Against the backdrop of hills of Kok Tobe in Almaty, Kazakhstan, more than 200 experts and civil society leaders, international organizations, businesses, and government bodies from around the world reflected on the current realities facing civil society today in ever shrinking operating spaces. We were all there for the 9th annual International Insights into Development conference hosted by The Civil Society Development Association (ARGO). The theme of this year’s conference was “Level Up! Civic Initiatives as Drivers for Development.” It became immediately evident that this gathering was not only timely, but critical, as civil society’s legitimacy and viability are being threatened and shifting political dynamics are explicitly and implicitly undermining the role of civil society organizations as both service providers AND checks on government policies.
My participation at the event was particularly poignant because it was hosted by an organization whose initial baby steps were taken as a part of a USAID-funded civil society capacity building initiative whose launch I participated in twenty years ago. I was stepping back into a region and observing the evolution of both an organization and a sector of civil society organizations that have undergone two decades of development assistance – the good and the bad. The organizations gathered reflected a new phase of locally-driven strategies. They were in the process of re-invention, defining a new path forward towards a 21st century mandate and purpose. During the sharing sessions and workshops and through the many video testimonials that were shared, several key reflections emerged from the voices around the table:
- RADICAL TRANSPARENCY AND ACCOUNTABILITY – As a sector, we demand open and accessible information from government and business counterparts. Yet, even as we enshrine the principles of inclusion and transparency into our organizational missions and value statements, many civil society organizations don’t embody these values in practice. This impacts our sectoral reputation, legitimacy and interventions. Going forward, we must walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
- UNINTENDED RISKS AND CONSEQUENCES – We emphasize Do No Harm to mitigate risks associated with our work in the communities we serve. However, with changing political dynamics, it is increasingly important to also assess the unintended risks that our actions and activities pose to ourselves, our constituencies and one another. One organization shared a recent account of when a well-known human rights watchdog INGO featured this NGO in a YouTube documentary and full-page magazine spread referencing human rights violations in the country of operation. Despite requests not to post the interview online, the story was published. It garnered attention and was internally considered a success by the INGO. Unfortunately, the local organization was attacked by the country’s government which considered the report to be defamation – both the organization and its leader remain blacklisted.
- TIME TO TAKE BACK THE NARRATIVE – Strategic communications has always been an important mode of learning and information sharing. Indeed, “storytelling” is on every organization’s agenda. But with the onslaught of negative media messages targeted at undermining civil society, it is time to go one step beyond impact stories and clearly (and convincingly) articulate a consistent message validating the relevance and role of the sector. We need unified messages, a louder megaphone and new partnerships/allies to demand, defend and restore the democratic values of an open society.
- CORE SUPPORT IS ESSENTIAL – The international donor community underestimates the ongoing need for institutional costs to be paid for when local CSOs are asked to play a leadership role in global networks. There seems to be a built-in bias to the process of “graduating” to direct recipient status. Unfortunately, when local organizations host events, broker key relationships with local stakeholders and secure venues and ensure visibility for events, there are real operating costs that must be included such as for human resources and operations departments, equipment and technology.
- WE CAN’T GO IT ALONE – The phrase, “strength in numbers” cannot be understated for civil society organizations today, especially as they fight for their right to operate freely. Global networks serve as advocacy platforms to drive agendas and hold international actors and bodies accountable for protecting civic space AND they serve as a solidarity backbone where civil society actors can rely on each other in times of crisis.
Resiliency+ Framework: Adaptation. Evolution. Renewal.
So where does civil society go from here? Traditional models of organizational support and development no longer adequately address the current set of challenges that the sector faces today. The time is ripe for a new way of thinking about organizational models, tools, and tactics in an increasingly connected world with a shared threat of closing political space.
Together with CIVICUS, PartnersGlobal is spearheading the development of a new Resiliency+ Framework that delivers the awareness, skills and connections for CSOs to simultaneously withstand the shocks of growing threats to civic space and fundamental democratic freedoms while THRIVING in increasingly difficult operating environments. The Resiliency+ Framework is based on four pillars of resiliency – individual, organizational, sectoral and global – and responds to threats through adaptive strategies, more effective narratives, alternative organizational and funding models, stronger mechanisms of transparency and accountability, and wider networks across the public, private and non-profit sectors.
As conveners of international networks of civil society organizations, PartnersGlobal and CIVICUS are committed to safeguarding global civic space. Our partners have collectively endured, rebounded from and overcome countless organizational, political and environmental disruptions. This collective body of preventative, responsive and counterbalancing actions is now available so that others don’t have to absorb the shocks – instead they can deflect, avoid and repel them! The 21st Century civic space is emerging as a more professional, more unified and more confident collective of savvy and committed leaders who combine business acumen with social justice values. The participants at ARGO’s event embodied the new breed of civic leaders. They approach their role with a sense of duty and an awareness that to be resilient requires stepping up their game by meeting their key stakeholders from other sectors as equals.