Growing up in the 1980s in Tunisia, hailed as a modern society, International Women’s Day was a long day of celebrations staged by President Ben Ali’s regime while his police tortured and harassed women in prisons.
Many states are known for their strategy to exploit women’s rights for political purposes. But, the international community practices are not that different either–not to the same end for sure. If international NGOs (INGOs) keep using the strategies and approaches they are using now to fight against gender inequality, progress on gender parity will surely grind to a halt and we will need another 200 years to close the gap.
At the centre of the problem is the fact that INGOs still consider women’s rights a secondary issue, a ‘soft’ battle, rather than a core one. We see evidence of this on two levels: that way that sexual harassment and abuse within the development sector is addressed (or not addressed) and states’ responses to gender inequality abuses. The recent scandals involving sexual exploitation by aid workers, which are engulfing the civil society sector, expose the internal, loose practices that fail to address gender and power imbalances. The State of Civil Society 2018, an annual report by global civil society alliance CIVICUS that assesses conditions impacting civic space globally, outlines 10 trends affecting civil society. One of those trends is growing efforts to put patriarchy under the spotlight, as embodied in the #MeToo and Times Up actions, and to challenge and address behaviours and attitudes that enable sexism and gender discrimination. INGOs should be taking the lead against sexual harassment and wider gender inequalities through practising what they preach.
It is also important to celebrate achievements and progress made but turning a blind eye to women in more disadvantaged positions shows the selectivity of women’s struggles. When Saudi Arabia finally gave women the right to drive in September 2017, many celebrated a decision that overturns a cornerstone of Saudi conservatism. However, women’s struggles in the kingdom go beyond driving, to include sexual abuses of domestic workers and the lack of opportunities for working-class women. States such as Saudi Arabia keep intentionally failing to meet gender parity commitments but INGOs and the international community do little to respond to this beyond statements, media releases and side events at UN conferences. States are not being held to account.
Furthermore, the struggle to effectively mainstream gender equality is the result of a conventional understanding of the role of women and their contexts. In fact, decades of a “one size fits all” approach has hindered the achievement of women’s rights in local communities. Local women do not lack capacity and their nuanced understanding of local issues goes beyond how they articulate their struggle without jargon.
For instance, before the rising of Muslim feminism, the Muslim world resisted and rejected the western interpretations of gender inequality. Women’s movements in the Middle East/North Africa region were the only, effective actors pushing the women’s agenda. In 2017, Tunisia passed its first national law to combat violence against women, an effort led by local women human rights defenders.
This means that the push for progress in gender parity should not be only around motivation and action, but also around reflecting, healing and change from within. It is time to support local women’s unique leadership by giving them the space to act and by fighting alongside them and not through them. Equip them to be more efficient, give them access to the international community and resources, push for more inclusion, not only by ensuring a quota of representation but through striving for a more gender- and socially-inclusive strategies and operations. But most importantly, INGOs have to adhere to the values that they espouse and walk the walk.
I just spent two fascinating weeks with in Sri Lanka, advising an ICSO on possible new operational/business models.
The World Bank has declared Sri Lanka a “lower-middle income country”, which means that foreign governments and, subsequently, many individual donors are shifting their attention away from Sri Lanka and towards poorer countries. However, while the average per capita incomes are rising, pockets of persistent poverty remain, especially in the regions that were most strongly affected by the country’s civil war.
In this situation many of the international civil society organisations (ICSOs) working in the country are facing two critical questions:
Finding and implementing positive answers to both questions will force ICSOs to transform themselves. If they are unable to transform themselves, ICSOs will find it hard to secure their own sustainability and may have to leave the country.
What are the transformations ICSOs need to undergo over the next few years in countries like Sri Lanka?
From charities to rights based organisations
Practically all major ICSOs talk about themselves as “rights based organisations”. However, if we look at their approaches, behaviours or governance we find that much of their charitable past still prevails: Programmes often still are “assistencialistic” providing people with aid rather than contributing to their empowerment. “Beneficiaries” often need to content themselves with the benefits on offer rather than being able to determine themselves what they need: And ICSOs’ governance is usually dominated by representatives from fundraising countries in the global North and with little influence for those who are supposed to benefit from ICSOs’ work. As poverty declines and more and more people are able to think and act beyond the needs of their immediate survival they will no longer tolerate assistencialistic and paternalistic behaviour. For ICSOs, this means: they have to practice the rights based approaches they preach.
From organisations that spend money to organisations that can only spend the money they raise
In countries like Sri Lanka, most ICSOs have been focused exclusively on spending money that had been raised abroad. No fundraising activities took place in the country. This means, ICSOs in Sri Lanka and similar countries have a strong knowledge and culture of programme excellence but very little experience and culture in funding their own operations. In a situation where funding flows from abroad decrease and will eventually dry up, ICSOs’ exclusive focus on implementing programmes is unsustainable. In order to prevail, organisations need to adopt a much more entrepreneurial approach aiming for a sustainable balance between fundraising and programming activities.
From foreign donors to national affiliates of global organisations
In countries that can perfectly well take care of themselves having “country offices” maintained by foreign donors no longer make sense – however, having a national affiliate of a global organisation does. For instance, even in the richest countries, there are some poor and marginalised people, some children who are abused, and some women who are oppressed. Having national organisations that effectively address these challenges is essential, and for those being part of a global family of like-minded national organisations is of a major strategic advantage. A farsighted policy of building civil society capacity and effectiveness around the world will create strong global networks whose local, national and regional members will systematically learn from each other and cooperate where beneficial. Transforming ICSO country offices into national affiliates can be a useful first step in this direction.
In short: In emerging economies such as Sri Lanka ICSOs only have the choice between fundamentally transforming themselves and leaving. If they want to stay, they will have to transform their worldviews, cultures and power relationships.
Today, huge inequalities are contributing to divided and segregated societies and have created antagonising governments riding the waves of populism. Space for civic action, freedom of speech and assembly, and human and civil rights are drastically limited, through both open and opaque government measures. Millions of refugees and war victims need solidarity and services at highest levels of excellence. And the planet’s environmental boundaries are fragile and almost exhausted.
External and internal challenges to the work of Civil Society Organisations are greater than ever. The current climate in which ICSOs operate is difficult and precarious. Plotting the right course will be essential for civil society to survive and thrive. Current internal challenges to our sector, sometimes threaten to override the purpose of work. For example, the moral basis and public trust for ICSOs work are challenged and sometimes eroded through ethical wrongdoings (as exposed by the cases of sexual misconduct). Likewise, through the questioning of the current aid system, and by the legitimate claims for power shifts to the global South.
As I have been entrusted to move the International Civil Society Centre (ICSC) into its second decade, there is a great need for the sector of organised civil society institutions to be modernised, just as more established institutions like UN Security Council or international treaties.
The ICSC is here to support organised civil society in that transformation. Using new technology and talent, it will initiate collective action and ambition to influence critical developments for the achievement of a more just and equitable world, in which no one is left behind.
The task at hand is big, but the Centre has already come a long way in a short space of time. 10 years ago, two visionaries founded the Berlin Civil Society Centre, to provide a space for collaboration and forward thinking on civic space. The founders Burkhard Gnärig and Peter Eigen managed over those years, to create a broad base of International Civil Society Organisations (ICSOs) who carry the Centre today – our shareholders. They provide incredibly valuable services, support and aid to marginalised and underprivileged people. They defend human rights, and improve the world we all live in. Through their diversity, intellectual and financial capital, the leading ICSOs and their partners are helping to achieve the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals. They serve as watchdogs (challenging corrupt and irresponsible governments), provide a moral compass, create perspectives for children and youth, support women in their fight for equality, drive policymakers towards the protection of our environment, and provide dignity to the poorest of the poor.
This collective of (soft) power is the underlying basis for the Centre’s objectives. To help ICSOs be at the top of their game, we aim to serve them (and the sector) as a think tank, space for collaboration, trend spotter, challenger and supporter of continuous transformation of operating models, structures, processes and organisational culture.
There are great pressures exerted through the Fourth Industrial Revolution, digitalisation, new forms of communication and demands for more transparency and demonstrable impact. Challenges come also through new generations of supporters (and opponents), influencers, value brokers and thought leaders – our friends and allies for the future years to come, who expect different ways of engagement, and many want to see strong moral grounds coupled with more agile and contemporary ways of working.
In tackling these challenges and taking our sector forward, I look forward to hearing your thoughts about how we can do that together. In addition, I relish the chance to get going on exciting projects.