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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 ‘futurising’ as 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:
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.
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.
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.
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
The participants worked in pairs or peer groups to draft tangible organisational plans they can contribute to. The ideas revolved around two aspects:
Building foresight capacities and their application were further underlined in concrete individual actions that the participants expressed their interest in developing such as:
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.
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
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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.