Non-Governmental Organisations are generally characterised by a high degree of independence, being a critical counterbalance to established political and economic structures, and act as advocates for the marginalised people and their issues. Their reputation is traditionally high in terms of morale and ethics, being perceived as down to earth and close to the people. They are the organised part of civil society and represent voices of the weakest, particularly where there is oppression and autocracy.
The above is an idealistic description, but it forms the most valuable capital of NGOs and should determine their way of working, as well as their ability to reach impact. It also forms a fairly fragile basis, as reputation and legitimacy are concepts that can be shaken easily and with dramatic consequences.
Every year, NGOs (or Civil Society Organisations, to use a more positive term) are scrutinised in the Edelman Trust Barometer, together with other institutions. Every year CSOs are frontrunners in public perception and trustworthiness, way above media, political and economic institutions. Every year the trust ratings for CSOs oscillate around 50% (half of the people don’t trust NGOs), and every year, they drop somewhere – the latest figures seeing a big drop in the US and Canada from 58 to 49% – worse so by the so-called ‘informed public’ (from 73 to 51%).
The trust barometer shows many variables and regional differences and is not the only indicator on what is happening around established institutions. But it gives some credence to the widely noticeable development in thinking that institutions, the ‘glue and backbone’ of a thriving and stable society, are under scrutiny and losing support. This is particularly true when they are seen as exclusive and moving away from the interests of people. This is a phenomenon that has been described in the enlightening book ‘Why Nations Fail’ by Acemoglu and Robinson. So, a lot is at stake.
Of course, context matters. It is notable that some more autocratic regimes like China or Turkey are experiencing a sharp rise of trust in NGOs – this should come as no surprise given the dramatic shrinking space of citizen rights. Looking at the US and Europe, one would assume that the surprising developments of Brexit and the aftermath of Trump’s election in 2016 has also affected public perception – but it looks as if this goes in the opposite direction as one would have expected. The so-called Oxfam scandal in early 2018 has not yet been factored in, but will likely show up in next year’s barometer.
One of the biggest shifts of context over the past years has happened in Europe. With the de-stabilisation of Europe’s closest neighbour (the Middle East), the massive impact of the flow of refugees since 2015, and the inability of the political elites, particularly in the EU, to handle the situation, public opinion has changed direction, towards anti-establishment (and anti-foreigners). It goes way beyond the usual levels of 15-20% right wingers that show up more or less disguised in opinion and election polls. Also, Europe as the traditional haven of liberal democracy is under attack from actors that contest those values and would benefit from weakening the EU – Russia, and ultra-conservative moguls in the US and Europe. Their latest move is the foundation that Steve Bannon wants to create to support and mentor populist movements in Europe.
CSOs are in the middle of this. Their often global nature, their identification with multilateralism, and their social capital is under attack and scrutiny, as much as their legitimacy. ICSOs who work on social justice in the global South, and have a large and international structure, are caught between the danger of being instrumentalised for business or foreign security agendas and their attachment to donor interests. The public’s expectation for CSOs to be humanistic and selfless contrasts with a high level of professionalism, and an increased branding of CSOs as an ‘industry’ (latest example in Germany is the attack on refugee organisations as ‘anti-deportation-industry’).
At times this leads to splits of almost unbearable distances within those organisations – between the external philanthropic narrative and political and advocacy work, between donor funding and defending independence, between professionalisation and grass-roots orientation. Too often, and increasingly, CSOs are being seen as putting organisational issues above the cause, and thereby mimicking isolationist behaviour of some nation states.
Particularly disputed is the necessary empowerment and transfer of responsibility to partners and new actors in the global south, to youth, social entrepreneurs and activists. Here, transfer of resources seems to matter most, and cause high emotions and a growing divide in the civil society sector, particularly between established ICSOs and local organisations.
Much of the above calls for change – within and between Civil Society organisations. Very rusty business models might not crack unless pressure from the public, donors and new actors mounts. Decreasing levels of trust are an alarming sign and should accelerate changes – safeguarding what has been achieved in terms of professionalism, high standards, established models for solidarity; but handover of what needs to be let go in terms of ownership and decision making.
Civil Society Organisations have to re-gain support of the public majority in the middle, in order to maintain trust and their license to operate. They should embrace citizen-oriented forms of action, be politically more bold, more inspiring, and form multi-actor movements to call out on abuses of power. They need to move closer to their original mandates, and live their values and ethics more consequently. And they should not be afraid of working themselves out of their jobs.