By Elisa Peter
International NGOs are the verge of facing irrelevance, if not extinction. This is one of the main messages of CIVICUS’ latest report, which warns that many well-established non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have become disconnected from people’s aspirations and concerns.
The report argues that citizens are increasingly coming together in new and informal forms of association to affect social change in their communities, often disregarding traditional NGOs. Ingrid Srinath, the Secretary General of CIVICUS, notes that “civil society organizations must embrace people’s movements to connect better with the public and renew themselves in order to survive”.
The genesis of the Arab Spring seems to provide a case in point: individuals using social media to connect with one another led to the fall of authoritarian regimes, while established organizations watched from the sidelines.
The report starts by reviewing the state of the world’s civil society, building on the work done by CIVICUS in the past four years to track the political, institutional, social and cultural constraints faced by civil society in various countries. The erosion of the political space for civil society is a reality in many parts of the world. Restrictive legal environments, intimidation, criminalization and other repressive measures are silencing NGOs. To make matters worse, many NGOs are still recovering from the financial impact of the global economic crisis on their organizations. This affects the capacity of NGOs to outreach, mobilize, engage/disengage and advocate effectively.
The CIVICUS report brings up a number of important questions, which ought to be taken seriously not only by NGOs but by anyone trying to affect social change. In essence, it looks at the nature of civic activism and mobilization, and asks what types of social structures are most adequate to deliver the change that people aspire to today.
The following elements, which are missing from the report, also ought to be taken into consideration when discussing the dynamics of change and democratization:
§ The report is surprisingly silent about the gender dimension of social change. The cover of the report shows a large group of visibly angry men in a mass demonstration (on the streets of Cairo?) and one wonders what kind of change will take place when half of the population is nowhere to be seen on the streets. The discussion over form (NGOs versus decentralized citizens movements) should not preclude a discussion over purpose. NGOs as well as grassroots movements have both historically failed to include women in their top decision-making processes worldwide (with a few exceptions). Women need to be included in any type of formal or informal activism if change is to lead to stable and representative societies based on the rule of law and the respect of women’s and men’s universal human rights.
§ The report argues that many NGOs are perceived as urban and elitist organizations, but is silent about the capture and instrumentalization of grassroots independent movements by vested interests. I would argue that decentralized movements are as, if not more, vulnerable to internal power struggles and external cooptation than established NGOs. Unfortunately, the indigenous peoples movement is a sad example of this worldwide.
§ The report focuses only on countries and movements in the global south. I would argue that many of the issues faced by southern NGOs and movements are also increasingly relevant to northern NGOs and movements. Lack of funding, the rise of conservative governments in Europe, the concerted battle on terrorism, high unemployment rates, etc. are all redefining the social contract between citizens, their elected representatives and the role of member-based organizations. The recent social uprisings in Greece and Spain were not led by traditional organizations (trade unions, NGOs) but by an active citizenry expressing its discontent with the lack of regard for their everyday concerns, rights and aspirations.
The report concludes by urging organized and less formal civil society to come together as each has distinctive and complementary capabilities as drivers of social change. Will CIVICUS’s next report provide actionable recommendations as to how to (re)build these connections in support of participatory and progressive change?