Civicus World Assembly – after the revolution? Changing views on civil society

Oliver Henman was Head of Partnerships & International at NCVO, and blogged about civil society around the world. Oliver left NCVO in July 2014 but his posts have been kept here for reference.

If 2011 was the year of the Arab Spring, Occupy and the rise of social protests, 2012 is the year of connecting social movements and learning from the recent transformations.

Last week I was at the CIVICUS World Assembly in Montreal, it was a fantastic opportunity to link up with over 800 partners and experts from across the world and to share latest perspectives on the key directions for civil society.

It was clear from the discussions that as civil society organisations we must all adapt to survive, and that whether we’re involved in revolutionary movements or in delivery of service to disadvantaged communities we are all facing similar types of changes.

There are a number of key drivers for this change and each one was covered at the CIVICUS event:

1. New forms of social organisation It is increasingly clear that the transition in the Arab Spring was brought about by new forms of social movement. Marina Silva, the former Environment Minister of Brazil made the distinction between the classic approach of charities and NGOs which are ‘directed’ by a core group; and the more decentralised forms of social movement which are ‘autonomous’ in their coordination and stem from a looser affiliation of diverse interests. This applies to domestic organisations as well as international bodies, since there is a growing movement towards more co-decision making and collaborative ways of working.

2. Technology and innovation Combined with changing forms of organisation, there is a shift towards more web-based approaches. Many of the social movements of the Arab Spring were connected by twitter and other social networking sites and at the same time many established organisations are becoming more adept at connecting with their members online. There is a growing recognition that members and supporters are a core part of setting the agenda through online forums and they are not willing to be passive bystanders. This wider change has an impact on all charities and civil society as the rise of web-based approaches shifts the types of interaction by all membership organisations and we should be open to learn from organisations from the Middle East and North Africa, following their successes.

3. Funding trends A further shared message is that the types of funding available to civil society is changing, many of the traditional grants are no longer available and organisations are increasingly involved in project funded activities. There are many useful models from across the world of smarter ways of fundraising including crowd-funding, micro-finance and online giving, and many emerging countries have lessons to teach more established organisations in terms of maximising the use of scarce resources based on many years of limited funds. However, some organisations, such as in India, were also wary of the risk that we may have to become more focused on revenue generation and therefore less able to deliver on the core mission of organisations.

4. Changing government relationships The final major area of comparison is on the changing approaches to government relations. It seems increasingly clear that governments recognise the key role that civil society can play in delivering services and mobilising people and that many governments are more willing to engage with civil society. However many organisations, such as partners in Zambia and the Solomon Islands noted that when governments do engage there is often a gap between the stated aims and the practice. Many organisations seem to feel that we may be misled into believing that ‘having a seat at the table’ is the same as ‘having influence’ in decisions. In many countries the space for associational life is actually becoming more limited in spite of the rhetoric…

5. Networks to share key experience The CIVICUS World Assembly provides a very useful space for reflection, and this year it is more important than ever as we face global challenges to build a more inclusive society. So many organisations are facing similar changes and we can learn from international inspiration to assist us to develop solutions. Now is the time to move towards practical implementation and to find connections between informal social movements and organised civil society, we look forward to working with partners across CIVICUS and to connecting with North Africa through our new ‘Building Bridges’ project.

Learn more by watching the CIVICUS livestream interviews with a range of perspectives from around the world

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