Upcoming Digital Debate: Who is afraid of African data sovereignty?

23rd March 2021 by Karl Steinacker

Those who follow the news know that these days, politicians tend to use the term sovereignty mainly in two different contexts: when it comes to close borders and keep migrants and refugees out or in discussions that touch on the ongoing transformation of our societies. That’s the moment they advocate for technological, cyber, and/or data sovereignty.

It was, thus, a question of time that somebody would bring up the issue of African data sovereignty. It happened in the weekly magazine Jeune Afrique in summer 2020 when the Senegalese law professor Jean-Louis Corréa stated that the data extraction by entities of the Global North is not benefitting Africans. He made no difference between data collection and mining for commercial and other purposes and called on African leaders to resist the ongoing cyber colonialism[1].

At around the same time, Paul Currion identified the unfinished business of decolonization and described it from the following angles: how aid flows map soft power relationships between former colonial powers and former colonies; how the career trajectory of many international aid workers often resembles that of colonial administrators; and how the aid beneficiary has been constructed as a post-colonial Other[2]. And now data.

Hence, it seems obvious to put the role of Africa in the global digital market on the agenda of the Digital Debates event series which was launched by the International Civil Society Centre in 2021. Once a month Barbara Iverson hosts such a debate. The next one will be held on 1 April and discuss the question: Is Africa “falling prey” to data colonialism?

We invite you to join this discussion here: Digital Debate 2: Is Africa ‘falling prey’ to Data Colonialism? – The International Civil Society Centre (icscentre.org)

Barbara Iverson will host Jean-Louis Corréa together with Karen Guevara of the Equanimity Foundation.

[1] Jean-Louis Corréa, [Tribune] Numérique : l’Afrique veut donner de la voix, in : Jeune Afrique, 9 July 2020,  https://t1p.de/hgql

[2]  Paul Currion, Decolonising aid, again – The unfinished business of decolonisation is the original sin of the modern aid industry, in: The New Humanitarian, 13 July 2020, https://t1p.de/4ful

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Karl Steinacker

Digital Advisor

International Civil Society Centre

Karl joined the Centre in June 2019 after a professional career in institutions of German technical co-operation and as humanitarian manager in the United Nations. He spent years in conflict zones, such as the Gaza Strip, the Great Lakes region in Central Africa, and in the Sahel. He led multi-sectoral teams on data management, refugee registration and biometrics. At the ICS Centre he will work pro bono on issues relating to artificial intelligence, digital transformation, identity and trust as well as their impact on civil society in general and ICSOs in particular. Karl, born in 1960 in Germany, is a graduate of the Political Science faculty of the Free University of Berlin and studied Public International Law at Cambridge University.


Between Power and Irrelevance: Are ICSOs actually looking at shifting their roles?

18th March 2021 by Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken and Barney Tallack

In the first of two guest blogs, accompanying the publication of ‘Between Power and Irrelevance: the Future of Transnational NGOs’, George E. Mitchell and Hans Peter Schmitz argued that if the ‘charity architecture’ in which our ICSO sector has been embedded for decades does not change, ICSOs will not be able to achieve the long-term impact they promise to deliver.

In this companion blog, Barney Tallack and Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken discuss some recent changes in the environment of ICSOs and what this means for their role. An upcoming interview with all four authors on these big questions of power and relevance of ICSOs will also be released later this month on the Centre’s Civil Society Futures and Innovation Podcast.

What has shifted over the past 12-18 months, in terms of ICSO power and relevance?

The COVID-19 pandemic primarily accelerated underlying challenges, providing additional drivers for what have been longer-standing trends:

  • The financial duress, which started well before the pandemic based on plateauing and/or declining fundraising in traditional ‘markets’ deepened. Some big ICSOs, such as World Vision and Save the Children, had good years in 2020 in terms of income. Many others, however, were treading water or are in decline, and furloughs and layoffs are now more common.
  • Southern philanthropy is increasing – its impact on North-founded ICSOs uncertain.
  • An increased interest in Mergers & Acquisitions.
  • A shift towards a network model of autonomous, lean organisations.
  • Increased operational interest in shared services, office space, etc.
  • Significant soul-searching on anti-racism, equity, diversity and inclusion. Strong emphasis on cognitive awareness-raising, in the form of discussion, training, etc. – even though research shows this has limited impact and can even backfire, when used as the sole solution.
  • Long-term transition to ‘digital first’ organisations. But will ICSOs be willing to relinquish control when it comes to people-powered forms of campaigning and fundraising? And succeed in effectively linking online and face-to-face collaboration and organising?

#ShiftThePower: Highly relevant but in need of some nuance

The #shiftthepower and decolonising aid narratives, rhetorically, have become stronger and calls for action louder. The key question is: will ICSOs hear the critiques of Global South civil society, academics and governments and respond this time with greater clarity on how their role and size need to change and/or reduce significantly, in order to retain legitimacy and relevance? And can they discern the contexts in which a larger scale and global presence is still adding value?

At the same time, let’s add some nuance. For instance, which parts of global South civil society do not agree with the stance that ICSOs are crowding them out, and why not? We also urge the sector to take a nuanced, contextualised approach. The request to simply transfer unrestricted resources to Southern CSOs does not recognise the necessity for northern ICSOs to still create that income in the first place. They can only do this by being out in front of the public in their own markets, or by mobilising citizens to give their governments the mandates to allocate resources.

At the same time, a good amount of philanthropy is provided by high wealth individuals (increasingly from all parts of the world) who still need persuading that direct transfer of resources to CSOs in the Global South means that their ways of imprinting on such delivery will be more limited. 

Equally, the commitment of boards, staff and volunteers to social justice and solidarity should not be dismissively categorised as being all about self-interest. It is the “how”, the “forms and norms” (as we say in the book) that need to change. It is not about the wholesale removal of Northern ICSOs from the equation.

Are ICSOs actually rethinking roles – in a serious way?

ICSOs need to seriously rethink shifting their roles to respond to this set of drivers, but we have not yet seen widespread openness to doing this in significant ways. By this, we mean more focused, specific and limited roles that really add value to the system, given the maturity of Global South civil society. Few ICSOs have fundamentally changed their role, power structure, or organisational “forms and norms”.

How ICSO leaders can start doing this:

  • Engage with your critical friends/stakeholders to ask for robust critique of where your organisation is helpful and where it is not
  • Know that recognising the need to change roles in some areas does not invalidate your organisation’s historic purpose and achievements up to that point     
  • Frame sharing power with Southern peers and moving to new roles as a way of regaining valuable legitimacy and relevance

What these new roles could look like:

  • Be the campaigning ally/presence in their home countries for truly global multi-stakeholder co-owned and co-created campaigns
  • In public education and mobilisation, connect missions abroad to social justice issues at home
  • Provide, upon request, focused consulting services in specific thematic and technical niches
  • Offer policy research services, targeting mainly governments and institutions based in Europe, the Americas, and other wealthy nations
  • Broker relationships in multi-stakeholder collaborations
  • Play a backbone role, upon request, in networks of Global South actors to support collective impact
  • Be open to merging or being acquired by other actors (including in the Global South) for specific expertise or country footprint.

As practitioners, we will be keen to follow whether we will see such role shifts develop, and with them a greater handover of power, authority and decision rights – not just responsibility and risk – to country-level leadership, national boards and to partners.

As a sector, we need now more than ever to identify and share models of transformative practice in role shifting, and we will stay connected with the Centre to do this together in future. So if you have something significant to share on this, please get in touch!

Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken, alongside George E. Mitchell and Hans Peter Schmitz, are co-authors of the recently published book Between Power and Irrelevance: the Future of Transnational NGOs. You can discover more details about it here.

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Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken

Principal Consultant

Five Oaks Consulting

Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken has worked on international development and civil society issues for 30 years, in practice, in academia and as independent consultant. Before launching her consulting practice, Five Oaks Consulting, Tosca was the Director of the Transnational NGO Initiative at Syracuse University, USA. She focuses on NGO change management, leadership development and organisational culture. She has served as board member of InterAction, Public Interest Registry, ProLiteracy and Cadasta. Early in her career, Tosca worked as development practitioner for NGOs, the UN, the World Bank and at a think tank based in the Netherlands, Tosca’s country of birth.

Barney Tallack

Consultant on INGO strategy and transformation

Barney has worked as a practitioner in the INGO sector for nearly 30 years. He has held senior leadership and Board member roles in a variety of international and UK based organisations. He has deep experience in leading strategy and organisational transformation programmes, supporting restructurings, governance and NGO mergers. As Director of Strategy for Oxfam International, he ran the global strategy process and for five years the global transformation and change programme.


Tools for inclusive futures: Reflections on ‘Imagining Feminist Futures after COVID-19’

5th March 2021 by Vicky Tongue

In 2021, the Centre’s Scanning the Horizon futures community is working on ‘inclusive and equitable futures’, exploring and sharing models, analysis and collaborative opportunities for feminist, racially just futures. One key part is sharing practical and accessible tools, particularly open source methods which do not require significant specialist knowledge or skills to implement and, increasingly, virtual delivery options.

We want to explore new opportunities to either use these tools for our own community or group collaborations, or exchange experiences as we use shared techniques with our own audiences. These tools ‘meet the author’ tools workshops are a new kind of online community offering this year.

Tools for inclusive futures: Bringing you the best of what is ‘out there’

Common barriers to introducing or strengthening futures thinking in organisations include time-consuming workshops, not being able to bring diverse groups together (especially in-person) or the need for consultants or specialists to lead this work. So in 2021, we want to find the best of what is ‘out there’ to address these challenges, and bring them back into our community to help democratise futures practice beyond a smaller group of organisational strategic thinkers.

So we were very excited to find the new ‘Imagining Feminist Futures after COVID-19’ workshop methodology developed by the Australian CSO International Women’s Development Agency (IWDA) in 2020. This is a 3-hour online methodology which can bring new, diverse audiences together without expert external facilitation. And we partnered with IWDA to deliver a combined familiarisation and training of trainers session on 23-24 February for ten organisations from the Scanning the Horizon community.

A way to bring futures thinking to feminist thinkers, and feminist thinking to futures thinkers

Imagining Feminist Futures After COVID-19 is a project IWDA with support from a steering group of actors across the feminist movement. The project aims to enable feminist organisations and networks to think through the ways in which the COVID-19 crisis is changing the future trajectories – both positive and negative – for feminist social change towards the year 2030.

IWDA commissioned a consortium of feminist futurists, led by Changeist, to design this adaptable workshop methodology based on futures thinking approaches to support diverse feminist activists, organisations and networks to come together virtually (or in person where possible) and apply their own futures thinking and scenario building. For many participants, it may be their first experience of structured futures thinking, and as such, the tools have been designed for use by an audience which is totally new to the concepts.

A core objective of the project is to make the workshop methodology available for anyone to run with their own organisation, network or community. In return, they ask that participants share the findings from these different workshops. IWDA, along with project steering group members, plan to bring their own analysis and visioning to these outcomes and develop a range of creative outputs to add to the rich discussions happening across feminist movements.

IWDA has been holding feminist futures workshops with participants in Australia and across Asia and the Pacific. This workshop with our Scanning the Horizon community was IWDA’s first time with a group of more generalist futures thinkers, rather than strongly feminist-focused organisations and individuals.

The short summaries of (i) principles and frameworks that support and enable a feminist future and (ii) privileging forces/established power structures within society that hinder equal progress towards feminist futures help bring about different and deeper types of conversation. With more generalist audiences, we recommend including these as additional pre-reading, and to increase the amount of time in the agenda allocated to discussing the lens of privileging forces.

And actually, just a great entry point for different and dynamic conversations

Participants felt the workshop methodology can be used both to inform strategic thinking and also as a tool for personal formation and training minds to think in more inclusive and equitable ways about the future. Its full trends list includes STEEP + V – incorporating values into a standard social, technological, economic, environmental and political assessment – which makes this a more holistic and interesting process.

We wanted our particular group to work on a broad range of trends, so included 18 from the full list of 20 (three teams with six trends). For groups with a specific aim or audience, focusing down on a smaller set of more relevant or influential trends may work better for more focused futures conversations.

Interestingly, of the trends provided, our three breakout teams independently decided to focus on: (i) ‘new faces of change’, (ii) ‘refocus on community’ and (iii) ‘sharing and peer economies’. This may reflect interest in exploring some of the new decentralised and power and leadership models which have become more prominent since COVID-19.

You can see the outcomes of our conversations here. They show that the method is great at enabling dynamic and interesting exchanges which can shift thinking and explore new possibilities in the group you’re working with. It also documents a range of insights which can be compared and contrasted with other groups also using the tool.

You don’t need expert knowledge, but you do need well-prepared facilitation

Key factors for facilitation are who you have in the virtual ‘room’ (see below), how you capture different perspectives, and how you support participation and share the findings.

IWDA have really made the toolkit as ready to use as possible, with a clear, well-illustrated facilitation guide and pre-populated Miro board for your use. After our session, nearly all participants felt ready to run a workshop themselves, with proper preparation time. This included participants relatively new to futures thinking, feminist thinking or even both, which reiterates just how accessible it is and does not require significant pre-existing knowledge, experience or expertise.

It does, however, require careful thought on facilitation, and time to ensure in advance that participants have sufficient basic skills and familiarisation with Miro. This may be easier for digital natives and require more preparation time for others (note that participation does not require a paid account. You should offer advance familiarisation sessions to people who have not Miro before, and share a practice ‘play’ board. The workshop board layout is a very intuitive design, with arrows to guide people through the navigation. If you take this time and care, the technology should not be alienating or prevent people from taking part.

And you do need to stress fully with participants how important it is for them to take the time for the pre-reading so that they will get the most out of the group conversations.

You also need to think through how to organise the group documentation of dynamic conversations to fit the time available – as you will feel the pressure to get things down! The beauty of Miro allows everyone to write down and share their ideas individually, in an open way aligned to the aims of the method. But a designated scribe may also be needed to help summarise the collective sense-making conversations for report back in plenary, at the risk of simplifying or even silencing some of other strands, to report back to the others.

Ensuring diversity in the virtual room and breakout teams

When asked who they planned to run the workshop with, there was a real mix of audiences, both internally within our own organisations, externally with partners, networks and stakeholders, and in social circles with family and friends. And also with a range of people – activists and young changemakers, advocates, leadership/management teams, gender team/community of practice – but ideally with a broad mix of perspectives and roles to keep the explorations as diverse and dynamic as possible.

The workshop is designed for 5-20 participants. Breakout groups of around four people feels optimal to both generate ideas and keep documenting of conversations manageable. But ensuring diversity of groups is most critical – experience/knowledge/roles (futures/feminist/other), gender and geographic diversity, and a mix of optimists/pessimists (which could be identified by icebreakers).

Building a base of practice and knowledge

Half the organisations who took part are already planning to run workshops with their networks. The Centre itself will run another session in May at an Americas/Europe/Africa-friendly time for organisations. We want to contribute to a community of worldwide practitioners using this method, and share both content findings and facilitation experiences or tips with IWDA. This blog is our first contribution, so watch this space for more updates from us and the other participants-turned-practitioners, over the coming months!

Let us know if you are interested in joining or running an upcoming workshop on ‘Imagining Feminist Futures after COVID-19’.

Our next community methods/tools workshop will be with ParEvo on 29 April 2021 – see more here.

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Vicky Tongue

Head of Futures and Innovation

International Civil Society Centre

Vicky Tongue is the International Civil Society Centre’s Head of Futures and Innovation, leading our core initiatives on future trends, horizon scanning and civil society innovation. Vicky has more than 15 years’ senior programme management with several leading UK-based ISCOs, including Marie Stopes International, Article 19, CAFOD, ODI and Save the Children.