Posts with the tag
“Civil Society”

To Remain Relevant, CSOs Need to Fix the Architecture

19th February 2021 by George E. Mitchell and Hans Peter Schmitz

This is the first of two guest blogs and an upcoming podcast interview which will explore longstanding challenges and new dimensions of deep drivers of change for international civil society organisations (ICSOs), from a group of academics and practitioners who have long explored the questions of power and relevance that influence the future of these organisations. 

In this first blog, the authors explore the major long-term trends and questions already challenging the sector before the new complexities highlighted and surfaced by the big developments of 2020.

Long before COVID-19 disrupted the lives of billions and raised new, urgent challenges for the sector, many ICSOs were already grappling with existential questions about their futures. In many ways, the global pandemic is amplifying a longstanding need for change, not just for future-looking ICSOs but for the whole sector more broadly.

Geopolitical shifts, increasing demands for accountability, and growing competition have been driving the need for change within the sector for decades. ICSOs have been responding with specific initiatives intended to secure their future effectiveness and relevance, but their efforts have been constrained by institutional and cultural legacies—forms and norms—that inhibit their ability to successfully adapt. As ICSOs confront unprecedented challenges to their survival and future relevance, leaders and change managers must keep the long-term future in sight while addressing the immediate needs of their organisations and stakeholders.

New agency within old architecture

The longstanding problem facing ICSOs is that over the past half-century they have evolved into new kinds of organisations, while the architecture in which they operate has remained largely unchanged. Most ICSOs today do more than alleviate the symptoms of deprivation and injustice, seeking instead to address root causes through fundamental social and political transformations. As such, they are no longer conventional charities and instead agents of transformation focused on achieving long-term sustainable impact.

But ICSOs still operate within a legacy architecture designed for conventional charities, not for contemporary change agents. The resulting tensions underlie many of the challenges long debated throughout the sector, including aid localisation, downward accountability, and shifting power. Missing in these discussions is an acknowledgement that ICSOs need to do more than embrace internal reforms; they also need to work collectively to change the architecture in which they are embedded.

The legacy of the architecture and its accountability framework

The architecture consists of the forms and norms that have historically defined the sector. In the United States, ICSOs typically incorporate in charity form with self-perpetuating boards and transnational federated governance structures often dominated by their wealthiest member organisations. These forms tend to privilege ‘upward’ financial accountability to donors in the Global North, with a focus on preventing financial integrity failures, such as embezzlement or fraud, rather than focusing on ‘downward’ accountability and sustainable impact for intended local constituents.

The charity model assumes that the impact ICSOs create is often unknowable or too difficult to measure, so accountability is instead fixated on financial reporting and monitoring. In general, ICSOs are supposed to spend all of their available resources as quickly as possible on whatever is easiest to measure and most satisfying to donors. This is not conducive for organisations explicitly committed to being accountable to those they claim to serve, truly empowering stakeholders, and achieving long-term sustainable impact. The traditional charity model works well for conventional charities, but fails for ICSOs seeking to inhabit new roles as agents and facilitators of fundamental change.

Manifestations of dysfunctional architecture and cultural norms

The dysfunctional role of this architecture is today particularly apparent when ICSOs attempt to break the rules to increase their effectiveness; for instance, when activists seek to address global issues through advocacy “at home,” rather than through traditional aid transfers from the Global North to the South. In Germany, groups such as Attac and Campact had their tax-exempt status revoked because of tax laws prohibiting political activities. In Switzerland, a recent campaign by ICSOs in support of greater corporate accountability for human rights violations abroad has led to accusations of engaging in illegal domestic political activities. As the strategies of ICSOs continuously evolve based on changing understandings of global problems, the existing charity laws and regulations regularly fail the sector.       

Alongside issues of law and governance, powerful cultural sector norms have also emerged that influence how stakeholders think and act. Many of these represent the sector’s virtuous character and should be maintained and celebrated, but others hold it back. For example, ICSO staff and supporters may acknowledge a need for reform throughout the sector, but at the same time consider their own organisations exempt because of some perceived unique difference. These ‘excessive cultures of uniqueness’ can also lead to problematic behaviours by individuals claiming a commitment to values as a substitute for a true culture of transparency and openness.

Transforming the architecture together

Of course, what ultimately matters most is the lives of the billions of people who stand to gain by a more successful sector. The architecture has ensured that ICSOs can survive, and even thrive, mainly by satisfying resource providers. But this system is outdated and fails to serve the needs of ICSOs and their local constituents today.

To ensure their future relevance, ICSOs need to collectively organise to transform the legal and cultural frameworks holding the sector back. They need to decide what kind of organisations they want to be and then help create a new architecture that facilitates, rather than impedes, success in these desired future roles.

George E. Mitchell and Hans Peter Schmitz, alongside Tosca Bruno-van Vijfeijken, are co-authors of the recently published book Between Power and Irrelevance: the Future of Transnational NGOs. You can discover more details about it here.

George E. Mitchell

Associate Professor

Marxe School of Public and International Affairs at Baruch College, City University of New York

Prior to joining the Marxe School, he was Assistant Professor at the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership at the City College of New York. He received his PhD from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University (USA), where he was cofounder of the Transnational NGO Initiative at the Moynihan Institute of Global Affairs. George’s research examines topics in NGO and non-profit management, leadership, and strategy.

Hans Peter Schmitz

Associate Professor of Leadership Studies

University of San Diego

He received his PhD in Social and Political Sciences from the European University Institute in San Domenico di Fiesole, Italy. He is the cofounder of the Transnational NGO Initiative at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs/Syracuse University. His research interests include international non-governmental organizations (INGOs), human rights advocacy, digital activism, philanthropy, and non-communicable diseases (NCDs) as global health issues.

A Beautiful City: How Civil Society needs to reflect, innovate and collaborate to shape the new world order

19th February 2019 by Wolfgang Jamann

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness”.

Charles Dickens’ famous opening of the novel A Tale of Two Cities is as accurate a description of today’s global issues as it was for Europe around the French Revolution. But is this the best or the worst of times for civil society organisations?

Today, many societies are shaken by the failure of established institutions to address global problems like wars, environmental catastrophes or just the worries of ordinary citizens over their future. As a result, people lose trust in governments and media, multilateralism is in the firing line, and the future of democracy is unclear. And admittedly, the world does not look good for those propagating tolerance, humanistic values, global solidarity and human rights.

But every trend has a countertrend.

While populism and authoritarianism seem to increase in influence, they are countered by new and vocal forms of civil activism. Youth movements, like the increasing number of school strikes, fight inertia around climate change on the streets. The rise of illiberal Civil Society has prompted a re-emergence of moral and ethical debates around a “common humanity”. Attacks on human rights and values are being pushed back through acts of solidarity and new empathic narratives. And chauvinistic attitudes and patriarchal patterns give way for liberal and feminist agendas, from the #MeToo movement to explicit feminist governments like Canada or Sweden, aiming at greater equality of opportunities for all.

A key development is that societal trends, good and bad, are exacerbated by the rapidly evolving information technology. Division of society is being amplified by fake news and online manipulation in social media, yet the Internet connects half of the world’s population and provides the greatest imaginable opportunity for global learning, exchange and transparency. And plenty of “technology for good” debates show growing concern and responsibilities in dealing with the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The renowned think tank Carnegie Endowment sums it up well: “The world is at a transformational moment, defined by cataclysmic threats and unimaginable opportunities”.

Civil Societies role in shaping the new global world order

Many expect civil society to be the leading force in shaping these opportunities around a new global world order. While traditional civil society organisations have lost some of their soft power, they still form a sector of high credibility, outreach and positive impact on the lives of the people. But there are three important steps that CSOs will have to take to live up to the challenge.

Firstly, they need to reflect on their own way of working, the way they engage with citizens, and how far they are still visibly and convincingly connected with their missions. Legitimacy of international civil society organisations needs to be earned on a continuous basis, particularly when it comes to representing and reconciling minority and majority positions of the people they serve, and of those that support their work. Established power structures within organisations and within the sector need to be challenged. Likewise, those organisation lacking engagement with local movements and imbalanced partnerships with community-based organisations needs to be called out. Civil society must make sure to always keep an arm’s length distance from governments and for-profits, and make sure they don’t become instrumentalised for political agendas. At best, civil society shapes dialogues and collaboration with others outside the sector and drives global solidarity debates and actions, advocating for change when engaging with elites.

Secondly, civil society organisations need to embrace truly innovative approaches towards significant threats that are undermining the wellbeing of future generations. Innovation comes with the need to say goodbye to outdated business models reflecting a false “North-South” power structure, drop anachronistic messaging and . By focusing more on necessary societal adjustments in industrial countries CSOs can address, for example, the failures of the Global North to fight climate change. It requires courage to try and fail, persistence to scale up promising and successful initiatives, and to continue learning within and outside the organisation. It also means stepping aside when others have better ideas, and when a new generation is ready to take on the challenge. It also means powering new societal conversations about critical issues which will affect everyone in future – like what jobs and income will look like in a post-manufacturing, Artificial Intelligence-enabled world. And while digitalisation is a big part for possible innovation in the sector, it is by far not the only means, and one should not overlook analogue, local, citizen-generated and decentralised strategies to tackle threatening problems.

Thirdly, collaboration needs a step change between CSOs and possible allies within and outside the sector. Civil society is the sphere of dialogue, innovation and reinvention. Intersectional partnerships should free resources and multiply impact. Lessons are desperately needed and can derive from looking beyond organisational boundaries, and scanning the horizon for opportunities to join up should be a constant part of CSOs’ work. Territorial thinking or the focus on brands and logos need to be a thing of the past; instead, robust and more effective mechanisms for joint actions of solidarity within and beyond the sector should be developed to counter the organised attacks on civic space worldwide.

The International Civil Society Centre works with social justice, environmental, and human rights organisations who have an immense outreach, delivery power, resources and political influence. It provides room for accelerating the reflection, innovation and collaboration we need, and invites every sector to join its ambitions. In the coming months, we will focus on addressing authoritarian and populist attacks on the values that form the basis for Civil Society’s work, and will provide opportunities to collaborate across sectors towards the aim of a new “common humanity”.

In taking these actions we would be closer to Charles Dickens vision at the end of his book: “I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss, and, in their struggles to be truly free, in their triumphs and defeats, through long years to come, I see the evil of this time and of the previous time of which this is the natural birth, gradually making expiation for itself and wearing out”.


Wolfgang Jamann

Executive Director

International Civil Society Centre

Dr. Wolfgang Jamann is Executive Director of the International Civil Society Centre. Until January 2018 he was Secretary General and CEO of CARE International (Geneva). Before that he led NGO Deutsche Welthungerhilfe and the Alliance 2015, a partnership of 7 European aid organisations. From 2004-2009 he was CEO & Board member of CARE Deutschland-Luxemburg and President of the CARE Foundation. Previously, he worked for World Vision International as a regional representative in East Africa (Kenya) & Head of Humanitarian Assistance at WV Germany. After his Ph.D. dissertation in 1990 he started his career in development work at the German Foundation for International Development, later for the UNDP in Zambia. As a researcher and academic, he has published books and articles on East & Southeast Asia contributing to international studies on complex humanitarian emergencies and conflict management.

Forus consults on the future of civil society and youth engagement at international civil society event in Berlin

15th November 2018 by Deirdre de Burca and Magda Toma

This blog entry was originally published on All rights reserved. 

Members of the Forus secretariat recently attended the annual Global Perspectives event in Berlin, Germany from Oct 31st- November 2nd  2018, organized by the International Civil Society Centre (More information about the event).

The theme of this year’s conference was “Engaging a New Generation”.

Forus hosted a “Campfire Session” during the conference called “What future for civil society and how important is youth engagement?” This session provided an opportunity for Forus to begin its planned consultation on the future of the sector with wider civil society, as part of the roll-out of its new Pilot International Initiative (2018-2020) Building essential infrastructure for the NGO sector & encouraging the emergence of supportive ecosystems“.

This initiative was presented and strongly endorsed by Forus members during its General Assembly in Santiago Chile this year. The Forus International Initiative envisages an initial, broad process of consultation with civil society globally over the coming two-years on the question of how the sector can be further developed and strengthened in the future.

The title of the Forus campfire session during the conference was “What future for civil society and how important is youth engagement?”. The session began with a short presentation of some of the major challenges currently facing civil society in a rapidly changing external environment.

The challenges discussed included:

  1. The increase in the number of new social movements and the tendency of young people to gravitate towards these movements rather than towards NGOs ; 
  2. The increase in the number of illiberal and authoritarian governments around the world, resulting in a shrinking space for civil society ; 
  3. The new demands being placed on civil society, as a key stakeholder in the implementation of Agenda 2030 ; 
  4. The increase in public demand for greater accountability, transparency and good governance from civil society and NGOs in particular ; 
  5. The fact that CSO funding sources and modalities continue to be project-based.

The group discussion that followed was lively and wide-ranging. 

It yielded the following conclusions:

A broad and inclusive definition of civil society is needed

  • The definition of “civil society” used in these discussions should be broad and diverse enough to be inclusive of all civil society actors, from the least to the most organised ends of the spectrum. The definition should include spontaneous and distributed social movements, small community and grassroots organisations, not-for-profitsocial enterprises and co-operatives, small and large NGOs, international civil society organisations, trade unions etc.

Build relationships between NGOs and social movements

  • More sustained efforts should be made to do outreach and build relationships between NGOs and social movements, which should result in greater mutual understanding and a better appreciation of the “added value” of each and the potentially complementary roles they can play in bringing about badly needed social and political change. Ideally, funding could be provided by NGOs to social movements for the achievement of broad aims (for example – to create public awareness about the need for climate action) and without too many conditions attached. The role of NGOs could be to broadly monitor progress on the achievement of the objective set. In this way social movements can be resourced to do what they do best without too many onerous reporting requirements considering their lack of formal organisation.

Recognise each other’s added value        

  • CSOs with more formalised organisational structures (eg NGOs) should not try to impose their agendas on the social movements when collaborating with them. Instead, NGOs should play a more supportive “background” role and allow the social movements to do what they do best (eg mobilising and public campaigning). NGOs should largely play an “enabling” role where social movements are concerned and make their resources and expertise available in a non-directive way. The added value of traditional NGOs and ICSOs is seen to lie more in long-term engagement and advocacy directed at governments and institutions.

Create “youth-friendly” spaces within NGOs and trade unions

  • NGOs, trade unions and other CSOs with more formal organisational structures should create “youth-friendly spaces” within their structures where young people’s voices can be heard and be allowed to influence discussions and decision-making. At present many NGOs and trade unions are organised in such a way that there is no opportunity for young people to engage or be heard, and the language used by these organisations is not at all youth-friendly.

Privilege the resourcing of small flexible local CSOs

  • Small, flexible, local CSOs should get much more attention from donors and funders than they have to date. Large institutional NGOs have tended to receive more government attention and resources, although locally-based civil society organisations including peer to peer organisations can often be more effective at representing the needs of local communities and can engage young people more effectively. Many large traditional ICSOs in particular, especially those involved in direct service delivery, are seen to face the possibility of increasing irrelevance over time.

Ensure a good inter-generational mix in the staffing of CSOs

  • The importance of having a good inter-generational mix in civil society organisations was emphasised as CSOs were felt to have a very different set of values and outlook if older people were at the top of these organisations.

Large international CSOs should regularly revisit their core mission and purpose

  • The larger the NGO the more risk there is that they will become overly – institutionalised and bureaucratic. It was felt to be very important for ICSOs to revisit their core founding values on a regular basis and to remind themselves of what motivated their creation in the first place. It was considered very important for ICSOs, in particular, to regularly review and update if necessary their core mission and purpose and ensure that the functioning of the organisation remains fully consistent with the core mission. Large CSOs should be willing to “re-invent” themselves if necessary based on these assessments.

Progressive CSOs should learn important lessons from populists

  • Progressive civil society should learn from the tactics of the populists and use them to advance progressive causes. This is often difficult however as populists try to present simple solutions and responses to complex problems. Explaining the complexity of some of the world’s problems often results in a weaker message. Progressive civil society needs to reflect on and develop better strategic influencing strategies.

Mobilize the masses so that a critical tipping point can be reached

  • Public awareness-raising remains a very important activity. There is a need to mobilise the masses and promote positive values so that a “tipping point” can be reached. CSOs should unite more around public awareness-raising work.

ICSOs should Identify risks and engage in intelligent risk taking

  • International civil society organisations in particular need to carry out risk identification which will allow them to engage in “intelligent risk-taking”. They need to learn to work with other ICSOs and other actors and to build strong national and local organisations. There should be an emphasis on employing local staff and building strong and relatively autonomous local systems of governance.

Best practices and solutions from the Global South should be identified

  • The identification of best practices and solutions can come from the Global South. A crisis of funding can often provide an opportunity and can help to identify new and more effective ways of working.

The discussion on the future of civil society and the engagement of youth during the Campfire Session was very stimulating and wide-ranging.

Forus intends to carry out a series of such consultations at upcoming international civil society events over the next 12 months.

Deirdre de Burca

Forus Advocacy Co-ordinator

Forus International

Deirdre de Burca currently works as the Advocacy Co-ordinator with Forus (formerly known as the International Forum for National NGO platforms). Forus is a global network of 69 national development platforms and 6 regional coalitions. Deirdre previously worked as Director of Advocacy for World Vision's Brussels office. She was also a member of the EU Steering Committee of Concord's Beyond 2015 EU Taskforce which played an essential role in influencing the position of the EU and its Member States during the UN negotiations on Agenda 2030. Deirdre was one of the founding members of SDG Watch Europe - a broad alliance of European civil society organisations established in June 2015 and which works to ensure the full implementation of Agenda 2030/the SDGs by the EU and its Member States.

Magda Toma

Forus Director

Forus International

Magda Toma is the Director of Forus (former IFP), a global network of civil society, bringing together 69 national development NGO platforms and 6 regional coalitions. Magda studied Political Science, European Affairs and Development Cooperation. She specialized in the relationship between the European Commission and development NGOs. Before working for Forus, she worked for CONCORD Europe, for the European Commission - DG EuropeAid and for B & S Europe, among others.

In solidarity with Civil Society in Hungary

19th February 2018 by Thomas Howie

On 13 February 2018, the Hungarian government tabled to Parliament a proposed legislative pack of three laws, commonly
referred to as “Stop Soros”. The newly proposed legislation would further restrict Hungarian civil society ability to carry out
their work, by requiring organizations that “support migration” to obtain national security clearance and a government permit
to perform basic functions. The proposed law would also require organizations to pay a tax of 25% of any foreign funding aimed
at “supporting migration”.

Failure to do so, would subject them to steps so serious that they could lead to exorbitant fines, bankruptcy, and the dissolving
of the NGO involved.

These come in a context of already shrinking space for civil society in Hungary and contravene Hungary’s obligations under
international law to protect the right to freedom of association, expression and movement.

We believe the new proposals represent the latest initiative in the Hungarian government’s escalating effort to crackdown on
the legitimate work of civil society groups in Hungary seeking to promote and defend human rights, provide legal and social
services to people in need in the country, and publicly express dissenting opinions in the press and online.

As defenders of rights and freedoms, we want people everywhere to be able to speak out without being attacked, threatened
or jailed. Open debate on matters relating to government policies and practice is necessary in every society, and human rights
defenders should not face criminalization for voicing their sometimes dissenting voices. Countries need to put laws in place
which keep human rights defenders safe from harm, rather than introducing repressive laws that aim to silence those who
speak out.

Human rights defenders defend the rights of people in their own communities and their countries, and in doing so they protect
all of our rights, globally. Human rights defenders are often the last line of defence for a free and just society and undertake
immense personal risks and sacrifices to do their work.

We stand in solidarity with civil society and human rights defenders in Hungary.
They are courageous people, committed to creating a fairer society. Without their courage, the world we live in would be less
fair, less just and less equal.

We are calling on the Hungarian Parliament to reject the proposed laws in their entirety and let the NGOs and defenders
continue their work, instead of defending themselves against such attacks.

Full list of supporters

Communications Manager

International Civil Society Centre