Reflections on Smart Democracy in the Age of Multi-Level Governance

25th September 2018 by Dennis Whittle and Megan Campbell

Three years ago, Renee Ho and I reflected on this blog about the changing nature of intermediation. Intermediation, we argued, was becoming localized and decentralized. Citizens were better able to express their needs and priorities, aided by new online tools.  Service providers and implementers could no longer “control the narrative” because their donors and other stakeholders could see what people thought of their work. We argued that International Civil Society Organizations (ISCOs) should reconfigure to enable and amplify the effects of stronger connections, transparency and accountability.  

Three years on, the shift to a more connected world is accelerating.  The opportunity – and need – for smart, evolving ISCO intermediation is stronger than ever. In this follow-up, my colleague Megan Campbell and I would like to discuss three lessons learned, which together should help shape the evolution of ICSOs over the coming years:

Listening isn’t action

Listening and engagement initiatives are proliferating. They are a great first step, but responding is the hard part – and increasingly the binding constraint.  And listening without action is a waste of time at best – and breeds cynicism and mistrust at worst. I myself have been waiting over 2,000 days for a response of an issue I raised with a local government agency on the SeeClickFix platform. No one has bothered to even tell me whether they have heard it, and if so why they can’t (or won’t) take action.  Large organizations and governments are struggling to put in place adaptive management processes that enable them to respond to the voice of the people they seek to serve.

Don’t limit yourself to Incremental responses

In an recent article, Lant Pritchett argued that the gains from targeted interventions, of the kind favored by many aid agencies and practitioners, are dwarfed by the gains that come from broader institutional development and policy changes. Similarly, listening initiatives often focus on feedback about specific interventions – what can we do right away? But sometimes we need to step back and ask what type of fundamental shifts in resources, decision-making power, and institutional processes do we need to bring about more profound and longer-lasting changes?

Conversation is key

In 2015 I celebrated shifting the power toward individual donors and users. Yet this does not mean decisions should be made by plebiscite. The true power of feedback comes from rich conversations that generate new ideas and understanding.  Most people understand the need for institutions – political, economic, and social. They want to hear the insights of specialists, regulators, and leaders. They just don’t want those “experts” to make all the decisions unilaterally: they want their own voices and perspectives to be heard.  They want to be part of a genuine conversation about what they need to make their lives better – and how to get it. The evidence shows that good conversations that include the people and the leaders as equal partners can lead to major gains in social, environmental, and economic outcomes.

Will ICSOs seize the opportunity, open their doors, and seek out rich conversations with the people they seek to serve?  Will they create adaptive management processes that close the loop by changing what they do – sometimes incrementally, sometimes fundamentally? Or will they hunker down, reinforce their defenses, and continue to try to control the narrative?  Each organization’s answer to those questions will determine whether the organization survives and leads – or dwindles into irrelevance.


Dennis Whittle

Chief Executive Officer

Feedback Labs

Dennis co-founded and leads Feedback Labs. He has worked for over 30 years in international aid and philanthropy. He is a co-founder of GlobalGiving, the first global crowdfunding website, where he was CEO from 2000 to 2010. GlobalGiving has mobilized over $320 million for 19,000 projects in 170 countries, fueled by hundreds of thousands of individual donors and 225 leading companies and foundations. From 1986-2000, Dennis was an economist at the World Bank, where he worked in Indonesia, Russia, Papua New Guinea, and Niger on agriculture, housing reform, energy efficiency, structural adjustment, and innovation. His New Products Team created the Innovation and Development Marketplaces in the late 1990s. Dennis is currently a Visiting Scholar at New York University and has in the past served as Executive Chairman of Ashoka Changemakers, Visiting Lecturer at Princeton University, Professor of the Practice and Entrepreneur in Residence at UNC-Chapel Hill, Visiting Fellow at the Center for Global Development, and economist at USAID and the Asian Development Bank. He is a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, where he was a Morehead Scholar, and of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton.

Megan Campbell

Director of Research and Learning

Feedback Labs

Megan helps to set the learning objects and agenda for Feedback Labs by helping determine the right questions to ask, and how we should ask them. She manages the blog and other writing, and leads research and experimentation. A systems design engineer by training, Megan has over a decade of experience promoting adaptive implementation in international development. She lived for five years in Malawi, working with Engineers Without Borders Canada to help national and local government officers experiment and develop new ways to improve water and sanitation service delivery. As Co-Director of EWB’s program in Malawi, Megan focused on finding ways to strengthen formal and informal feedback loops in the Malawian water and sanitation sector. She firmly believes that helping information travel within a system is a key prerequisite for learning and iterative improvement. Upon her return to Canada Megan took on the management of Engineers Without Borders’ incubation portfolio. In that role, Megan mentored and supported early stage social enterprises working to transform service delivery in Sub-Saharan Africa. More recently, Megan worked with the Global Delivery Initiative secretariat at the World Bank to promote a common language with which to explore service delivery challenges and solutions. Megan is an Action Canada fellow and advisor to Fail Forward, and cheers with futility for the Toronto Blue Jays. She is a graduate of the University of Waterloo and the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University.

Leave No One Behind – failure is not an option

18th September 2018 by Åsa Månsson and Peter Koblowsky

The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) were a crucial first attempt to set ambitious goals for a successful development in the 21st century. Their key shortcoming was that the poorest 20% of the global population was largely ignored in the race to improve statistical averages. The new set of goals – the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – were thus created in the spirit of “leaving no one behind”. This means that the SDGs require all goals to be reached, for everyone – especially those at the margins of society.

However, the UN 2017 SDG report emphasises that data identifying who is vulnerable or what their needs are is often unavailable. This poses a great challenge if the SDGs are to be fully implemented, as we currently don’t have a full understanding of who is in danger to be left behind and what these communities would need, in order to benefit from the promises made on the global level. How can we tackle this problem?

Several of the international civil society organisations (ICSOs) that we at the International Civil Society Centre are working with – such as Save the Children, BRAC, WWF, CARE International or Plan International – have a clear ambition to contribute to the implementation of the SDGs. And as a basis for this work, they have a great wealth of data and evidence.

And yet, while all these organisations alone are making great strides, imagine:

  • …these organisations came together to share the data they have and jointly set out to gather the data that is lacking?
  • … marginalised groups and communities were actively involved in the gathering of new data that described their needs?
  • …the data generated this way were recognised and included in the official SDG monitoring processes?
  • … government, ICSOs and citizens would sit together to develop programmes and services that can help to solve the problems of marginalised groups?

Since September 2017, the Centre together with 12 ICSOs is making this a reality. Our Leave No One Behind project aims to give voice and agency to marginalised groups and communities within SDG implementation and monitoring processes, through a diverse and globally coordinated approach using community-based data.

In the current pilot phase (ending February 2019), we are focusing on national level collaboration in five countries: Bangladesh, India, Kenya, Nepal and Vietnam. In each country, the national offices of ICSOs, as well as local partners and civic platforms, come together in an unprecedented effort to create collective impact. These country teams have jointly agreed to focus on a specific aspect of the SDGs, relevant to their country’s context.

For example, in Bangladesh the focus is on ensuring a universal health care for people living at the margins of society, mainly talking to people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, migrants and the ultra-poor. The colleagues in Kenya are exploring how to strengthen community-led monitoring of SDG implementation, and in India the focus is on measuring the overall SDG progress for marginalised groups across 100 ‘hotspots’, making 10,000 families in the country.

As we all know, collaboration is a tough one and it has been a challenge to figure out the right approach and level for this collaboration. One year into the project we – thanks to the commitment of so many parties – are thrilled to see the commitment of the ICSOs and several other organisations to make this initiative a success. Our clear ambition in the upcoming months is: a) finalise and evaluate the results of the national level work, b) based on these insights develop an ambitious “blueprint” for setting up evidence-driven partnerships bringing together actors across the sectors, jointly fighting for the full inclusion of marginalised people in the SDG delivery and c) secure funding for a scaled-up version of this initiative that will be expanded to more countries until 2022.

We see a lot of potential in this initiative and we also know that there just is no other way: In order to ensure nobody is left behind in the delivery of the SDGs, actors across the sectors must join forces and pool strengths and knowledge. The ICSOs can play a key role in this, working across the globe with structures that reaches from the grassroots to the international level. One of the sector’s key strengths is this wide reach and influence and the resulting ability to trigger and shape change. The project is a key lever for showing the sector’s capabilities to make the SDGs a success for everybody, including the people who live at the margins of society – hence, failure is not an option!

We are looking forward to hearing from anyone who is interested in being part of this collaboration.


Åsa Månsson

Special Projects

Wikimedia Foundation

In May 2020 Åsa left the Centre and joined Wikimedia Germany in a role working on organisational development’. Between 2010 and 2013, Åsa acted as manager of the INGO Accountability Charter (Accountable Now). In September 2013, Åsa took up the role as Director of Development, innovating the Centre’s fundraising and communication efforts. Since October 2016, Åsa has been Director of the Global Standard and has additionally taken on the role as the Centre’s Programme Director in mid-2017. Originally from Sweden, Åsa earlier worked for a consultancy, evaluating social projects within the public and civil society sector. Åsa studied European Studies and Sociology at universities in Gothenburg and Berlin. She completed her education with a Master’s thesis on the role of civil society in European governance.

Peter Koblowsky

Senior Partnership Manager - Leave No One Behind

International Civil Society Centre

Peter joined the Centre in January 2013, back then as a trainee. He completed the traineeship in the advocacy & campaigning office of World Vision Germany. Peter now coordinates the Leave No One Behind project and contributes to the development and implementation of various other strategic formats. Before joining the Centre, Peter worked for various organisations and think tanks in the development sector, being an expert in multi-stakeholder processes. He studied at the University of Bonn and graduated with an MA in Political Science with a focus on multi-actor advocacy for climate policy.

Live Chat with Ed Boswell on “Organizational Culture and Its Impact on Change in the Civil Society Sector”

12th September 2018 by Thomas Howie

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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.

Chemnitz – United Against Hate

5th September 2018 by Thomas Howie

The events seen in the previous week in Chemnitz are deeply disturbing. Reports of aggression and violence towards those believed to be foreigners, remind us all of how fragile tolerance and empathy are.

However, just like the 50,000 people gathered at the anti-racism concert in Chemnitz this week, we stand in solidarity with those who are working for a united world and against those who try to divide us.

As an international civil society organisation based in Berlin, our work is based on respect and tolerance for all. We aim to bring about greater solidarity between communities and across borders.

We stand in solidarity with all those affected by racism and support work that brings people closer together.

Communications Manager

International Civil Society Centre

Global Perspectives 2018 – why you should come and join in…

4th September 2018 by Thomas Howie

Global Perspectives 2018 will bring generations together in a unique framework. Established civil-society leaders can glean from the creativity and energy of young innovators, while younger actors can gain experience and useful networking opportunities. The conference emphasises mutual learning with a blend of workshops, panel discussions and interactive peer-to-peer exchange. Participants are invited to contribute in various ways, such as by hosting a workshop, planning side meetings or showcasing their initiatives.

It is a very rewarding environment, one that you will definitely enjoy, but don’t just take it from us. watch these videos from previous participants to see what Global Perspectives 2018 can offer you.

Uygar Özesmi – Founder and Instigator of Good4Trust

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Claudia Juech – CEO and President of Cloudera Foundation

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Richard Pichler – Special Representative for External Affairs and Resources for SOS Children’s Villages International


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Meg Gardinier – Secretary General of ChildFund Alliance

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Communications Manager

International Civil Society Centre