Power is everywhere in human relations. Its dimensions are also observable in interactions between organisations and institutions and play an increasing role in international political arenas (geopolitical power shifts). While power might not be not good or bad per se, the effects of power imbalances contribute to human suffering, inequalities, lack of participatory opportunities, civil unrest. They can be found in regional (North-South), economic and political divides and are often characterized by marginalisation of communities, abuse of political power, bad governance and corruption.
The work of civil society organisations is conducted right in the middle of such relationships and they themselves are powerful actors and can become part of power imbalances, e.g. in their relationship with local partners and communities, and not least with the people they serve. In recent years, the international community has tried to address this more systematically, e.g. by the localisation agenda in humanitarian work, and by power transformations within governance models of larger federations. A recent ‘Pathways to Power Symposium’ in London came up with a Power Shift manifesto. It sparked an intensified debate on accelerating much-needed changes that #ShiftThePower.
Power imbalances within and between Northern and Southern, but also large and small, rich and resource-scarce international civil society organisations (ICSOs) often stand in the way of these organisations achieving their missions and mandates. To improve the livelihoods of people by delivering inclusive programmes and taking solid resource-allocation decisions, ICSOs need to shift power to these communities. However, ‘traditional’ governance models that are process-heavy and geared towards donor accountability, limit the engagement of communities from engaging in decision-making processes. ICSOs are also often organised in a parent-subsidiary operation model whereby a resource-rich entity controls implementing branches and partner organisations in the Global South. This is exacerbated by donor-driven, project-based operational models that prevent processes of inclusive resource allocation and prioritisation.
The International Civil Society Centre in conjunction with Conner Advisory conducted a first Power Shift Lab in September 2018 to address this appetite towards more legitimate and global governance. ICSO leaders from the Global North and South reviewed the inter-relationship of the ‘Golden Triangle’: Power Dynamics, Organisational Intent and Governance Reform’. They found that they are in a much better position to assess adequate governance models and necessary reforms if they know what the power dynamics inside and around their organisations are, and how they help or hinder their strategic intent.
A few ICSOs have radically started to place the people they serve at the top or centre of their governance models, whilst others are seeking approaches that are more evolutionary. This moves towards an ambitious aim but is faced with significant challenges caused by organisational culture, open or hidden power structures and established business models. Building on the implementation successes (and failures) after the first Lab, the Centre will – in its next Governance Lab 2.0 in March 2020 – explore the questions of how to overcome these barriers and lead the necessary power shifts.
Looking forward to 2020 might seem a bit short for a group of strategists and horizon scanners, but we’re pretty excited about the state of foresighting and futures in our sector at the moment. And here’s why: there’s some great work and resources that we’re seeing both done in and shared by some of the international civil society organisations in our Scanning the Horizon community at the moment.
First of all, there are some fantastic new resources around. JM Roche at Save the Children, with the School of International Futures, has just done everyone in our sector a fantastic favour and pulled together a compendium of 12 strategic foresight tools and techniques which they have successfully adapted for their own and partner use. The Future is Ours is out now and immediately essential reading for anyone involved in strategy, planning and decision-making in our sector.
This guide walks you through a number of tools, why you would use which and when, with helpful facilitation notes. Key tips overall include: being open to a range of possible futures, pay attention to weak signals, practice foresight regularly, and integrate and embed insights. Sounds like four great New Year’s Resolutions to me! You can also join us for a webinar with JM on 30 January to hear him introduce this in person.
This year, our Scanning the Horizon community did our first ever ‘deep dive’ on one of the most major influential megatrends, the rise of global China. We’ve just put out our Sector Guide of strategic recommendations for ICSOs, and hearing some great feedback from our community. Amnesty’s China Strategy Manager Heather Hutchings has already shared a bit of an informal reflection on ‘benchmarking’ itself against our findings, in this excellent blog in case you missed it.
You can also catch up on our webinars which feature our author and researcher Bertram Lang providing more context ‘meat’ to flesh out the ‘bones’ of the recommendations, and explaining more on where and why there was consensus and divergence among the ICSOs involved.
The Sector Guide has been a cumulative process throughout the year, building on interviews and experience-sharing with global and China strategists, as well as country or regional management, from most of the top international ICSOs working both in and beyond the boundaries of mainland China. We’ve incorporated additional insights from ‘China watchers’ from academia and philanthropy, and highlighted some of the priorities and need to engage with local community-based organisations.
This has been a huge topic to explore and make more navigable in practical ways for our sector. We worked carefully with our community to find the right way to break it down into key sub-themes and entry points for strategists. While the recommendations might not all be straightforward, they lay out an ambition and signpost some directions of travel, which can help steer organisations in these unpredictable waters. What this collaborative exploration proved most though was the enormous value of bringing the major and diverse players in our sector together to share their different experiences and capacities. We have seen again the enormous power in co-producing new knowledge and insights, which can then be shared with the rest of our sector.
At our recent Global Perspectives conference in Addis Ababa, we were very excited by a presentation from Plan International on the scenarios they have been using – looking at the combination of climate change and nationalism in different future world’s scenarios, and what each might mean for the organisation’s place in the world.
We also heard how Oxfam International’s recent global strategy process included meeting with a ‘critical chorus’ of external voices, some of which told them some challenging things, but triggered a range of important and reflective conversations to guide thinking of the different roles the organisation may have in future.
And IFRC’s new 2030 strategy has clearly put climate action as the main priority for its programmes and appeals. The other key challenges it has identified are crises and disasters, health, migration and identity, and values, power and inclusion.
We look forward to learning more, together, about these and other exciting developments.
Taking inspiration from these developments, and also what we’re seeing from outside the sector, our annual meeting in May 2020 will bring our community together to explore more how the global trends influencing our work are interconnected and intersect to bring about different potential futures, and how to better integrate this analysis into organisational strategic planning.
We will have a collective check-up on the trends we’re all watching as organisations. We will explore tools and practical processes for intersectional approaches and take a look at the detailed scenarios ICSOs are seeing, with a special emphasis on climate change + (one or several trends). We will invite input from beyond the sector, with private, public and academic sector insights. And, with funding, we will deliver another Sector Guide this time next year summarising our insights for the sector.
Our monthly newsletters throughout 2019 have been packed with new resources from within and beyond our sector, but there are so many things we just can’t keep out! A lot of careful curation goes into what the Centre and Direct Impact Group summarise and share with our community each month, and we’ll continue these efforts to keep bringing you the best throughout 2020!