Anticipate, Adapt, Act: Shaping a resilient future for civil society

13th February 2024 by Mareyah Bhatti, Eva Gondor, Patricia Mugenzi

It is widely understood that the civil society sector faces undue restrictions and threats to its operating space globally. To help strengthen the capacity of civil society actors, we need to develop the ability to anticipate the future and act in a proactive manner to shape the future. The International Civil Society Centre and Forum for the Future recently collaborated on this issue at the International Civic Forum (ICF) 2023, a two-day workshop in Brussels joined by 40 actors from across the civil society sector. 

 

 

How do civil society organisations (CSOs) accustomed to fire-fighting crises imagine more adaptative and agile ways of preparedness and planning?

In mid-2023, we joined efforts to design a replicable methodology that offered a creative and engaging way to use future stories and scenarios leading to 2034. The purpose of this was to help CSOs design current and future strategic plans and inform their practices. The objectives offered participants a way to explore a range of possible futures and identify potential action areas to navigate those varied futures on three distinct levels: as individuals, organisations, and as a sector. We hoped to use the ICF 2023 to test the methodology and receive feedback on how it can be developed to support future planning for CSOs. 

The sessions took the attendees on a journey… first immersing them in the present and exploring current trends, then travelling to alternative possible futures based on the set of trends, and finally bridging the gap between possible futures and their actions, resources and mindsets. While the workshop surfaced several sectoral actions, the sessions were designed to ensure a focus on the attendees present and their specific agency and role in driving the change needed.

How could they as individuals in their respective roles contribute to their organisation’s resilience? And how could their organisation work with others to reduce sector-wide vulnerability? 

We designed the sessions to be generative spaces that led the group to bring their experience and expertise while stretching beyond what exists in the present and imagining more ambitious (yet tangible) actions for possible futures. 

“As CSOs, we need to get used to ‘futurisingas this informs current actions and helps us to avoid ‘routinising’.ICF participant

 

The participants produced a range of ideas at the sectoral, organisational, and individual levels that we summarised below:

Sector-wide actions

  1. We need to empower and involve local communities

Anticipation is about participation and if we want to build a better future, we need to listen to local communities, invest in community relations, and change approaches to collaboration. Local partners need to be involved from the beginning of processes; communities need to be turned into co-investors and co-designers rather than receivers. 

  1. The language we use needs to shift to remove barriers to involvement

As raised by a participant and echoed by many around the room, the language around development is “colonial-centric”. It is often in English, French, or Spanish and filled with jargon that can be difficult to interact with. How can we expect to involve people in decision-making and hear their voices, if the language or medium of conduct is inherently exclusionary? For communities – and the youth in particular – to be deeply involved, we need to think about access to such spaces and especially the language we use.

  1. We need to apply a more holistic approach and deepen collaboration on intersectional problems

The challenges we face in the civil society sector are complex and interconnected, and therefore require intersectional approaches. Rather than approaching challenges in isolation, we can use a similar concept to the “whole child approach” or “one health approach” to recognise intersectional identities, needs, and experience.

  1. We need to craft futures across the civil society sector and together with other sectors

Foresight needs to be ‘humanised’ and made approachable. It was viewed by many as a key skill to prepare for the future, and therefore needs to be done by a wider range of stakeholders. Thinking about the future is inherently a human act. Instead of approaching uncertainty with the usual sense of fear, foresight allows us to plan and stress test approaches against potential futures in a more informed manner. 

The process led to some aha’ moments for me which will have a significant impact on my planning.” ICF participant

Organisational actions

The participants worked in pairs or peer groups to draft tangible organisational plans they can contribute to. The ideas revolved around two aspects:

  • Strengthening participation and inclusiveness in decision-making processes International and local CSOs need to invest more into co-creation, reflection, and exploration of alternatives with partners and communities.
  • Building foresight capacities and applying foresight within organisational activities
    The participants left motivated to involve their colleagues, partners, and allies in further collaborative foresight processes and exercises.

Individual actions

Building foresight capacities and their application were further underlined in concrete individual actions that the participants expressed their interest in developing such as:

  • Promoting and prioritizing knowledge sharing about foresight to broaden perspectives
  • Planning a foresight exercise for colleagues to strengthen organisational capacities 
  • Integrating futures thinking into existing processes and upcoming strategies

The individual actions identified during the ICF 2023 underscore the importance of fostering foresight at multiple levels — empowering local communities, shifting organisational language, and humanizing foresight for broader stakeholder engagement to ensure plans, projects, and strategies reflect our hopes for the future.

“Futures thinking is a systemic process and should be given due attention.

 

So, what does this mean? 

Being a systemic process, futures thinking should be approached comprehensively, considering all interconnected aspects. In essence, it means recognising the need for a thorough strategy when addressing global challenges in the civil society sector. By practicing futures thinking, we take a proactive stance in tackling the complex issues faced by the sector, while fostering resilience, collaboration, and inclusivity. It is about developing the capacity to not only monitor trends but also to envision, through a participatory approach, how they might unfold providing us with a powerful tool to break away from conventional crisis management practices. Futures thinking urges us to be strategic, forward-looking, and adaptable in our approach, ensuring a more effective response to the evolving landscape of the civil society sector. 

 

Find out more 

The ICF 2023 was part of a wider three-year initiative “Anticipating futures for civil society operating space (2022 – 2025) led by the International Civil Society Centre. The initiative aims to strengthen anticipatory capacities and future readiness of civil society professionals who are working to defend and expand civic and civil society operating space. Check out this website to find further information and resources from this initiative and possibilities of involvement. 

 

Mareyah Bhatti

Change Designer

Forum for the Future

Mareyah is a Change Designer at Forum for the Future, with an academic background in medical geography and personal passion for food systems and their cultural significance. She works closely in the Food and Futures teams at Forum, managing and delivering their programmes. She was recently seconded to Singapore for the 'Protein Challenge Southeast Asia,' a runner-up for the esteemed Food Planet Prize. Beyond this, Mareyah contributes to Forum’s Future Centre platform as an editor, identifying emerging signals and authoring blogs on topics from the future of protein to human rights in the fashion supply chain.

Eva Gondor

Senior Project Manager

International Civil Society Centre

Eva leads on the Centre's civic space work - the Solidarity Action Network (SANE) aimed at strengthening resilience of and solidarity among civil society actors, and the International Civic Forum (ICF), our annual civic space platform to network and identify opportunities for collaboration. Prior to joining the Centre she worked at the Robert Bosch Stiftung (Foundation) in Stuttgart where she managed the foundation’s projects focusing on civil society and governance in Turkey, the Western Balkans, and North Africa.

Patricia Mugenzi

Strategic Foresight

International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC)

Patricia is the coordinator for Strategic foresight (Africa Region) at the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC). She helps IFRC’s National societies explore possible futures to address upcoming challenges. Before joining the IFRC, Patricia served in various positions in both international and governmental organisations, including the Government of Quebec. In this role, she provided invaluable insights and guidance on geopolitical matters, playing a pivotal role in shaping government policies and strategies.


Envisioning Tomorrow: Reflections from the International Civic Forum 2023 

23rd January 2024 by Elizabeth Parsons

The stage was set for the International Civic Forum (ICF) before the end of 2023 in the vibrant and creative innovation space of Transforma Lab, Brussels. For two days, a workshop with forty participants from around the globe was held with the aim of preparing them, their civil society organisations, and the civil society sector at large for anticipating futures. This is by no means an easy feat, but we were fortunate to hear how it played out for three participants: Patrick Allam, the Legal Officer from Spaces for Change, Melissa Juisi Simo, the West Africa Civil Society Institute’s (WACSI) Programmes Assistant, and Răzvan-Victor Sassu, the Head of Strategy and Policy for the World YMCA. In the interviews, they shared with us their thoughts about foresight and futures crafting and their takeaways from the experience.  

Regarding “futures” work, what has been your connection? 

Before attending the ICF 2023, all three interviewees had varied connections to futures work. As Melissa noted, most civil society organisations are essentially in “reaction mode.” Although her organisation has begun pursuing futures work, it is still a new area for her personally to explore. Prior to taking part in the ParEvo foresight exercise run by the ICSCentre in the first half of 2023, Patrick hadn’t work with it before. ParEvo is a participatory and evolutionary approach to creating stories about possible futures. In the exercise, 15 participants developed stories about possible civic space futures through eight iterations of storytelling. Patrick began the exercise with a great deal of scepticism and uncertainty about the future. But later on:

“I now recognize the role that we can play in ensuring that the future is one that we can actively govern and possibly shape its outcomes.” Patrick

Patrick Allam, the Legal Officer from Spaces for Change
Patrick Allam, the Legal Officer from Spaces for Change

Through this work, he started to see potential for a more positive future. On the other hand, for Răzvan, it is a daily reality to acknowledge the importance of foresight in the development of global strategy and policy. Futures thinking had already been incorporated into Răzvan’s strategic processes, but he pointed out that:

“We also want to try to expand the network of people who actually think futures thinking is important. We don’t want it to remain limited to a bubble in Geneva who finds it significant.”  Răzvan

Răzvan-Victor Sassu, the Head of Strategy and Policy for the World YMCA
Răzvan-Victor Sassu, the Head of Strategy and Policy for the World YMCA

The three participants all agree on the importance of futures thinking, despite having varying degrees of experience with it.

“We need futures if we want to lead the future that we are going into, if we want to see innovation, and if we want to see participation.” Melissa

How can we go about futures thinking? 

Melissa compares futures thinking to a daily task, something one will do daily to ensure longevity, efficiency and optimal productivity. She thinks that this strategy will promote creativity and teamwork – all of which are crucial for imagining the future. When talking about the strategy of his organisation, Răzvan brings up the creation of a think tank to facilitate strategic foresight, especially with regard to the needs of young people. He highlights the challenges of prioritising future thinking amidst ongoing crises and funding constraints, suggesting the integration of bite-sized future thinking activities into existing processes. Patrick emphasises the value of systematic future planning, not only within his organisation but also extending to their networks, having been influenced by his ICF experience. In his view, this is a means of being proactive as opposed to reactive, working towards a situation in which upcoming events won’t come as a surprise. 

Did you have any “aha” moments at the ICF? 

“Where can we make a difference now that will make a difference in the future?” is a quote that motivated Melissa.

How am I making a difference now for the future and not just making a difference now to correct the past? Because that has been the pattern.” Melissa

Melissa Juisi Simo, the West Africa Civil Society Institute's (WACSI) Programmes Assistant
Melissa Juisi Simo, the West Africa Civil Society Institute’s (WACSI) Programmes Assistant

Melissa further underlined: “It was so beautiful for me to see that although we’re different groups from different parts of the world, we’re able to see similar risks and opportunities available for civil society.” But at the same time, she reflected that if there is too much alignment in thinking and we only stay within civil society, this might lead to the omission of some crucial perspectives. There is a need for increased cooperation between civil society and other sectors, including the government and business when it comes to shaping the future. Răzvan’s eureka moment centred on the notion that the workshop simplified the idea of “futures literacy” for those who are unfamiliar with it. He can imagine that creating a simple “package” for organisations would be helpful. Patrick’s realisation was that:

“Instead of finding ourselves in the future, where we are in the vicious circle of always reacting to issues as they come up, the goal is that everyone of us will move to the mode where we are actively shaping our future.” Patrick

He adds that this approach shouldn’t be only applied when it comes to organisational strategy but also for funding and community involvement.  

International Civic Forum 2023 Group Photo
International Civic Forum 2023 Group Photo

What will you do with the insights from the ICF? 

Melissa, Patrick, and Răzvan talked about how they wanted to incorporate futures thinking into their work going forward. Melissa intends to absorb the information and share it with others through an article that can be used as a reference. Her second ambition is to develop a curriculum or a learning material to share with other civil society organisations to strengthen their capacities. Patrick is eager to implement a more methodical approach to integrating foresight into the institutional thinking of his organisation and expanding it to their network. Răzvan advocates for the inclusion of strategic foresight as a fundamental component of strategic planning and proposes incorporating futures thinking and methods into routine meetings, such as a staff retreat. 

Throughout the interviews, Melissa, Patrick, and Răzvan highlighted the growing significance of foresight and anticipation for civil society. They further emphasised the need for taking an integrated approach to futures thinking and making it a regular practice. The perspectives and experiences that they have shared serve as a reminder of the complexity of the issue, the opportunity it presents, and the teamwork needed to address it.

International Civic Forum 2023
International Civic Forum 2023
International Civic Forum 2023
International Civic Forum 2023 where forty civil society professionals met to workshop on anticipating futures.

If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, check out Anticipating futures for civil society operating space – Solidarity Action Network (SANE). The International Civil Society Centre’s three-year initiative (2022 – 2025) focussing on strengthening anticipatory capacities and future readiness of civil society professionals who are working to defend and expand civic and civil society operating space. The ICF methodology was co-developed by the ICSCentre and Forum for the Future, with support of Patricia Mugenzi.

Communications Manager

International Civil Society Centre


The Global Standard for CSO Accountability – An intense and participatory journey

14th December 2023 by Anabel Cruz and Miriam Niehaus

Almost exactly 10 years ago during the Global Perspectives conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, hosted by the International Civil Society Centre and CIVICUS, colleagues from AccountableNow (back then the INGO Accountability Charter), InterAction, Rendir Cuentas and VANI introduced an idea: to establish a Global Standard for CSO accountability. An idea developed into a global partnership driving a paradigm shift from reporting on accountability, mainly for donors’ sake, to Dynamic Accountability. The Global Standard has been developed as a tool for strengthened impact and resilience by becoming more transparent, responsive, ethical and accountable towards the people whom we work for and with. By now the Global Standard is both a tool for organisations to showcase their accountability and with strengthened integrity withstand attacks design to shrinking civic space, as well as a means to shift power in the mechanisms of programme and strategy development.   

The partnership’s story is one of exemplary global collaboration between regional and national CSO network organisations that worked very hard to achieve an agreed vision for accountability and then implement and translate it to their local context.  With the support of Sida Sweden, several project partners from all corners of the world initially came together to develop the Global Standard: AccountableNow, the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID), the Balkan Civil Society Development Network (BCSDN), the Cooperation Committee for Cambodia (CCC), Deniva, InterAction, the International Civil Society Centre, Rendir Cuentas, Viwango, and the Voluntary Action network India (VANI), later to be joined by the Pacific Island Association of Non-Governmental Organisations (PIANGO), the PHE Ethiopia Consortium, and the West Africa Civil Society Institute (WACSI). In December 2017 the Global Standard for CSO Accountability was officially launched at the CIVICUS International Civil Society Week in Fiji. Now, ten years on from its inception, the global collaboration has been able to develop into a full cooperative and independent Partnership that will continue working with the sector in its ever important drive to more and better accountability. Future activities include continuing with the implementation of the Global Standard, and supporting CSOs to strengthen their accountability practices by fostering more horizontal and dynamically accountable relationships between CSOs and actors like donors, governments, and international organisations.  

Though no longer institutionally involved the International Civil Society Centre is proud to have been part of the journey of this important initiative and looks forward to its next steps.  

 

Global Standard Global Standard

Global Standard Partners 2018

 

Anabel Cruz

Director and Coordinator

Institute for Communication and Development (ICD) and Regional Initiative Rendir Cuentas

Anabel Cruz is originally from Uruguay and has three decades of experience in civil society promotion, research, and training in Latin America and in the global context. She is the Founder Director of the Institute for Communication and Development (ICD) in Uruguay and has been a consultant and evaluator for international organizations, a trainer and facilitator and a visiting lecturer at universities in several countries. She is an expert on topics related to citizen participation, civil society transparency, accountability, and good governance. She has a long working experience with local, national, regional, and global CSO networks and platforms promoting transparency and accountability of civil society and other stakeholders, leading international research, and coordinating the efforts of organizations to implement common standards, and models for accountability mechanisms. She has been the Board Chair of CIVICUS, the World Alliance for Citizen Participation in two different periods (2007-2010 and 2016-2019). She led the creation in 2009, and is since then the co-coordinator of Rendir Cuentas, a Regional Civil Society Accountability Initiative, with active CSO members and partners in 12 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. Anabel is currently the Civil Society Co-Chair of the Open Government Partnership (OGP) Steering Committee.

Miriam Niehaus

Head of Programmes

International Civil Society Centre

Miriam leads the Centre’s programmes. She started at the Centre as Executive Assistant in 2014 and then, as Project Manager, developed and implemented the Centre’s projects on civic space between 2016 and 2019. Prior to joining the Centre Miriam worked for VSO International and GIZ in the Palestinian Territories. She holds a BA in Islamic Studies and Social Anthropology from the University of Freiburg and an MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies.


Global Perspectives 2023 – Moments of Truth 

22nd November 2023 by Miriam Niehaus

Prolonged humanitarian crises, the rise of generative artificial intelligence, the use of disinformation to polarise societies and manipulate elections, the suppression of civil society from state and non-state actors and decreasing funding… are just a few of the ever-growing challenges that social justice, humanitarian, and development organisations must contend with. As progressive and rights-based civil society organisations – from local to international level – are grappling with these crises of the past few years, the International Civil Society Centre once again had the honour of curating our yearly conference, Global Perspectives on these topics. “Global Perspectives – Moments of Truth” happened on 9 November and brought together hundreds of online participants across five different sessions to not just ponder these challenges but provide concrete examples and explore ideas on how we can collaboratively tackle them.  

Though each session was independently curated, three overarching themes emerged. 

The Future of Civic Space is Now
Anticipating the factors that will constrict our civic space a decade from now demands our attention today. Civic Space has been in decline and is likely to continue on this trajectory. Are we adequately addressing the issues that will likely shape our societies in the next decade, impacting our civic engagement? In the session titled “Learn From and Engage on Futures Scenarios for Civic Space” participants learned about the outcomes of the Centre’s “A History of Civic Space 2024-2034”, exercise, where representatives from 15 civil society organisations collaborated to develop possible future scenarios for civic space. Session participants engaged in the scenarios and identified actionable steps to either advance or prevent undesirable outcomes. For example, a likely scenario of artificial intelligence (AI) first enabling a lot of good work at scale and then backfiring on civil society as “obstacles to progress”, highlighted the urgency to get into the AI game now. Later in the day at the “Digital Dialogue – AI: Solution or Threat to Mis-/Disinformation?” drove the point home: two scholars Liz Orembo from Research ICT Africa and Admire Mare from the University of Johannesburg, called on civil society organisations to address AI now, as governance advocates, watchdogs, as well as helping to increase media literacy. This is especially needed as there are a number of key elections coming up next year where we will likely see sophisticated disinformation campaigns. Henry Parker from Logically, informed us that there is a lot of potential to use AI to identify disinformation campaigns and reprimand the actors responsible. During “A Sector Conversation”, Stéphane Duguin from CyberPeace Institute warned us that we need to create a comparable countermodel if we wish to increase our capacity to oppose disinformation campaigns. Read their approach to responsible use of artificial intelligence here and watch this space as we are launching our Sector Guidance on Mis-, Dis-, and Mal-information: Insights and Foresights in early 2024.    

Representation Matters
Two sessions, “The Truth is in the Telling” and “Exploring Personal Realities (of Marginalisation)”, delved into the importance of representation. Insights from individuals working with and identifying as members of marginalised communities underscored the need for more direct dialogue with those in power. Nana Afadzinu from WACSI emphasised in “A Sector Conversation” the need for introspection and acknowledgement of systemic inequity. Festus Odingo from the SDG Kenya Forum emphasised the significance of partnerships as a key force for change, emphasising how they may broaden the scope and effect of community-based initiatives. Representation of course also happens through communication pieces – donor reports, flyers, fundraising advertisements and much more. Undeniably, communication about Global North-financed Global South projects has been a big part of manifesting white saviourism and entrenching power imbalances. By now, several organisations have begun to examine this reality and make changes. The Ethical Story Telling Guideline, a toolkit that PATH and Metro Group DRC contributed to, was presented by the speakers. It can assist companies in determining how to, for instance, become more ethical by making concrete adjustments to the planning process. Communication audits, such as the ones conducted every two years by CARE International, can be useful in holding teams accountable and providing incentives for improvement. As part of its bottom-up strategy to alter various communication channels, CARE has made significant efforts to maximise informed consent and minimise unconscious bias. Yet, there are still incredibly difficult dilemmas when organisations must weigh communication subjects’ agency against their safety, for example when portraying female CSO workers in Afghanistan. The emphasis is on respect. A key takeaway from our sessions is to aim to do no harm but failing forward is inevitable as we push one another to improve and recognise ethical storytelling as a fundamental  component of power shifts within the industry. 

Weathering a Perfect Storm
Our speakers highlighted this year a shrinking civic space, humanitarian crises piling up and worsening, colonial structures still fostering inequity, and growing cybercrime and disinformation adding to the complexity. All of this is happening in the face of a challenging global economy with a sharp decline for our causes. Are we experiencing a perfect storm? Yet, for most in the sector, there is a firm resolve to plough on despite difficult circumstances. There is no alternative. It has been inspiring to see among others, leaders from ICVA, CIVICUS, WACSI and the CyberPeace Institute sharing resources, knowledge and honest invitations to collaborate more, helping each other to overcome our deficiencies and capitalise on our respective expertise and strengths.  

To continue surviving the storm, the International Civil Society Centre will keep bringing attention to the incredible innovations that are being developed in the field. As Mirela Shuteriqi from ICVA said in her closing statement, we must also transform ourselves. We must encourage a culture and bring about changes at the UN level, using this as a chance to collaborate and tackle social justice issues. We remain dedicated to facilitating dialogue, sharing innovations, and fostering collaboration within the sector. It is through collective determination, thoughtful introspection, and ethical storytelling that we can face the challenges that lay ahead, transform ourselves, and forge a path towards a more just and equitable future. The journey is ongoing, but together, as a united force, we embark on it with unwavering resolve. 

 

Special thanks to all our speakers – Jennifer Abomnger, Nana Afadzinu, Stéphane Duguin, Patrick Gathara, Arnold Gekonge, Eva Gondor, Heather Hutchings, Wolfgang Jamann, Lysa John, Hussam Joudah, Admire Mare, Shalini Moodley, Patricia Mugenzi, Levis Nderitu, Nana Nwachukwu, Festus Odingo, Elizabeth Orembo, Henry Parker, Neha Rayamajhi, Mirela Shuteriqi, Clare Spurrell, David Verga, and Rachel Wilkinson.

 

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Miriam Niehaus

Head of Programmes

International Civil Society Centre

Miriam leads the Centre’s programmes. She started at the Centre as Executive Assistant in 2014 and then, as Project Manager, developed and implemented the Centre’s projects on civic space between 2016 and 2019. Prior to joining the Centre Miriam worked for VSO International and GIZ in the Palestinian Territories. She holds a BA in Islamic Studies and Social Anthropology from the University of Freiburg and an MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies.


Anticipate, listen patiently, and build a peer network – three lessons from Leading Together

10th July 2023 by Miriam Niehaus

For the first time in four years, the Centre convened its Leading Together conference in person again. Leading Together is our annual space for the global directors of the ICSO divisions of Human Resources, Policy/Advocacy, and Programmes. These groups have parallel peer group discussions as well as joint sessions over topics that concern them all. This year, the Scanning the Horizon community of futures-focused senior sector professionals also joined the group. We were thrilled to welcome participants on our home turf in Berlin and spend 48h learning, debating, and reflecting. The Centre team is busily following up on those 47+ items/ideas/insights generated during the event, and we would also like to share three insights that were key to us:

1. Exercising that anticipatory muscle is challenging, liberating – and necessary 

At Global Perspectives 2022, we heard and stressed how anticipatory capacity in (I)CSOs is a collective muscle we need to exercise constantly. We took this advice and focused peer and joint sessions on this topic: Discussions with Russell Reynolds on the role of leadership and using AI for the good of ICSOs as well as shaping the future through participatory strategy making were sessions where participants engaged with trends and how to “organise futures”. The Policy/Advocacy Directors discussed with David Griffiths, Associate Fellow at Chatham House the future of the Human Rights diplomacy 

We also really challenged participants with some freshly generated scenarios created in a collective exercise (ParEvo) the Centre has just concluded. Participants had to discuss and reflect on how civil society (organisations) might deal with and shape civil society space after a series of mega-tsunamis hit the world and severed all IT infrastructure.  While some scenarios stretched the goodwill of participants to further consider, the exercise was highlighted by many as important to encourage imagining futures differently. A series of mega-tsunamis will throw the world into disarray (not unlike a global pandemic) and might need primarily our crisis-response capacity. However, spending time on creating long-term visions for different futures can put us as civil society sector professionals in a different kind of driving seat versus racing to manage with futures narratives others – usually more powerful actors – are creating. 

 

2. Taking time for nuance and learning advances us collectively 

What was particularly enriching at this year’s conference was the participants’ willingness to engage in the substance of discussions and openness to critical challenges, and generally a learning mentality. We tried not to gloss over differences with buzzword definitions like “power shift” or “decolonising” but acknowledged the complexity of the matters we deal with and that we may get some things right and others wrong along the journey. Similarly, a joint discussion between the Programme and the Policy/Advocacy directors in exchange with AWID over anti-rights groups and the threat they pose to civic space was exemplary for constructive engagement: Participants brought so much nuance to the discussion and – it might sound like a cliché – embraced the diversity of viewpoints and created patience for understanding our individual or organisational contexts.  These high-quality discussions were incredibly enriching and displayed a high degree of collective responsibility for advancing as a sector.  

 

3. Our organisations are shifting fundamentally – from strategy making to recruitment processes – and peer support may just help keep the head above water 

A few years back someone said “’powershift’ is the water we all swim in”. This was certainly true for Leading Together. In so many sessions participants explored topics that come from our journeys to become organisations that are at least more power-aware or even mirror a decolonised, equitable and just society that we want to see. It was hugely encouraging to see the spread of organisational initiatives and the degree to which ambitions for change are permeating the organisations: to learn from the experience of WaterAid’s participatory strategy making journey, engage with Superrr Lab in what it takes to break western-centred views of futures making. In similar vein, Mission Talent and the cohort of Human Resources directors discussed the challenges and possibilities our changing sector holds to build more diverse organisations; the Programme Directors explored with Comic Relief what ways there are to work differently with bilateral donors to enable more equitable partnerships; and the Policy/Advocacy Directors are already experienced how shifting mandates of ICSOs hold increased expectations for their departments. Senior leaders from the ICSOs are demonstrating resolve and yet acknowledge that these are unchartered waters where peer exchange, inspiration and support is just what you need. 

If you are also an ICSO senior leader and you want to learn more about our offer, do reach out. We already look forward to the next round of Leading Together in 2024 – online – and in-person in 2025!  

 

Miriam Niehaus

Head of Programmes

International Civil Society Centre

Miriam leads the Centre’s programmes. She started at the Centre as Executive Assistant in 2014 and then, as Project Manager, developed and implemented the Centre’s projects on civic space between 2016 and 2019. Prior to joining the Centre Miriam worked for VSO International and GIZ in the Palestinian Territories. She holds a BA in Islamic Studies and Social Anthropology from the University of Freiburg and an MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies.


From LogFrames to Logarithms – A Travel Log

5th June 2023 by Karl Steinacker and Michael Kubach

Karl Steinacker and Michael Kubach are digital experts based in Berlin, Germany. This article is a reflection on their recent teaching assignment, “Digital Transformation and Social Justice”, at the Alice-Salomon University in Berlin, Germany.

During the 1990s, the world of public administrations and civil society organisations (CSOs) was awash with Change Management Teams. In particular, humanitarian and development organisations were, tasked to professionalise their work, to overcome charity and to create impact. The backbone of the process was the introduction of the Logical Framework, or LogFrame. This tool was originally developed for the US military and then adapted by NASA for its space programmes. After it was adopted by USAID and GTZ, an entire nomenclature for the humanitarian and development sectors was built around it: Results Based Management.

Even one of the authors proudly joined a Change Management Team and worked, so the buzzwords at the time, on Modernisation and Innovation. On top of the list of taboo concepts stood the term Welfare. In fact, the task was to implement neo-liberal policies at the level of the people living in extreme poverty. And in this context, the idea of unconditional support to ensure that members of a society can meet basic human needs, such as food and shelter, was simply rejected. The measure of support was not what a society could possibly afford but a revised paradigm of social justice aiming to reward effort and measure effectiveness. Management manuals were updated with an array of re-defined terminology stretching from authority, to responsibility, and most importantly accountability, to ensure compliance by everybody with these new policies.

Our journey into this realm of non-profit business administration would last for many years. The first task was to develop indicators: performance and impact indicators, at times SMART and then KPIs, but most importantly: measurable. Thus, datafication started on Excel sheets. For organisations mandated to protect and assist individuals, group statistics were deemed not to be sufficiently precise anymore. Registration systems had to be changed too: individual registration was to replace all systems that had been developed and used to provide collective support, to families or other groups.

Think tanks and govtech consulting firms were always eager to help for a fee: The digitalisation and the datafication of the social sphere would replace blanket statistical categorisations and allow for a more precise documentation of the individual. This idea of fine tuning corresponds to the sense of justice of many people working in the aid sector: A detailed analysis is much fairer than stereotypical evaluations[1].

While the early days of social statistics were characterized by the attempt to define meaningful categories, the growth of personalized data means that individuals are no longer counted as part of one big class, but increasingly as social-statistical singularities. The use of metrics and algorithms allows previously overlooked, hidden or willfully ignored differences to be identified, and hence utilized.[2]

Twenty-five years on, we find ourselves in a university classroom. Students, soon to enter the job market in the social sector, are confronted with our professional experience as we discuss digital transformation and social justice[3]. But the learning curve is steep for both, students and lecturers. For the latter, having stepped back from limited areas of responsibility in a single set of organisations, the bigger picture emerges: Yes, individual registration is indeed an empowerment tool providing an identity to somebody who is otherwise invisible, excluded, unbanked, and unfit to participate in the society and (digital) economy. However, it also allows for humanitarian[4] and social surveillance – not as an abstract possibility but as an everyday reality.

Today, authorities all over the world are experimenting with predictive algorithms. That sounds technical and innocent but as we dive deeper into the issue, we realise that the real meaning is rather specific: fraud detection systems in social welfare payment systems[5]. In the meantime, the hitherto banned terminology had it’s come back: welfare or social safety nets are, since a couple of years, en vogue again. But in the centuries-old Western tradition, welfare recipients must be monitored and, if necessary, sanctioned, while those who work and contribute must be assured that there is no waste. So it comes at no surprise that even today’s algorithms focus on the prime suspect, the individual fraudster, the undeserving poor.

Fraud detection systems promise that the taxpayer will no longer fall victim to fraud and efficiency gains can be re-directed to serve more people. The true extent of welfare fraud is regularly exaggerated [6]while the costs of such systems is routinely underestimated. A comparison of the estimated losses and investments doesn’t take place. It is the principle to detect and punish the fraudsters that prevail. Other issues don’t rank high either, for example on how to distinguish between honest mistakes and deliberate fraud. And as case workers spent more time entering and analysing data and in front of a computer screen, the less they have time and inclination to talk to real people and to understand the context of their life at the margins of society.

Thus, it can be said that routinely hundreds of thousands of people are being scored. Example Denmark: Here, a system called Udbetaling Danmark was created in 2012 to streamline the payment of welfare benefits. Its fraud control algorithms can access the personal data of millions of citizens, not all of whom receive welfare payments. In contrast to the hundreds of thousands affected by this data mining, the number of cases referred to the Police for further investigation are minute[7]

In the city of Rotterdam in the Netherlands every year, data of 30,000 welfare recipients is investigated in order to flag suspected welfare cheats. However, an analysis of its scoring system based on machine learning and algorithms showed systemic discrimination with regard to ethnicity, age, gender, and parenthood[8]. It revealed evidence of other fundamental flaws making the system both inaccurate and unfair. What might appear to a caseworker as a vulnerability is treated by the machine as grounds for suspicion. Despite the scale of data used to calculate risk scores, the output of the system is not better than random guesses. However, the consequences of being flagged by the “suspicion machine” can be drastic, with fraud controllers empowered to turn the lives of suspects inside out[9].

As reported by the World Bank, the recent Covid-19 pandemic provided a great push to implement digital social welfare systems in the global South. In fact, for the World Bank the so-called Digital Public Infrastructure (DPI), enabling “Digitizing Government to Person Payments (G2Px)”, are as fundamental for social and economic development today as physical infrastructure was for previous generations[10]. Hence, the World Bank finances globally systems modelled after the Indian Aadhaar system, where more than a billion persons have been registered biometrically. Aadhaar has become, for all intents and purposes, a pre-condition to receive subsidised food and other assistance for 800 million Indian citizens.

Important international aid organisations are not behaving differently from states. The World Food Programme alone holds data of more than 40 million people on its Scope data base. Unfortunately, WFP like other UN organisations, is not subject to data protection laws and the jurisdiction of courts. This makes the communities they have worked with particularly vulnerable.

In most places, the social will become the metric, where logarithms determine the operational conduit for delivering, controlling and withholding assistance, especially welfare payments. In other places, the power of logarithms may go even further, as part of trust systems, creditworthiness, and social credit. These social credit systems for individuals are highly controversial as they require mass surveillance since they aim to track behaviour beyond financial solvency. The social credit score of a citizen might not only suffer from incomplete, or inaccurate data, but also from assessing political loyalties and conformist social behaviour.

Hence, the question becomes urgent: what is social justice in a metric society and which role will CSOs play in this emerging environment, what will be their raison d’être?

Indian CSOs chose a pragmatic approach and engaged to ensure that these systems work in favour of those in need. These CSOs have analysed and strategised, on the basis of their principles and values, they endeavour to improve the newly emerging systems. Thus, some are engaged in advocacy, political and even legal battles to ensure that data protection measures are enacted and implemented. Others assist vulnerable individuals to register and to claim their entitlements and turn low-resolution into highresolution citizens[11]. Yet others engage in educational programmes to teach the users on the new digital environment and their rights therein.

Reflection and discourse might need to go even further and look at transparency and other societal issues, in particular with regard to logarithms. The city of Rotterdam was the only of several cities which agreed to a third party review of the algorithms deployed for fraud prevention purposes. Hence, there is a vast area to be chartered out: from the preservation of confidentiality, copyright and intellectual property rights to the demand for transparency where appropriate.

Lately it has been suggested that anti-racism or decolonisation dimensions will fundamentally change the long-term strategic thinking of important civil society organisations and that this would require developing concrete performance metrics and progress indicators[12]. This shows that the issue will not go away: Should those advocating and working on counter power[13] be using the same methodologies and tools than those currently holding power?

Our own personal story from LogFrame to Logarithms provides a number of lessons. The most important one is to understand the basic concepts underpinning the digital transformation of our societies: Power, social welfare in a market economy, individuals and their identity, and networks and platforms. Accepting that there is no escape room from the megatrend of digital transformation, neither for the individual, nor for the societies we are living in, means that engaging with these new technologies remains imperative. For the organisations that constitute civil society even more is at stake: It’s the race for relevance: Wherever human rights and social justice issues are at stake, whether an organisation focuses on advocacy or service delivery, what is needed are concepts and strategies to actively shape the ongoing transformation based on a clear idea of values and rights. Failing to do so will leave it to the govtech business industry to come up and implement their solutions uninhibitedly.

[1]  Steffen Mau, The Metric Society, 2019, p. 167.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Alice Salomon Hochschule, Berlin, Digital Transformation and Social Justice as part of the ICM programme.

[4] Mark Latonero, Stop Surveillance Humanitarianism, The New York Times, July 11, 2019.

[5] Suspicion Machines – Unprecedented experiment on welfare surveillance algorithm reveals discrimination, in: Lighthouse Reports, 6 March 2023.

[6] Consulting firms talk about welfare fraud up to nearly 5 per cent of benefits spending, while some national auditors’ offices estimate it at between 0.2 and 0.4 per cent. Ibid.

[7] AlgorithmWatch, Automating Society Report 2020, October 2020, pp. 46

[8] Suspicion Machines, see footnote 5 above

[9] Ibid.

[10] World Bank, Identification for Development (ID4D) and Digitalizing G2P Payments (G2Px) 2022 Annual Report (English), p. 2.

[11] Ranjit Singh, Steven Jackson, Seeing Like an Infrastructure: Low-resolution Citizens and the Aadhaar Identification Project, in: Proceedings of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction Archive Vol. 5, No. CSCW2, Article 315, October 2021,

[12] International Civil Society Centre, Sector Guide #2:Strategic Decision-Making in a Whirly World, July 2021, p. 26,

[13] Democratic Data: Developing Digital Counterpower, a discussion with Salomé Viljoen,

Karl Steinacker

Digital Advisor

International Civil Society Centre

Karl Steinacker is currently the Digital Advisor of the International Civil Society Centre. He studied political science at the Free University of Berlin and international law at Cambridge University. He then spent three decades working for the United Nations (UNDP, UNRWA, DPKO, UNHCR) in the fields of development, peacekeeping and refugee protection. At the UN Refugee Agency, he held positions in Africa and at its Headquarters and was responsible for Registration, Statistics, and Data and Identity Management as well as for Camp Coordination/Camp Management.

Michael Kubach

Digital Expert

Fraunhofer IAO

Since 2013, Michael Kubach has been researching issues around digital identity and trust, where he takes a socioeconomic, user-oriented perspective at the Fraunhofer IAO - Team Identity Management. Michael works/has worked in several European and national cooperative research projects such as the EC-funded projects ESSIF-TRAIN and LIGHTest (on trust infrastructures) and FutureID (federated identity management). Moreover, he is consulting international corporations and NGOs on identity and trust infrastructures as well as blockchain/DLT topics. Michael holds a PhD in economics from Georg-August-University Göttingen. He studied politics and administrative science as well as management in Konstanz, Göttingen and Lille.


Discover and learn from the Solidarity Playbook on cybersecurity

26th April 2023 by Eva Gondor

Strengthening cybersecurity

With increased digitalisation (international) civil society organisations – (I)CSOs – have faced an increase in digital threats and cyberattacks carried out by malicious actors interested in financial gains and access to sensitive data or identifiable personal information.

In recognition of this growing challenge, we captured case studies on how (I)CSOs responded to cyberattacks and collected lessons on how to better protect organisations online.

Solidarity Playbook case studies on cybersecurity 

The latest edition of the Solidarity Playbook features four case studies of how (I)CSOs dealt with actual cyberattacks. We partnered with the CyberPeace Institute to showcase these case studies and provide insights into how (I)CSOs can prevent and mitigate similar incidents.

Regaining access to a social media account 

Resisting six weeks of sustained phishing attacks

Deflecting a sophisticated brute-force and phishing attack 

Retrieving access to a hacked IT server  

Cybersecurity needs to be a shared responsibility – it requires attention across the whole organisation and cannot be borne only on the shoulders of IT staff.

 

 Facing cybersecurity challenges: Lessons learned and opportunity areas

Visit the Solidarity Action Network Webpage to find out more about the aims of the Solidarity Playbook and all the case study content.

For more information or feedback, reach out to Eva Gondor, Senior Project Manager

Eva Gondor

Senior Project Manager

International Civil Society Centre

Eva leads on the Centre's civic space work - the Solidarity Action Network (SANE) aimed at strengthening resilience of and solidarity among civil society actors, and the International Civic Forum (ICF), our annual civic space platform to network and identify opportunities for collaboration. Prior to joining the Centre she worked at the Robert Bosch Stiftung (Foundation) in Stuttgart where she managed the foundation’s projects focusing on civil society and governance in Turkey, the Western Balkans, and North Africa.


What trends did we miss and why do we miss them?

30th March 2023 by Paola Pierri, Rachel Wilkinson, Will Garrood

Spotting emerging trends at an early stage is key for the international civil society sector to be able to adapt and respond to those trends before they could have a negative impact or in order to make the most of an emerging opportunity.  

Trends and early signals are not always easy to spot and futurists and strategists within ICSOs are always looking for new ways and methods to get better at anticipating future scenarios in order to make the sector more resilient. 

Last Autumn during our Scanning the Horizon annual community meeting, Will Garrood from WaterAid ran an inspiring session to map, together with other key players and (I)CSOs, what trends we missed from 2022 and reflect together on why we missed them. 

Scanning the Horizon is the only collaborative trend scouting and analysis platform in the civil society sector. Members include leading ICSOs, national CSO umbrella organisations, philanthropy and development consultancies. It is a cross-sector community of experts and practitioners that gets together to share insights, explore key trends and develop relevant strategies.  

Here we are sharing our main learnings looking back at the trends we missed, and – more importantly – trying to unpack why we missed them.  

What trends we missed 

We were thinking a war was probably likely, but no one anticipated there would have been one in Europe! (a Participant) 

In a group exercise we mapped a series of trends that by that time had become visible but that no one in the group had anticipated before. Below is a selection of the missed trends. 

Conflict in Europe: this was something that no one in the group had anticipated as an imminent risk and that has profoundly impacted the sector, including through a diversion of funding towards supporting the local population after Ukraine’s invasion. 

‘Weaponisation’ of Energy: one of the after-effects of the war in Ukraine was that the use of energy sources and access to them became an additional ‘weapon’ used by Russia to put pressure on countries to not intervene in the conflict.  

Cyber and Digital Security and cyber conflicts: (I)CSOs have generally a good awareness of the possible impact of digital advancements as well as digital threats to their work, for example in the ways in which digital tools and media could exacerbate misinformation/ disinformation and malinformation but the large rate of increased attacks and risk to cybersecurity and the huge leap in large-language AI models, such as ChatGPT took many by surprise. The Centre recently published a study sharing useful practical insights on how can (I)CSOs better protect the communities they serve and their own work against cyberattacks.  

Why did or do we miss trends? 

The second part of our exercise with the Scanning Community focused on why people and organisations had not seen these trends coming or underestimated them. This is an even more important question to ask because if we reflect and identify the reasons why people usually miss these trends, then we can at least attempt to not fall into these traps again. 

Below is what we learnt. 

  • Trend Overload: for those who are not full-time futurists (and even for those who operate in this role full-time) keeping up with all the trends, publications, signals are not an easy task. ‘Trend overload’ might become a problem as we are not sure which one to consider and which one to prioritise. Getting trends scouting to become a regular exercise may help with that and learning to prioritise our sources for trends mapping and foresight will also help.  
  • Between Black Elephants and Black Swans: Some events are of course simply unpredictable (so-called Black Swans) but others are known and understood and yet not addressed. These phenomena are described as Black Elephants and they describe events that people tend to ignore, like global warming or the risk of more pandemics going forward. Ways to mitigate the impact of these Black Elephants are various, including calling these ‘elephants in the room’ by their name, celebrating the mitigation stories that help us remember that black elephants can still be avoided or breaking the silos of different organisational departments that stop important knowledge about trends and risk to circulate more widely.  
Elephant and Swan in continuous line art drawing style.
  • Disconnect between communities and language: When many people in (I)CSOs, corporates and governments don’t share language and discussion spaces, this is likely to mean things are missed. It may also be about who in (I)CSOs is thinking about these issues. There may be areas where government-facing teams are talking about issues a lot, but it isn’t percolating into the wider organisation. We talked about Ukraine in the discussion, but China/Taiwan may be another useful example. 
  • Unconscious bias: when we observe the trends that are emerging we cannot avoid bringing with us our unconscious bias, the things that we assume to be true based on what happen in the past and that help us orienting ourselves in the future. Unconscious Bias (e.g. confirmation bias or affinity bias) are associations we all hold and that we might not be aware of but few techniques are available that can help are people to break their Bias habits. Opening up the future scanning exercise to a more diverse group and bring into our future thinking new and different perspectives might be another way to address this issue. To deal with unconscious bias we would need to make sure we get the right information first, but then we have to make sure we don’t discount it!  

The unpredictability of global trends and the challenges of mapping and noticing the new trends emerging makes it very difficult for civil society organisations, in particular those with an international remit, to better use the future in order to deal with the present. Coupled with the busyness of everyday workload it seems increasingly difficult to take the time to pause and think through where organisations are potentially vulnerable or how to be more prepared and proactive to make the most of future trends and opportunities. However, it is incredibly important for civil society organisations to be planning for the long-term and taking the time to ensure we are fit for purpose and able to meet the challenges and embrace new innovations in our work. This will help (I)CSOs to respond rapidly when these events do happen as they will not be starting from scratch. 

At the Centre we are collaborating with our members and other partners to develop a stronger future literacy in the sector and work together in mapping as well as anticipating the emerging trends. The Scanning the Horizon Community brings togethepeers from across multiple sectors to share learning and expertise and collectively learn and trial new future methodologies. If you are working on foresight in your organisation and would like to know more about the Community feel free to contact us we would like to hear from you.  

Paola Pierri

University of the Arts Bern

Paola is Professor of Social Design at the University of the Arts Bern where she specialises in Design and Anthropology of Technologies. She advises the Centre as an Associate on its Futures and Innovation pillar (which Paola has also co-led until August 2023). She brings to the Centre her expertise on design research and future oriented methodologies, including her research on the impact of emerging technologies on the civic space and on our democracies. Paola was previously Director of Research at Democratic Society and a Research Fellow at the Weizenbaum Institute, researching on issue of Digital Inequalities.

Rachel Wilkinson

Programme Manager – Futures and Innovation

International Civil Society Centre

Rachel co-leads the Futures and Innovation programme with Paola Pierri. Rachel is jointly responsible for managing the portfolio of projects and events as well as leading and developing the Scanning the Horizon strategic peer learning platform. Rachel has more than 15 years of experience working in the third sector, on a national and international level, working for various ICSOs in international development and human rights in both London and Berlin.

Will Garrood

Strategy and Transformation Director

WaterAid

Will is the Strategy and Transformation Director for WaterAid. Previously, Will held strategic and policy roles at the BBC and Ofcom and trained at LEK, a strategy consultancy. He holds degrees from the University of Oxford and King's College London.


Official reference to our work in the UN Secretary General’s recent SDG progress report

13th February 2023 by Chandani Lopez Peralta

The United Nations (UN) Secretary-General’s report, “Work on the review of progress towards the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG)” recognises the usefulness of citizen-generated data (CGD) and the UN’s interest in exploring new avenues to make better use of such data in SDG processes and beyond. The report also underlines the key role of civil society actors and community-based organisations in advancing CGD to make SDG processes and public policies more inclusive and equitable. The close collaboration between the United Nations Statistics Division (UNSD) and the International Civil Society Centre (in its role as the global LNOB secretariat) has been explicitly mentioned in the report, emphasising our mutual role in fostering collaboration between civil society and national statistics offices at the national level. 

The report recognises CGD, such as community-driven data and citizen science, as useful data sources, both for filling gaps to inform policy and decision-making and as complementary information by citizens, civil society and community-based organisations in order to better reflect the realities of less visible and marginalised groups more broadly. 

The report also highlights that national statistical offices are increasingly exploring mechanisms and tools to engage and connect with citizens and communities throughout the data value chain to make data more relevant and better utilised. 

The Secretary General’s report refers to the expert group meeting on the topic Harnessing data by citizens for public policy and Sustainable Development Goal monitoring: a conceptual framework”, which was held in Bangkok on 10th and 11th November 2022 to discuss concrete ways to involve civil society in all steps of the SDG process. At the meeting, it was concluded that there would be a new UN-anchored collaborative co-led by UNSD and a network of partners, bringing together diverse stakeholders, including national statistical offices, CSOs, academia and regional and international organisations. The goal is to share knowledge and experiences in leveraging citizens’ contribution to data and to inform further normative work required in this area. 

For additional information, download the full report. 

Chandani Lopez Peralta

Project Manager

International Civil Society Centre

Chandani joined the Centre as a Project Manager in May 2022. She supports the Leave No One Behind Partnership that promotes the collection and use of community-driven data to give voice and agency to marginalised communities. Prior to joining the Centre, Chandani headed communications and outreach at TolaData. In addition, Chandani has coordinated many projects for local and international NGOs, working closely with refugees, individuals with disabilities and other marginalised groups in Nepal, Germany and the US. Chandani holds a master’s degree in International Development and Social Change from Clark University, USA and a B.Sc. in Mass Communications with an emphasis on PR and Advertising from Minnesota State University Moorhead


New – 2023 events and programme flyer, find out what’s on and what we are doing

2nd January 2023 by Adriana Sahagún Martínez

You can download the flyer below to find out about what we plan to do this year and how you can get involved.

Adriana Sahagún Martínez

Communications Manager

International Civil Society Centre

Adriana is responsible for developing and implementing the Centre’s communication strategy. Prior to joining the Centre, Adriana worked at ShareTheMeal, an initiative of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), where she developed and implemented multiple global marketing campaigns. Before that, she worked for six years in the private sector, where she held various positions in Corporate Social Responsibility and Integrated Marketing Communications.