Digital leadership in the international civil society sector

24th April 2018 by Wolfgang Jamann

Vision Works - Digital Leadership was keenly debate

Would you rather lead us into famine response in South Sudan, or into the jungle of digitalisation? This hypothetical question to international civil society leaders (CEOs and Chairs) was looming over last week’s annual retreat organised by the Centre, and the active attendance confirmed their courage and curiosity to engage in uncovering what this megatrend means, not just for civil society organisations, but also to their top brass.

Getting an understanding of what digitalisation means for our sector is always a good starting point. In most recent surveys, the high level of importance of digitalisation for our work is coupled with an extremely low readiness to understand and embrace this development.

You get, however, very quickly that this is not something that one can ‘compartmentalise’, or delegate down to the Chief Information Officer or the Head of IT. Every aspect of our work, from fundraising and communications to better participation in program decisions, and finding new solutions to problems of poverty, marginalisation and environmental issues, can ideally benefit from digital tools, and requires a basic understanding at the level of decision makers.

Vision works 2

At the same time, the threats and challenges are growing exponentially. Data privacy and protection are particularly important, as we are experiencing restrictions on civic space, and the instrumentalisation of big and small data for commercial and political purposes. The dangers of a new ‘digital divide’ are real: Economic and social inequalities can be exacerbated if access to the internet, to digital tools and knowledge, are not provided to the bottom billion. In fact, big digital companies are looking for the ‘next billion’ clients in a mostly unregulated environment, and the civil society sector should be front line in making sure this ambition helps to connect the most marginalised (and protect them from becoming mere customers or data providers). And all of our intervention programs should include systematic use and build digital capacities and knowledge with the people we serve.

Putting people at the centre of digital strategies became the overriding theme in our discussions. Rather than chasing new technologies as part of the latest hype cycle, we need to put our mission first, discover what people need and can use, and determine our engagement in digital technology accordingly. The excitement about new solutions (on participation, communication, technology) vs. the fear of data misuse, inequality of access, and things getting out of hand are the extreme sides of our spectrum of engagement. Connecting opportunities and challenges of digitalisation back to our mission will have to be the overriding ambition of any strategic involvement.

In particular, the digital cultures of ICSOs need to be strengthened – including deeper understanding, analysis, and comfort on usage. This will then help us engage more systematically in the main areas of action – strategy, organisational processes, communication and fundraising, and technology and data. Above all, the ambition of ‘digital for good’ and ‘do no harm’ should guide us, as we strive to make a difference to the most marginalised and oppressed, and maintain legitimacy, effectiveness and impact in the future.

Wolfgang Jamann

Executive Director

International Civil Society Centre

Dr. Wolfgang Jamann is Executive Director of the International Civil Society Centre. Until January 2018 he was Secretary General and CEO of CARE International (Geneva). Before that he led NGO Deutsche Welthungerhilfe and the Alliance 2015, a partnership of 7 European aid organisations. From 2004-2009 he was CEO & Board member of CARE Deutschland-Luxemburg and President of the CARE Foundation. Previously, he worked for World Vision International as a regional representative in East Africa (Kenya) & Head of Humanitarian Assistance at WV Germany. After his Ph.D. dissertation in 1990 he started his career in development work at the German Foundation for International Development, later for the UNDP in Zambia. As a researcher and academic, he has published books and articles on East & Southeast Asia contributing to international studies on complex humanitarian emergencies and conflict management.

“Practice what you preach” – Dr. Burkhard Gnärig

17th April 2018 by Burkhard Gnärig

This Q&A blog first appeared on Dóchas – The Irish Association of Non-Governmental Development Organisations’ website. It appeared as part of a series of blogs published in the lead up to their conference, Changing the Narrative: Building Support for Global Development – which will take place on Thursday 3 May in the Croke Park Conference Centre.

Some public opinion polls suggest that there is a significant lack of public trust in NGOs. What is the number one thing NGOs should be doing to regain public trust?

Trust is the bridge that links what we preach with what we practice. The larger the distance between our words and deeds, the more fragile the bridge of trust that connects both is. The recent scandals about sexual misconduct in some of the largest and most trusted organisations in our sector is a telling example of how the discrepancy between our statements and actions dramatically erodes trust. “The number one thing” civil society organisations (CSOs) should do to regain and preserve trust is to narrow the gap between what we preach and what we practice to an absolute minimum. In cleaning up the mess of the recent scandal, it is not sufficient to create some new structures, policies and working groups. We need a fundamental transformation of our sector’s male dominated culture, career paths and leadership.

One example of the gap between what we say and what we do on “gender justice” is the discrepancy between the number of women in our workforce compared to our leadership. In many organisations, two thirds of the staff are women while two thirds of the leaders are men. Practically all CSOs produce impressive statements on gender justice and women’s rights but very few have a share of female leaders that reflects the share of women in their staff. Such obvious gaps erode the public trust in our sector – and rightly so. We need to stop making grand pronouncements while lagging behind in implementing them, especially in our own organisations first.

Is the populist narrative of “charity begins at home” gaining ground in Europe? What should we be doing to counter it?

Populism very much thrives on citizens’ loss of trust in elected governments and their institutions, the media and – as discussed above – the civil society sector. The more the democratic and pluralistic parts of society can rebuild trust among the public at large, the less populists will succeed. For all too long, many CSOs have ignored challenges at home focusing exclusively on the ones abroad. As so many developing countries are prospering, the focus rightly turns back to unresolved issues in Europe.

However, while populists understandably demand “charity”, our sector should focus on empowerment of poor and marginalised people and offer rights based programmes rather than alms. In a world, in which our most challenging problems are global, everybody needs to contribute to resolving them. Only those who undertake the painful and costly transformation at home have the right to demand fundamental change from others.

Should we be trying to build a global social movement around the Sustainable Development Goals? If so, what needs to happen to mobilise the public?

Yes we should, both as a means to re-gain lost trust and to fight intolerance, populism and authoritarian government. Many citizens around the world are deeply worried about climate change, environmental destruction, persistent poverty and growing inequality. They dream of a peaceful, just and sustainable future for themselves, their children and grandchildren. If our sector can reconnect to these dreams and offer a platform for all to pursue their dreams together, we will no longer have to worry about lack of trust or populist stupidity – and we would take a major step closer to resolving the global challenges humanity faces.

The Dóchas Conference 2018 – Changing the Narrative: Building Support for Global Development – will take place on 3 May, from 10.30am – 5.30pm, in the Croke Park Conference Centre. Speakers include Ruairí De Búrca, Director General, Irish Aid; Heba Aly, Director, IRIN; Dr Danny Sriskandarajah, Secretary General and CEO, CIVICUS; Judith Greenwood, Executive Director of CHS Alliance; and Rafeef Ziadah, Lecturer, Comparative Politics of the Middle East, SOAS University of London, spoken word artist and human rights activist. Our MC for the day will be journalist and broadcaster Dil Wickremasinghe.

Burkhard Gnärig

Project Director

International Civil Society Centre

At the beginning of 2007, Burkhard founded the International Civil Society Centre, originally the Berlin Civil Society Center, together with Peter Eigen and shortly thereafter, became Executive Director of the Centre. Burkhard has over 20 years’ experience of international cooperation and management of CSOs. From 1998 to 2007 he was CEO of the International Save the Children Alliance, located in London. Before this, Burkhard was CEO of Greenpeace Germany and terre des hommes Germany. As a field director in Papua New Guinea, Burkhard also worked for the German Development Service. Burkhard has been Board Chair and Board Member of various CSOs in Italy, Switzerland, India, Korea and Japan, and has actively participated in a number of major UN conferences, as well as at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Top 5 blogs of the year so far…

10th April 2018 by Thomas Howie

This week we want to share with you the content that you have found most compelling this year. We’ve compiled a list of the most read blogs on Disrupt&Innovate in 2018, so you can see what others in the civil society sector are interested in. Additionally, it’s a great opportunity to remind ourselves of the strength of this platform, it’s diversity of topics and range of contributors. Take a look at the blogs below, we hope you enjoy.


Women's March NorwayA few weeks ago I recruited a new colleague to our small Centre secretariat team. The pattern of many previous rounds was repeated: We reviewed a number of very qualified and competent young female candidates, struggled to invite equally impressive male applicants for an interview and in the end offered the position to a very dedicated, ambitious and talented woman who wants to develop a long-term career in the civil society sector. I have met and worked with many women like her over the years at the Centre and in the civil society organisations (CSOs) we work with. Read more


Data Collaboratives are an emerging way for ICSOs to find solutions to long running problemsThe need for innovation is clear: The twenty-first century is shaping up to be one of the most challenging in recent history. From climate change to income inequality to geopolitical upheaval and terrorism: the difficulties confronting international civil society organisations (ICSOs) are unprecedented not only in their variety but also in their complexity. At the same time, today’s practices and tools used by ICSOs seem stale and outdated. Increasingly, it is clear, we need not only new solutions but new methods for arriving at solutionsRead more


Many CSOs around the world have realised the potential linked to both Blockchain and Big Data and are currently experimenting with how these technologies can support their work. Read more


One year ago I reviewed the political environment in which civil society had to act and drew some conclusions for the year 2017. I expressed my expectation that “we will not succumb to Brexit and Trump” and demanded: “We urgently need to come together in a powerful global movement to defend tolerance against the intolerant, pluralism and the rule of law against authoritarianism, and our future as a global community against chauvinism and xenophobia.” What has happened in this respect over the past twelve months? Read more


ilina-nesik1In recent years, governments around the world have responded to increased activism, protests and political engagement of citizens and various civil society actors with cracking down on civic space. Unfortunately, these trends have not passed the Western Balkans and Turkey by either.

As restrictions on foreign funding (in Kosovo, Turkey), barriers to registration (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Turkey), intervention in CSOs’ internal affairs (Macedonia and Turkey), negative narratives (Serbia and Macedonia), and declining public trust in civil society in almost all of the countries become the new normal in this region, civil society and donors are going to have to adapt to this context. Read more

Thomas Howie

Communications Manager

International Civil Society Centre

Thomas joined the Centre in June 2017 as the Communications Coordinator. He is responsible for developing and implementing the Centre’s global communication strategy, as well as the Disrupt & Innovate platform – a place for civil society professionals and activists to discuss current innovations and future trends in the civil society sector. Prior to the Centre, Thomas worked for 5 years in the European Parliament firstly as the Digital and Social Media Coordinator for the Socialists and Democrats Group in the European Parliament, and then, after the 2014 European elections, for Jude Kirton-Darling and Paul Brannen as Head of Communications, where he worked on issues such as the EU-US trade deal, issues around Brexit and as a specialist on the Petitions Committee. Thomas graduated from Bristol University with BSci in Geographical Sciences and holds an MA in Peace Studies from the University of Bradford, where he completed research into the role of civil society in the post war peace settlement in northern Uganda.

International NGOs should ensure women are at the centre of daily operations

3rd April 2018 by Mouna Ben Garga

Growing up in the 1980s in Tunisia, hailed as a modern society, International Women’s Day was a long day of celebrations staged by President Ben Ali’s regime while his police tortured and harassed women in prisons.

Many states are known for their strategy to exploit women’s rights for political purposes. But, the international community practices are not that different either–not to the same end for sure. If international NGOs (INGOs) keep using the strategies and approaches they are using now to fight against gender inequality, progress on gender parity will surely grind to a halt and we will need another 200 years to close the gap.

At the centre of the problem is the fact that INGOs still consider women’s rights a secondary issue, a ‘soft’ battle, rather than a core one. We see evidence of this on two levels: that way that sexual harassment and abuse within the development sector is addressed (or not addressed) and states’ responses to gender inequality abuses. The recent scandals involving sexual exploitation by aid workers, which are engulfing the civil society sector, expose the internal, loose practices that fail to address gender and power imbalances. The State of Civil Society 2018, an annual report by global civil society alliance CIVICUS that assesses conditions impacting civic space globally, outlines 10 trends affecting civil society. One of those trends is growing efforts to put patriarchy under the spotlight, as embodied in the #MeToo and Times Up actions, and to challenge and address behaviours and attitudes that enable sexism and gender discrimination. INGOs should be taking the lead against sexual harassment and wider gender inequalities through practising what they preach.

It is also important to celebrate achievements and progress made but turning a blind eye to women in more disadvantaged positions shows the selectivity of women’s struggles. When Saudi Arabia finally gave women the right to drive in September 2017, many celebrated a decision that overturns a cornerstone of Saudi conservatism. However, women’s struggles in the kingdom go beyond driving, to include sexual abuses of domestic workers and the lack of opportunities for working-class women. States such as Saudi Arabia keep intentionally failing to meet gender parity commitments but INGOs and the international community do little to respond to this beyond statements, media releases and side events at UN conferences. States are not being held to account.

Furthermore, the struggle to effectively mainstream gender equality is the result of a conventional understanding of the role of women and their contexts. In fact, decades of a “one size fits all” approach has hindered the achievement of women’s rights in local communities. Local women do not lack capacity and their nuanced understanding of local issues goes beyond how they articulate their struggle without jargon.

For instance, before the rising of Muslim feminism, the Muslim world resisted and rejected the western interpretations of gender inequality. Women’s movements in the Middle East/North Africa region were the only, effective actors pushing the women’s agenda. In 2017, Tunisia passed its first national law to combat violence against women, an effort led by local women human rights defenders.

This means that the push for progress in gender parity should not be only around motivation and action, but also around reflecting, healing and change from within. It is time to support local women’s unique leadership by giving them the space to act and by fighting alongside them and not through them. Equip them to be more efficient, give them access to the international community and resources, push for more inclusion, not only by ensuring a quota of representation but through striving for a more gender- and socially-inclusive strategies and operations. But most importantly, INGOs have to adhere to the values that they espouse and walk the walk.

Mouna Ben Garga

Innovation for Change Programme Officer