International Civil Society Network Meetings: Are They Worth the Investment?

by Julia Roig   November 13, 2014

My colleague who has been working in the democracy promotion field in Latin America for over a decade attended a regional meeting of the Partners network in Buenos Aires a couple of years ago. She was able to visit with her sister briefly when she stopped by our meeting, and during the coffee break made the quizzical comment, “Really, I still don’t understand what you all DO. I only ever see you attending conferences?!” Her sister works in a completely unrelated field, and I can understand her perplexed look when she asked, “After so many years of talking and talking, haven’t you guys resolved anything yet?” My colleague didn’t really have an answer for her sister, but we had a good laugh over that frank observation.

It would be easy to develop a cynical view of our tendency towards conferencing in the international development field. We do indeed organize a lot of meetings and workshops and conferences, and we seem to do a lot of blah blah blah. Sometimes donors question our strategy of bringing people together for these kinds of costly regional or global events, wondering what — if any — concrete results will come from yet more discussions and “sharing experiences and best practices” (using our favorite jargon.) Early in my career I was impacted by the book Lords of Poverty, that begins with a very descriptive poem of how elite development professionals travel to world capitals to meet over steak dinners and (ironically) discuss the world’s poor and marginalized. So I am acutely aware of the privileged place I inhabit as the president of an international network of democracy and peacebuilding organizations, Partners for Democratic Change International (PDCI). Having just returned from our global membership meeting in Brussels, I might ask myself “are we using our money wisely to bring all these people together from around the world just to talk more about our work?” And the answer I come to — readily — is a resounding YES. The return on investment is more than worth the money.

How do global civil society movements really sustain themselves?

In 2013, Partners concluded a three-year evaluation of our network, specifically looking at how the local, independent NGOs that make up PDCI have survived and thrived in their countries to continue offering needed democracy and peacebuilding programs for over 20 years. The evaluator identified several key success factors, including: (1) the profile and talents of the social entrepreneur who directs the center, (2) the ability to continually adapt and innovate within the local or regional context, and (3) being a part of an international network of like-minded professionals who offer legitimacy, technical support and friendships. I would highlight that all three of these factors are closely linked and tied to the benefits of our global meetings.

About sixty people attended our “PDCI Summit” in Brussels last week, representing over 30 nationalities and working in more than 50 countries. We organize a Summit for our network every two years to not only bring together the network members’ directors, but also their staff, board members and other close collaborators. It’s an expensive undertaking as my colleagues pay their own way from sometimes very far distances — traveling long hours from parts of the world as different as Sana’a and San Salvador to see their colleagues. We spend a frenetic four days together, packing in as many informational sessions, working meetings, trainings, networking events, and good old fun and socializing (with some spontaneous salsa dancing this year). It’s exhausting and exhilarating, and these meetings absolutely sustain all of our work when we go back home — and here’s why:

It’s lonely to run an NGO, especially if you are operating in a politically unfriendly or conflictive environment. During our meetings, the directors of each of the centers have the rare opportunity to reflect on their own demanding jobs, discuss staffing concerns, fundraising stresses, upcoming retirement and leadership transitions, and managing challenging donor relationships. If we want NGO leaders to continue to be fortified in our sector, we need to give them opportunities to rejuvenate and find advice in safe spaces away from their own (perhaps gossip-ridden) professional environments.

Learning and relationship-building opportunities in the NGO sector must penetrate to the Next Generation. Because of their seniority and experience, global NGO executives often get invited to conferences and network meetings and therefore the important contacts and substantive learning stays with the (charismatic) founder/leader of the organization. Our PDCI Summits have been designed to bring together all layers of staff from within our global network, and I find that they are the engines and energy behind our on-going collaboration between meetings. They are more motivated to share on social media, they are often closer to the programs on the ground, and they have more time to participate in coordinating network initiatives than their busy bosses. Strong local NGOs must have a foundation of talent underneath the role of director, ready to take over leadership positions and representing different voices and perspectives.

We do indeed face similar challenges and get ideas from each other on strategies. The contexts are different, but many of the lessons and approaches are widely applicable. As we discussed transitional justice programs in Kosovo and Colombia, our colleagues from Iraq and Mexico also shared their struggles with concepts of political pluralism and forgiveness between former combatants and victims. One of our most well attended event was on “closing political spaces,” with practitioners from such different civil society experiences as Hungary and Ecuador, or those operating in Egypt and Venezuela. We shared best practices on digital security and planned for upcoming events to support NGOs in Ukraine. We shared across regions about natural resource conflicts and discussed how best to partner with the private sector. For local NGOs to keep innovating and evolving to respond to the rapid pace of change, we must continue to create the space for these cross-regional interactions.

Virtual networking works — but only when there are strong personal relationships already established. I have learned that a name on an email list or even a video conference over skype does not inspire trustful or fruitful collaborations across oceans if there has never been face to face interaction. But once you’ve shared a meal together, and missed a bus on the way to an important meeting together and fought over important decision-making rights within a multi-lateral network — you develop deep connections and personal trust to work on vital projects between continents. Our network has been meeting consistently for over 20 years and the personal friendships run deep. The evaluator described over and over again “the Partners Way” as a deeply held belief shared by all of us in the way we do our work using participatory, collaborative approaches. I believe this “Way” has been co-created over the years because of the strong personal relationships that have sustained our mosaic, mission-oriented network culture by being together. Often.

International policy-makers need to hear the stories and experiences directly from those most affected by development policies. Brussels is an expensive city, just like Washington D.C., yet it is important for us to convene our network Summits in these world capitals not only for the benefit of our internal meetings, but to convene external meetings for our colleagues to build their professional connections, fundraise and directly share their concerns and experiences with decision-makers. You can read a report with pretty pictures of a project from a desk in Schuman Square or Foggy Bottom, but having a civil society representative in front of you to describe their reality is priceless and it is worth our investment to have those voices heard.

“Global civil society” doesn’t really exist as separate from the local action of actors and organizations implementing activities in their own environment. If we believe, as President Obama has stated, “that the strength and success of all countries and all regions depends in part on protecting and supporting civil society,” then as a global network we have to be mindful of how those local leaders sustain themselves. All global networks and international civic institutions are made up of members who face their own difficult challenges — organizationally and technically — on the ground. But as the threats to democratic values deepen globally, and we face ever-evolving violent conflicts and instability around the world, I believe it becomes increasingly important now more than ever to link all those seemingly disparate local efforts to make them stronger, represent their reality in international policy circles and have an amplified collective voice for the changes we want to see in the world.

We spent a lot of human and financial resources to come together in Brussels last week, and I have no doubt that we will see a clear return on that investment as this network of change agents disperses back to their countries, reinvigorated and with many technical and personal reinforcements. We know the dividends of this investment appear slowly over time, but a strong civil society that is vigilant to protect democratic and peaceful values is worth a lot of blah blah blah.