Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The (failure) and future of civil society

A friend forwarded this to me in an email - it's a link to an article in The Guardian, a letter from the head of Civicus, a global organization representing civil society organizations.

In it he notes the growth of the sector.
And its failures to solve the problems it seeks to address.

In his words:
"We – civil society – have been co-opted into economic and institutional processes in which we are being outwitted and out-manoeuvred. Our conception of what is possible has narrowed dramatically. Since demonstrating bang for your buck has become all-important, we divide our work into neat projects, taking on only those endeavours that can produce easily quantifiable outcomes. Reliant on funding to service our own sizeable organisations, we avoid approaches or issues that might threaten our brand or upset our donors. We trade in incremental change."
And so we find ourselves reinforcing the social, economic and political systems we once set out to transform. We have become part of the problem, rather than the solution."
The article links to an open letter signed by many of the founders and leaders of the organization - there they state:
"Around the world, ordinary people are losing trust in the global governance system.  They have little faith in elected governments and public institutions. They do not believe that big corporations tell them the truth. They see the international intergovernmental system as irrelevant at best and ineffectual at worst.  ...

Yet still they dream of equality and rights.  Indeed, beyond dreaming, many actively fight for it in their daily lives.  Across all continents, people rise up on the streets, in slums and villages and towns and cities, in protest to demand jobs and decent education and health for their communities.
They have done so to end corruption, they have marched to demand participation in the decisions that affect their lives and they have risen to demand basic services like water and sanitation. ...

Sadly, those of us who work in civil society organisations nationally and globally have come to be identified as part of the problem.  We are the poor cousins of the global jet set.  We exist to challenge the status quo, but we trade in incremental change.  ...

A new and increasingly connected generation of women and men activists across the globe question how much of our energy is trapped in the internal bureaucracy and the comfort of our brands and organisations.  They move quickly, often without the kinds of structures that slow us down.  ..."
This is a call for reflection, renewal and reconsideration. Of an entire sector. By its leaders. 

We need civil society. People and societies need the space to protest, to make change, to protect minority rights, to express differences, arts, values, and opinions that don't win the votes of a majority or the dollars of industry.

I take heart in this call for change. A call "from the top," to make necessary changes, to consider the activists, protestors, networks and new enterprise forms as allies not threats, as part of the future of civil society not just as threats to the past. We need to re-imagine how civil society will work and what it will look like, not give up on it. This is especially true right now, as we get smarter about digital tools and infrastructure, both of which can do great things but which also default to settings at cross purposes to many civil society values. We need to make the tools work for the values - this is what we mean when we talk about "ReCoding Good."


David Sasaki said...

I've been thinking about how the rise of Uber-like apps and the rise of philanthropy are both tied to rising inequality. Rather than democratize unfair power dynamics across class (ie. "New Power vs. Old Power), I'm beginning to wonder if they perpetuate them.

It's a disheartening realization because I've long thought that philanthropy has an important role in bringing people "from poverty to power," but now I'm not so sure.

Lucy Bernholz said...


Have you seen this piece on inequality and Uber? http://qz.com/312537/the-secret-to-the-uber-economy-is-wealth-inequality/ It's a must read.

There's a long line of thought that puts philanthropy squarely in the camp of perpetuating inequality - happy to share resources on that. The contents of this Boston Review section might be of interest - http://www.bostonreview.net/forum/foundations-philanthropy-democracy

Word on the Street is you'll be at IFTF in Palo Alto soon? Let me know