The timing of the Scanning the Horizon Annual Meeting 2019 in June coincided with the huge demonstrations against the Extradition Bill in Hong Kong, which created strong fluctuations in every citizen of Hong Kong, including myself. What was happening beyond our air-conditioned meeting room coincidentally matched with the main theme of our discussions, China’s global role. While we were taking advantage of this space, our discussion served as a timely and meaningful start for exchange of experiences.
We shared with each other the context, the analysis and the strategy in dealing with the changing and emerging role of China in overseas investments, in global governance, philanthropy and other areas. China’s technological innovation in particular is one of the most interesting trends which might have big implications for inequality and poverty issues around the world. As it will have an impact on our work, this will need to be considered by many INGOs, including Oxfam.
The most timely and valuable overall message from the meeting was the importance of structural reflection on a regular basis. We shared and understood each other’s constraints in operationalising different strategies and approaches. Practitioners were meeting with a whole range of challenges and might deal with them in a practical way, for example, by stopping certain areas of work or not using particular approaches to avoid risk. However, more structured and regular reflection can help us learn lessons and explore how we could work differently.
My main points of reflection, especially in the context of constrained civil society space in developing countries, are:
It is now a critical moment to reflect on the role of international NGOs in this vibrant context. Whether we stay relevant depends so much on our capability of comprehension and reflection as an organisation. We look forward to continuing to share our experiences and lessons with other organisations on this important topic.
In a world becoming increasingly dominated by geopolitical issues, authoritarian rule and populism, the role of international civil society organisations (ICSOs) has perhaps never been more threatened, or more necessary.
At the heart of many of the discussions on these issues is China, and its rise as a global power. China is no longer a minor voice in development that can be ignored. It now presents the potential to be the biggest influencer in how the development sector changes in coming years.
It is clear that China’s increasing role in global development is done through a very different lens and approach to the traditional western rules-based order that has been evident over the last 50 years or so. It is challenging the status quo.
Whilst we often portray the international civil society sector as a somewhat dissident voice to the predominantly western approach to global governance and development, it reflects and reinforces much of this approach in its work and structures. The sector’s background in the western liberal way of thinking is creating some real challenges as ICSOs look at how they engage with a new participant with a different values base and approach.
It is clear is that China is here to stay as a major player in international development. This has been recognised by governments and the private sector, and the civil society sector must also recognise this, and identify how it needs to adapt to be relevant in this changing environment it works in.
So how should the sector, and the organisations working in it, respond? Here are my reflections from the Scanning the Horizon Annual Meeting in June, where we met to explore these questions:
• Focus on the central vision and adapt to the operational culture
The vast majority of ICSOs were founded to meet a deep and deserving need. They are an embodiment of a vision for change. This vision gives them purpose and meaning and must remain at the heart of all they do.
However, vision shouldn’t drive rigid adherence to approach or operations. Organisations who want to remain relevant in disruptive environments need to be agile and adaptive in their operational model. To work with different values, different approaches and different cultures, you need to be willing to invest in understanding them, how they think and work and how you can work with them. Engaging with China, and others, should be a part of every ICSO’s global strategy.
• Focus on building relationships
We work with people we like. What we do is not a transaction, but a relationship. This is especially true in working with the Chinese, who value understanding and relationship and think in a much longer timeframe than many of us in the West. Engaging with Chinese development partners will need a long-term approach and investment.
• Build real cross-sector partnerships
The traditional development model is being replaced by a much more diverse approach which includes increased engagement with the private sector. Much of this work is happening in sectoral silos at the moment, including the work of Chinese state and private organisations. Building capacity within ICSOs for real cross-sector partnerships, including creating the right culture for these to be a success and developing or recruiting the right skills, will be crucial to ensuring civil society can increase its influence and reach.
• Look to opportunities
ICSOs work in communities where there is an identified need. With the expanded development model, many more opportunities exist for partnerships that will enhance the effectiveness of the work being done by all involved. Whether it is partnering for economic development, environmental gains or acting as a constructive watchdog and community advocate, many new opportunities are presented through cross-sector partnerships.
This creates increased opportunities to influence the delivery and effectiveness of projects by Chinese organisations.
• Understand the risks and mitigate them where possible
Engaging with new partners who have different values presents real risks that can’t be ignored. Be realistic about these. Look to mitigate them wherever possible. An agile and informed operating model will help this immensely. However, if mitigation isn’t possible, don’t enter into partnerships that undermine your vision and values.
• Identify ways to engage in the new funding landscape of loans and grants that flow to the private sector
Organisations that have invested in understanding, in building relationships, who are open to cross-sector partnership and have an agile operational approach will be well positioned to engage in new models of funding. The final part is to look differently at how they can add value and where this will benefit both the community and the other partners in delivering better impact.
This has particular potential in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) where partnering with implementing contractors to make BRI projects more effective through community engagement and development, or with local communities and governments to build negotiating capacity, are both areas where ICSOs could add real value.
In summary, China is one of many disruptors influencing ICSOs today. It is here to stay as a dominant player.
The implications of not adapting how the sector engages with the various Chinese development organisations and initiatives are large and serious.
The benefits of making this a strategically important focus are potentially larger.
What is required to deliver this is what is required to build the future of ICSOs.
A future scenario workshop at our Global Perspectives 2018 conference explored what an international civil society organisation (ICSO) in 2030 successfully ‘Engaging a #New Generation’ would look like. The group predicted a very different global environment of megatrends with great impact and influence on young people. Although only 12 years’ away, there was systemic and rapid change in social and political organisation, technology and data-driven inequality, precarious work/economic situations, and intense climate change, antibiotic resistance and genetically modified food systems.
In this context, the successful CSO of 2030 would have characteristics fundamentally different from the mindsets, skills, structures and ways of working today. Radical and cause-driven, it would be focused on campaigns, advocacy/policy and amplifying what others are doing, with devolved peer-to-peer accountability and consensus decision-making communities both internally and with supporters.
One clear idea was intergenerational ICSOs working on major complex multi-generational issues. We imagined an organisation where all staff – regardless of age and number of years of professional experience – know how to catalyse change, engage the public, and mentor others. This includes multi-directional mentoring across a four- or five-generation workforce, in an organisation where everyone receives leadership training. With CSOs’ professional and technical staff expertise also seen as available through a `draw down´ service to partners, this would also increase in importance.
Undoubtedly, the ICSO of the future will need to expertly balance experience and youth for powerful leadership and ‘manage the intergenerational mix’. There is some general analysis out there but not much detailed exploration for our sector in particular. How much are organisations thinking about this and preparing internal scenarios, tools and processes to make this an easy and effective transition? We may explore this further with the Global Heads of Division in 2019, which will include HR Directors for the first time. Please get in touch if you are already working on this.
A number of ICSOs in the foresight community Scanning the Horizon are experimenting with or interested in engaging young audiences in developing future scenarios. The purpose of which is to inform their current cycles of organisational strategic planning. In a recent webinar organised by the Centre, Amnesty International shared insights from their first ever youth futures workshop within the organisation’s 2018 Global Youth Summit, with 100 young volunteers and activists. An initial round of internal thinking narrowed down the strategic topics to explore in the scenarios, including technology and human rights, economic inequality and cultural power. In groups, the young people then answered three overall questions:
The participants then created the vision of the world they wanted to see in 2030, completing a blank newspaper front page as the framework to define the future headlines they could help shape. The practical exercise enabled them to identify influencing strategies for different actors under each theme, make connections between topics, and gave them the confidence to replicate the exercise in their own peer networks. Amnesty International now plans to repeat this targeted process with more young people in regional spaces.
As UNICEF’s ‘Adolescents shaping their future: a foresight toolkit’ notes, involving young people in foresight process is important for a number of reasons, including ‘living with the consequences’ of current decisions and policies longer than those making or planning them in the present. Foresight does not require accurate predictions, but rather diverse and participatory generation of ideas about multiple potential futures. This should make it a relatively exciting and easy entry point to include young people, and increase open and more democratic exchanges, including where young people ‘have limited say in their lives or community affairs’. This could include some ICSO processes!
Engaging youth in developing future scenarios might be a first step towards ultimately making foresighting processes fully intergenerational as well. In developing a preferred vision of the future and how to get there, recognising and incorporating different perceptions of time is important. How far away does 2030 seem to people of different ages and stages of their lives? Integrating varied notions of time may highlight different senses of urgency or perceived levels of agency to change situations, and shake things up beyond incremental or even cynical thinking, to a more ambitious and optimistic outlook of what can be achieved. Appreciating different temporal dimensions may be important in intercultural foresight processes as well.
It is clear that there is both appetite and need to explore thinking on intergenerational working and future strategy development processes, and how ICSOs can implement these in more systematic and practical ways. The conversations will continue with our communities and through our convening in 2019.