Would you rather lead us into famine response in South Sudan, or into the jungle of digitalisation? This hypothetical question to international civil society leaders (CEOs and Chairs) was looming over last week’s annual retreat organised by the Centre, and the active attendance confirmed their courage and curiosity to engage in uncovering what this megatrend means, not just for civil society organisations, but also to their top brass.
Getting an understanding of what digitalisation means for our sector is always a good starting point. In most recent surveys, the high level of importance of digitalisation for our work is coupled with an extremely low readiness to understand and embrace this development.
You get, however, very quickly that this is not something that one can ‘compartmentalise’, or delegate down to the Chief Information Officer or the Head of IT. Every aspect of our work, from fundraising and communications to better participation in program decisions, and finding new solutions to problems of poverty, marginalisation and environmental issues, can ideally benefit from digital tools, and requires a basic understanding at the level of decision makers.
At the same time, the threats and challenges are growing exponentially. Data privacy and protection are particularly important, as we are experiencing restrictions on civic space, and the instrumentalisation of big and small data for commercial and political purposes. The dangers of a new ‘digital divide’ are real: Economic and social inequalities can be exacerbated if access to the internet, to digital tools and knowledge, are not provided to the bottom billion. In fact, big digital companies are looking for the ‘next billion’ clients in a mostly unregulated environment, and the civil society sector should be front line in making sure this ambition helps to connect the most marginalised (and protect them from becoming mere customers or data providers). And all of our intervention programs should include systematic use and build digital capacities and knowledge with the people we serve.
Putting people at the centre of digital strategies became the overriding theme in our discussions. Rather than chasing new technologies as part of the latest hype cycle, we need to put our mission first, discover what people need and can use, and determine our engagement in digital technology accordingly. The excitement about new solutions (on participation, communication, technology) vs. the fear of data misuse, inequality of access, and things getting out of hand are the extreme sides of our spectrum of engagement. Connecting opportunities and challenges of digitalisation back to our mission will have to be the overriding ambition of any strategic involvement.
In particular, the digital cultures of ICSOs need to be strengthened – including deeper understanding, analysis, and comfort on usage. This will then help us engage more systematically in the main areas of action – strategy, organisational processes, communication and fundraising, and technology and data. Above all, the ambition of ‘digital for good’ and ‘do no harm’ should guide us, as we strive to make a difference to the most marginalised and oppressed, and maintain legitimacy, effectiveness and impact in the future.
This Q&A blog first appeared on Dóchas – The Irish Association of Non-Governmental Development Organisations’ website. It appeared as part of a series of blogs published in the lead up to their conference, Changing the Narrative: Building Support for Global Development – which will take place on Thursday 3 May in the Croke Park Conference Centre.
Some public opinion polls suggest that there is a significant lack of public trust in NGOs. What is the number one thing NGOs should be doing to regain public trust?
Trust is the bridge that links what we preach with what we practice. The larger the distance between our words and deeds, the more fragile the bridge of trust that connects both is. The recent scandals about sexual misconduct in some of the largest and most trusted organisations in our sector is a telling example of how the discrepancy between our statements and actions dramatically erodes trust. “The number one thing” civil society organisations (CSOs) should do to regain and preserve trust is to narrow the gap between what we preach and what we practice to an absolute minimum. In cleaning up the mess of the recent scandal, it is not sufficient to create some new structures, policies and working groups. We need a fundamental transformation of our sector’s male dominated culture, career paths and leadership.
One example of the gap between what we say and what we do on “gender justice” is the discrepancy between the number of women in our workforce compared to our leadership. In many organisations, two thirds of the staff are women while two thirds of the leaders are men. Practically all CSOs produce impressive statements on gender justice and women’s rights but very few have a share of female leaders that reflects the share of women in their staff. Such obvious gaps erode the public trust in our sector – and rightly so. We need to stop making grand pronouncements while lagging behind in implementing them, especially in our own organisations first.
Is the populist narrative of “charity begins at home” gaining ground in Europe? What should we be doing to counter it?
Populism very much thrives on citizens’ loss of trust in elected governments and their institutions, the media and – as discussed above – the civil society sector. The more the democratic and pluralistic parts of society can rebuild trust among the public at large, the less populists will succeed. For all too long, many CSOs have ignored challenges at home focusing exclusively on the ones abroad. As so many developing countries are prospering, the focus rightly turns back to unresolved issues in Europe.
However, while populists understandably demand “charity”, our sector should focus on empowerment of poor and marginalised people and offer rights based programmes rather than alms. In a world, in which our most challenging problems are global, everybody needs to contribute to resolving them. Only those who undertake the painful and costly transformation at home have the right to demand fundamental change from others.
Should we be trying to build a global social movement around the Sustainable Development Goals? If so, what needs to happen to mobilise the public?
Yes we should, both as a means to re-gain lost trust and to fight intolerance, populism and authoritarian government. Many citizens around the world are deeply worried about climate change, environmental destruction, persistent poverty and growing inequality. They dream of a peaceful, just and sustainable future for themselves, their children and grandchildren. If our sector can reconnect to these dreams and offer a platform for all to pursue their dreams together, we will no longer have to worry about lack of trust or populist stupidity – and we would take a major step closer to resolving the global challenges humanity faces.
The Dóchas Conference 2018 – Changing the Narrative: Building Support for Global Development – will take place on 3 May, from 10.30am – 5.30pm, in the Croke Park Conference Centre. Speakers include Ruairí De Búrca, Director General, Irish Aid; Heba Aly, Director, IRIN; Dr Danny Sriskandarajah, Secretary General and CEO, CIVICUS; Judith Greenwood, Executive Director of CHS Alliance; and Rafeef Ziadah, Lecturer, Comparative Politics of the Middle East, SOAS University of London, spoken word artist and human rights activist. Our MC for the day will be journalist and broadcaster Dil Wickremasinghe.
This week we want to share with you the content that you have found most compelling this year. We’ve compiled a list of the most read blogs on Disrupt&Innovate in 2018, so you can see what others in the civil society sector are interested in. Additionally, it’s a great opportunity to remind ourselves of the strength of this platform, it’s diversity of topics and range of contributors. Take a look at the blogs below, we hope you enjoy.
A few weeks ago I recruited a new colleague to our small Centre secretariat team. The pattern of many previous rounds was repeated: We reviewed a number of very qualified and competent young female candidates, struggled to invite equally impressive male applicants for an interview and in the end offered the position to a very dedicated, ambitious and talented woman who wants to develop a long-term career in the civil society sector. I have met and worked with many women like her over the years at the Centre and in the civil society organisations (CSOs) we work with. Read more
The need for innovation is clear: The twenty-first century is shaping up to be one of the most challenging in recent history. From climate change to income inequality to geopolitical upheaval and terrorism: the difficulties confronting international civil society organisations (ICSOs) are unprecedented not only in their variety but also in their complexity. At the same time, today’s practices and tools used by ICSOs seem stale and outdated. Increasingly, it is clear, we need not only new solutions but new methods for arriving at solutions. Read more
Many CSOs around the world have realised the potential linked to both Blockchain and Big Data and are currently experimenting with how these technologies can support their work. Read more
One year ago I reviewed the political environment in which civil society had to act and drew some conclusions for the year 2017. I expressed my expectation that “we will not succumb to Brexit and Trump” and demanded: “We urgently need to come together in a powerful global movement to defend tolerance against the intolerant, pluralism and the rule of law against authoritarianism, and our future as a global community against chauvinism and xenophobia.” What has happened in this respect over the past twelve months? Read more
In recent years, governments around the world have responded to increased activism, protests and political engagement of citizens and various civil society actors with cracking down on civic space. Unfortunately, these trends have not passed the Western Balkans and Turkey by either.
As restrictions on foreign funding (in Kosovo, Turkey), barriers to registration (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Turkey), intervention in CSOs’ internal affairs (Macedonia and Turkey), negative narratives (Serbia and Macedonia), and declining public trust in civil society in almost all of the countries become the new normal in this region, civil society and donors are going to have to adapt to this context. Read more