“Power Shift” within international civil society organisations (ICSOs) is topic of growing importance. Who has power? Who can exercise it? How does it work?
In conversation, Ed Boswell, Co-Founder and CEO at Conner Advisory and Wolfgang Jamann, Executive Director of the International Civil Society Centre look at power concerning ICSOs’ governance.
The two recently led our “Power Shift Lab” on the subject of PowerShift in ICSOs. The lab invited leaders from ICSOs organisations to analyse power dynamics and factors furthering or hindering the shifting of power within their organisations.
Producer: Julia Pazos
International Civil Society Centre website – www.icscentre.org
Our work on Power Shift and Governance Reform – https://icscentre.org/our-work/global-governance-lab/
Wolfgang Jamann blog, “Power, Governance and Intent in Civil Society Organisations” – https://icscentre.org/2020/01/15/power-governance-and-intent-in-civil-society-organisations/
Ed Boswell blog, “Power is the energy that flows; governance is the conduit through which it moves.” – https://icscentre.org/2018/11/27/power-is-the-energy-that-flows-governance-is-the-conduit-through-which-it-moves/
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 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.
In 2017, the Centre reported the results of a survey that revealed widespread dissatisfaction among ICSO leaders with their existing governance structures and mechanisms, as well as with the current balance of power within their organisations. Among the most frequently mentioned frustrations were slow decision-making, nagging questions of legitimacy and poor execution—and all of this despite the fact that some of these same organisations had engaged in governance reforms over the previous two years to address their issues.
This past September, leaders from eight ICSOs met in Berlin for the better part of three days to focus on how to best address these frustrations within their own institutions. At this Centre-sponsored Global Governance Lab, the participant cohort embodied a range of roles from board members to CEOs, from deputy secretary generals to program and governance directors. Collectively, they represented federations, confederations and unitary governance structures; faith-based and secular organisations; and humanitarian, human rights and development-focused INGOs, and together they possessed almost two centuries of experience in the civil society sector, with much of that time spent in leadership positions. Most of the participants represented organisations that were actively considering changes or updates to their current governance model and processes.
The starting point for the group’s exploration was to assess in what specific ways the formal and informal power dynamics and governance structures currently at play either helped or hindered the realisation of their organisation’s intent. While each organisation had its own unique answers to this question, a number of themes emerged across the ICSOs. In fact, despite differences in formal governance structures and processes, the issues identified by the leaders in the Lab were strikingly similar across the cohort. Some of the common themes that emerged were as follows:
Interestingly, while all the organisations who participated in the Lab identified specific changes they needed to make to better achieve their organisation’s intent, the changes that were most frequently highlighted did not involve transforming the formal governance structures or processes. Instead, their recommendations most often cited shifting the informal yet potent power dynamics in their organisations. We will cover these specifics in our next instalment of this blog.
Ed Boswell, CEO and Co-Founder, Conner Advisory
(Along with Wolfgang Jamann, Ed co-designed and co-facilitated the Global Governance Lab.)