How NGOs and social movements can learn to work together better

People celebrate the fifth anniversary of the “Feb. 17 Revolution” at Martyrs’ Square in Tripoli, Libya, on Feb. 17, 2016. Xinhua/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.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. 

https://www.opendemocracy.net/democraciaabierta/dhananjayan-sriskandarajah/how-ngos-and-social-movements-can-learn-to-work-togethe

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