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Can NGOs Build People’s Power or Have We Lost Our Way?


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Last week, I co-signed perhaps the most important letter of my career. It was an open provocation to my colleagues, to the members of our organization, to all those who, like me, earn their living in the civil society sector.

CIVICUS, the organization I lead, exists to strengthen civil society and citizen action throughout the world. Yet, I put my name to an open letter that is deeply critical of this sector; that says that much of our work has begun to reinforce the social, economic and political systems that we once set out to transform; that we have become too institutionalized, too professionalized, co-opted into systems and networks in which we are being outwitted and out-manoeuvred.

During my first year at CIVICUS, I flew thousands of miles around the world nominally ‘taking part’, as a representative of civil society, in the machinery of global governance. With each passing conference, the uneasy feeling intensified that my colleagues and I were achieving little more than a tick in somebody else’s box. Feeding into this system — and moulding our work around it — takes up too much of our time and too many of our resources for scant evidence of real social change. More worryingly, our institutionalized approach is actively buttressing a status quo that keeps too many on the losing end of globalization.

Often overly reliant on state funding, we have allowed our work — our ambitions even — to become constrained by donor requirements, by the need to avoid biting the hand that feeds us. Where once a spirit of volunteerism was the lifeblood of the sector, many NGOs today look and behave like multinational corporations. The largest of them employ thousands of people around the world and their annual budgets run into hundreds of millions. They have corporate style hierarchies and super-brands. With such extensive infrastructure to maintain, the inherent agility and innovation of peoples’ movements has moved beyond our grasp. Saving the world has become big business.

And all this matters because we are losing the war; the war against poverty, climate change and social injustice. Many courageous, inspirational people and organizations are fighting the good fight. But too many of us — myself included — have become detached from the people and movements that drive real social and political change. The corporatization of civil society has tamed our ambition; too often it has made us agents rather than agitators of the system.

Our intention in publishing this letter was not to berate, but to spark a debate; to challenge all of us to engage in re-configuring, re-imagining and re-energising civil society. A first and small step was to host a Twitter conversation, calling for responses to the ideas expressed in our letter. And it would seem that many civil society activists around the world share our concerns. Again and again people spoke of an overreliance on particular funding streams, on the stultifying effect of our organisations’ hierarchical and bureaucratic structures; on the urgent need to increase the diversity of those working in the sector; and on the death of volunteerism.

I still believe passionately in the power of civil society to change the world. Only we can formulate a new set of global organising principles, a new paradigm and an alternative model to the current narrative. But, in order to do so, we will need to put the voice and actions of people back at the heart of our work. Our primary accountability must be, not to donors, but to all those struggling for social justice. We must fight corporatism in our own ranks, re-connect with the power of informal and grassroots networks, tap into the wisdom of diverse activists, and re-balance our resources. This should not entail abandoning the organisations we have created; but evolving them to be truly accountable to those we seek to serve.

My hope is that the dialogue we have begun will help to re-connect us to an understanding of civil society as a deeply human construct, as a facilitator of empowering social relationships. In this, it will be crucial to reflect on the role of our own organisations. For only solutions that are at once pragmatic and radical will be sufficient to meet the challenges we face.


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