In a world becoming increasingly dominated by geopolitical issues, authoritarian rule and populism, the role of international civil society organisations (ICSOs) has perhaps never been more threatened, or more necessary.
At the heart of many of the discussions on these issues is China, and its rise as a global power. China is no longer a minor voice in development that can be ignored. It now presents the potential to be the biggest influencer in how the development sector changes in coming years.
It is clear that China’s increasing role in global development is done through a very different lens and approach to the traditional western rules-based order that has been evident over the last 50 years or so. It is challenging the status quo.
Whilst we often portray the international civil society sector as a somewhat dissident voice to the predominantly western approach to global governance and development, it reflects and reinforces much of this approach in its work and structures. The sector’s background in the western liberal way of thinking is creating some real challenges as ICSOs look at how they engage with a new participant with a different values base and approach.
It is clear is that China is here to stay as a major player in international development. This has been recognised by governments and the private sector, and the civil society sector must also recognise this, and identify how it needs to adapt to be relevant in this changing environment it works in.
So how should the sector, and the organisations working in it, respond? Here are my reflections from the Scanning the Horizon Annual Meeting in June, where we met to explore these questions:
• Focus on the central vision and adapt to the operational culture
The vast majority of ICSOs were founded to meet a deep and deserving need. They are an embodiment of a vision for change. This vision gives them purpose and meaning and must remain at the heart of all they do.
However, vision shouldn’t drive rigid adherence to approach or operations. Organisations who want to remain relevant in disruptive environments need to be agile and adaptive in their operational model. To work with different values, different approaches and different cultures, you need to be willing to invest in understanding them, how they think and work and how you can work with them. Engaging with China, and others, should be a part of every ICSO’s global strategy.
• Focus on building relationships
We work with people we like. What we do is not a transaction, but a relationship. This is especially true in working with the Chinese, who value understanding and relationship and think in a much longer timeframe than many of us in the West. Engaging with Chinese development partners will need a long-term approach and investment.
• Build real cross-sector partnerships
The traditional development model is being replaced by a much more diverse approach which includes increased engagement with the private sector. Much of this work is happening in sectoral silos at the moment, including the work of Chinese state and private organisations. Building capacity within ICSOs for real cross-sector partnerships, including creating the right culture for these to be a success and developing or recruiting the right skills, will be crucial to ensuring civil society can increase its influence and reach.
• Look to opportunities
ICSOs work in communities where there is an identified need. With the expanded development model, many more opportunities exist for partnerships that will enhance the effectiveness of the work being done by all involved. Whether it is partnering for economic development, environmental gains or acting as a constructive watchdog and community advocate, many new opportunities are presented through cross-sector partnerships.
This creates increased opportunities to influence the delivery and effectiveness of projects by Chinese organisations.
• Understand the risks and mitigate them where possible
Engaging with new partners who have different values presents real risks that can’t be ignored. Be realistic about these. Look to mitigate them wherever possible. An agile and informed operating model will help this immensely. However, if mitigation isn’t possible, don’t enter into partnerships that undermine your vision and values.
• Identify ways to engage in the new funding landscape of loans and grants that flow to the private sector
Organisations that have invested in understanding, in building relationships, who are open to cross-sector partnership and have an agile operational approach will be well positioned to engage in new models of funding. The final part is to look differently at how they can add value and where this will benefit both the community and the other partners in delivering better impact.
This has particular potential in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) where partnering with implementing contractors to make BRI projects more effective through community engagement and development, or with local communities and governments to build negotiating capacity, are both areas where ICSOs could add real value.
In summary, China is one of many disruptors influencing ICSOs today. It is here to stay as a dominant player.
The implications of not adapting how the sector engages with the various Chinese development organisations and initiatives are large and serious.
The benefits of making this a strategically important focus are potentially larger.
What is required to deliver this is what is required to build the future of ICSOs.