An article written by Deirdre de Burca (Forus Advocacy Co-ordinator)  & Magda Toma (Forus Director)

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 (For more information about the event https://icscentre.org/events/global-perspectives). 

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-  profit social 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.