. We are implementers of pre-designed service delivery plans, rather than political actors driven by ideational motivations. We work in siloed projects designed to alleviate the consequences of poverty and exclusion, rather than to tackle structural causes. With institutionalisation has come de-radicalisation and stultifying compromise.
If NGOs are to reconnect with grassroots activism, they will need to challenge and reframe their relationships with donors and states.
Yet, the fact remains that activists need NGOs, or at least they need something like them. As fascinating empirical research from Marlies Glasius and Armine Ishkanian shows, there is often a ‘surreptitious symbiosis’ that exists between activists and NGOs.
It remains virtually impossible to engage in the kind of sustained activism that can bring about long-term social change without interacting, at least in part, with funding and governance structures. Although the activists who spearheaded the Arab uprisings or Occupy protests often reviled NGOs in public, behind the scenes, they drew on their resources, used their meeting spaces, their printing services, and their legal and research expertise. Global civil society needs its institutionalised actors, as much as it needs its spontaneous social movements. The question then is how we can usher in a new era of productive symbiosis in which these varied civil society actors can work together in pursuit of their common goals?
Certainly, the institutionalised parts of global civil society will need to change: they need to be rejuvenated and re-radicalised from within. If NGOs are to reconnect with grassroots activism, they will need to challenge and reframe their relationships with donors and states. They will need to instigate fundamental shifts in leadership and organisational culture, designed to reinstate ideational logic as their driving force.
Perhaps most importantly, they will need to refocus on the political role of civil society, reclaiming a social transformative approach to development in which their primary role is to challenge the power asymmetries that lie at the root of poverty, inequality and exclusion. Recognising development as this kind of inherently complex and diffuse political process, will nullify established top-down, linear, project-driven frameworks. Instead, NGOs will need to instigate more flexible and context specific approaches that prioritise local ownership and legitimacy as they seek to tackle the structural inequalities that have marginalised so many members of our societies.
Re-cast in this role, civil society organisations become more than instrumental means to an end. They reclaim their intrinsic value as part of a reimagined democratic system. They become more than providers of ad hoc structural support to activists who find themselves reluctantly obliged to accept their help. They become authentically part of those citizen movements that are agitating against the status quo, against the narrowly conceived forms of democratic practice that are leaving citizens feeling disenfranchised, against the systems of conventional politics that are failing so conspicuously to rise to today’s major challenges, against the inequalities that are depriving people of their basic human rights. In short, NGOs become part of the solution.
This article was first published as part of openDemocracy’s series on the 2017 International Civil Society Week, where CIVICUS and the Pacific Islands Association of non-Governmental Organisations (PIANGO) brought civil society members and activists from around the world together to discuss some of the key challenges our planet is facing. You can see more of what came out of the event here.