Has civil society lost sight of its goals?

Danny Sriskandarajah, secretary-general and CEO of CIVICUS. Photo by: U.K. Foreign & Commonwealth Office / CC BY

Can civil society organizations be so bureaucratic, so businesslike and so accountable to their donors that they lose sight of their mission?

Danny Sriskandarajah, secretary-general and CEO of CIVICUS, thinks so.

A number of highly regarded civil society leaders — including Winnie Byanyima of Oxfam International, Hadeel Ibrahim of the Mo Ibrahim Foundation and Sriskandarajah — sparked candid dialogue and debate following their open letter to activists, in which they critiqued the current effectiveness and general standing of civil society organizations.

Sriskandarajah will be one of many civil society leaders coming to New York City in late September for #GlobalDev Week to engage with other development professionals, CEOs, activists and policymakers on the future of global development, and he recently spoke with Devex from his office in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Below are highlights from our conversation.

You talk about branding, bureaucracy and big business and how they “trap” those people working in civil society. Can you share some examples of when that’s the case?

For large service delivery-oriented development [nongovernmental organizations] in particular, … the pressures on them are so heavily about delivering value-for-money services — competing often with the private sector or hybrid social enterprises — [that] the very objectives they are often founded for are sometimes remote to the people working in them.

So I’ve spoken with many a person who works in a big INGO context, who spends the vast majority of their time, rightly, delivering efficient value-for-money projects and activities, but not having necessarily enough time to do the advocacy or campaigning that their organization was set up to do. Not necessarily having enough time to interact with wider civil society, including informal movements, social movements [and] grassroots organizations. And not necessarily having enough time to address the systemic challenges that often cause the very things that they’re trying to address.

So we’re busy building wells and delivering schoolbooks without necessarily having enough time to address the structural causes that led to the formation of our very organizations in the first place.

What would your response be to the argument that having this structure, treating development like a business, is the only way to be truly effective, because that’s how money gets allocated … that’s how things get done?

I suppose we need the best of both worlds. Civil society has to be accountable and transparent in what we do. And that means going out of our way to make sure that we’re effective, we’re shown to be effective, we’re using resources, especially when it’s generated from individuals, as best as we can. So I’m not saying that we should downplay our accountability, but on the other hand we also need to make sure that the [logical framework] doesn’t kill our passion. The very reason we have civil society is that we are beyond the market in some ways and beyond the state … In some countries it’s called a volunteer sector because it doesn’t have to be there, but we want it to be there.

We’re in a peculiar moment, because in many cases, the NGOs that we talk about are a few decades old. They’re the creation of a particular set of circumstances, particularly in development centered around aid and philanthropy toward the developing world or the “global south,” that have created these relatively large formal NGO structures that try to deliver development. My worry in a way is that in many cases, these organizations have to end up behaving like and competing with corporate entities. And that’s fine because they have to show value for money and show that they’re effective, but on the other hand, it’s this idea that they have to retain what’s special and unique about civil society, which to me is values-based.

So we need value for money, but also values. And getting that balance right is never easy, and I meet many a chief [executive] who struggles on a daily basis with exactly that. They’ve got to land the grants and the contracts, but they’ve got to stay true to their purpose.

You’ve written this letter and it has sparked a robust debate and conversation. Have any concrete solutions come out of it? What’s the most productive conversation you’ve had following the publication of your letter?

One of the rallying calls is for those of us who do have the privilege of being paid to work in civil society to go out of our way to engage others beyond our comfort zone, to go and work with and talk with the informal bits, or the unorganized bits of civil society, to get out of our offices and get into the streets more — at every level, from chief executive to program officer.

Another idea … is around the donor relationship. We’re in danger of donor-led agendas or civil society following donor-led agendas. And I think one of the things I’ve learned in the conversations so far, in the last few weeks, is a lot of people have been saying, we need to stand up and say to many of our donors — whether they’re private foundations or bilateral agencies — that actually here are some things we think are important that need to be done, not just follow what the donors say. And in some cases that may well be a risky strategy, but I think, some of the experiences I’m hearing of it, actually that can be quite a rewarding strategy, and one that’s welcome by some certainly enlightened donors.  … Donors sometimes want to hear from civil society about how they should be addressing these issues.

I was pleasantly surprised to see a recent call by [the U.S. Agency for International Development] for some co-creation with civil society around their development lab. The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs has said that its next five-year funding framework … will be also co-created with civil society alliances. So I think in both cases, USAID and the Dutch have said that they will identify the partners first, and then work with them to see how best they’re going to spend those resources. Rather than this idea that donors are sitting somewhere in an office block, determining exactly what needs to be done and then there’s simply a competitive process for seeing who can deliver best value for money.

You say that sometimes when you’re held accountable to donors, you are less likely to take a risk, that you want incremental success. How can donors help spur that risk taking?

I’d unpack the notion of risk in the donor community in several ways. One thing that’s starting to happen is direct funding of civil society in the global south, without necessarily having to go through northern-based NGOs or civil society organizations. I think many a donor, whether it’s official or private philanthropic donors have been reluctant to fund directly. And I’m happy to say that I think we’re starting to see, particularly as some of the information barriers start to fall off, and you can ascertain whether or not a potential recipient is a legitimate actor, we are starting to see money flow.

I also think that there’s not enough funds going into the edgy bits of social justice … the advocacy, the campaigning that needs to happen on politically unpopular issues, particularly in the global south. And that I’m afraid official donors sometimes shirk away from, and even philanthropic foundations, particularly the local philanthropic foundations in many countries, don’t want to support either.

So here we are in South Africa … celebrating its 20th year of democracy, and my civil society colleagues here in South Africa are saying that there’s very little resource for funding social justice-related activities. Because the foreign donors are pulling out, because they think this is a middle-income country and they don’t necessarily want to support unpopular sort of causes, and the local philanthropists … aren’t interested in supporting HIV issues, or gay rights or gender-based violence issues.

And actually, as a result of that, there’s been a very interesting new initiative called the Social Justice Initiative, which is a multidonor initiative, so that for example private philanthropists who don’t want to be seen to be supporting politically unpopular causes can channel their funds through an intermediary … anonymously. And then the funds can go through … We need the donor community also to be aware of some of these challenges and find ways around this sort of blockages.

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About the author

  • Jeff tyson 400x400  1

    Jeff Tyson

    Jeff is a former global development reporter for Devex. Based in Washington, D.C., he covers multilateral affairs, U.S. aid, and international development trends. He has worked with human rights organizations in both Senegal and the U.S., and prior to joining Devex worked as a production assistant at National Public Radio. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor’s degree in international relations and French from the University of Rochester.