written by Nomvula Dlamini, Community Development Resource Association (CDRA, South Africa) 

On the 20th October 2019 a joint workshop was conducted between the Forus Council and the participants of the Third Cycle of the Leadership Development Program. This workshop preceded one of the milestones in the development of Forus’ next strategy namely the Forus’ Council meeting held in Dakar, Senegal on October 21 & 22 and its aim was to reinforce the members’ collective view of Forus as well as create opportunity for them to input into the strategic reflection process. With more than 30 representatives of Forus’ members joining in the workshop, it was designed for the purpose of exchanging ideas, experiences and practices. It also provided participants of the LDP with an opportunity to share with Council members the result of their collective reflections from the 4-day process.  

Purpose and process 

The purpose of the joint workshop was to provide participants the space and opportunity to explore and brainstorm on the necessary innovations and adaptations necessary for Forus’ network, to remain a strong member-led actor in the international civil society landscape.  There was a shared understanding that the outcomes of this exploration and brainstorming session will continue a reflection process that would continue during 2020 and be concluded at the GA end 2020. In addition, it is envisaged that outcomes from these discussions would inform and help shape Forus’ ideas and thinking in terms of a future model of national platforms. In addition, ideas would also be drawn on to update the document called “What is a National NGO Platform”. 

In the discussions it was envisaged that any future model has to be one that optimally facilitates realisation of its strategic goals for the next cycle of its strategic plan. Linked to this, Forus members would have to reflect on and come to agreement about the kind of secretariat that is needed to support a global civil society platform as well as the human resources needed to optimally support its membership.  

In their reflections and discussions participants took cognisance of the fact national platforms constantly evolve in response to their changing contexts and that contextual changes, forces and trends determine the direction in which national platforms will evolve. As a result, how national platforms respond to changes in their contexts will determine the social change agendas they develop and pursue.   

In terms of process, the workshop started with a contextualised overview that served to remind participants of the contextual trends, forces and changes that make it important for Forus and national platforms to evolve and innovate in order to remain relevant. This contextualisation also served to remind participants of previous discussions that focused on the following issues: ownership of platforms by members, the relevance of members in addressing social change, in remaining representative and legitimate. Participants were reminded that during the past GA members identified the need to find ways to work closely with and learn from more disruptive actors, such as social movements, indigenous grassroots groups, feminist and LGBT+ movements.  

Further, participants were reminded of the findings of Forus’ mid-term review which made recommendations about membership. This was followed by a reflection on the current model of national platform and thereafter participants moved on to discuss Forus’ support to its members, its membership structure and ended with looking into how Forus’ own membership should evolve in response to the ever-changing context.   


Reflection on current model  

Once the context had been sketched, participants were guided through a reflection of the current model of national platforms. Although some members confirmed that this model still speaks to their contextual reality, there was a strong chorus of voices which indicated that there is need to expand this definition – firstly, the definition has to articulate a clear identity for national platforms and secondly, it has to better reflect the contextual reality. Though not widespread, a reservation was also expressed that as it currently stands in the document, this is more a listing of characteristics and not a definition that articulates a clear identity.  

There was a proposal that in order to articulate the essential identify clearly, there was need to define what is an NGO. There was some opposition to this and the reason put forward was that in different contexts “NGO” is defined by the law and this would make it difficult to put forward a definition that speaks to all contexts.  
Having said this, participants agreed that “who we are” needs to be articulated very clearly in future documents. In doing so it would recognise that national platforms are part of an ecosystem and thus need to guard their essential identify and contribution jealously. With reference to the identity of national platforms, participants indicated that there countries where national platforms have become more inclusive – their membership has grown to include not only traditional, formal & professional NGOs but also other informal and more disruptive civil society actors. There was a call for the essential identity to reflect this evolution.    

Forus’ support to its members 

In exploring this topic, participants indicated that the support/role that members appreciate is the creation of a platform for reflection, learning, peer exchange, synergies of experiences and allowing for collective action.

Other forms of support to members for which appreciation was expressed was with regard to the positioning and visibility of national platforms, building partnerships across sectors/regions and strengthening leadership. With regard to strengthening leadership, members raised the issue of developing a follow-up framework to the Leadership Development Program. This, they indicated, could be done on a national level or as peer projects.  

Forus’ membership structure 

There was general agreement that the current structure and categories of membership continue to serve the needs of the members; it allows for participation by a broader and diverse grouping of civil society actors in the Forus platform and allows for richer learning/exchanges. In addition, it enhances the standing of Forus in the global landscape.   

In spite of such agreement, participants raised a concern experienced by national platforms in some countries. In some countries where more than one NGO platform relevant to Forus’ work exists there needs to be some indication whether Forus would be open to having more than one member per country. Participants acknowledged that this could result in tensions and holds potential for undermining the work and agendas of the respective national platforms. A strong call was made for only one national platform in a country to be a Forus member, this would minimise conflicts and potential competition. There was however, recognition that thematic networks was a growing trend in many national contexts. It was emphasised that where a thematic networks applies for observer status with Forus, such networks need to be encouraged to affiliate to the national platform.  

As the current category of membership allows for networks and social movements, participants felt the “observer member” category could serve as way towards more inclusiveness in Forus’ membership. However, into the future, Forus would need to be strategic about which actors to invite or accept into the fold as observer members. Even this category of membership is critically important not only for Forus’ standing as a global platform but also for achievement of its strategic goals in the next phase.   

With regard to the Forus membership structure, participants highlighted the importance of being clear about the benefits and obligations of observer members.   

Relevance of national platforms 

The workshop design created space and opportunity for participants to reflect on the relevance of national platforms. Participants questioned what makes national platforms relevant; they even questioned whether this model of national platforms that tends to focus on formal, structured organisations is outdated.  

With regard to relevance, participants acknowledged that national platforms have to earn the right to exist – this depends on their usefulness, contribution and attribution. Towards this, national platforms have to bear in mind that they cannot be all things to all people – their relevance is determined by what they offer and how this resonates with those they serve and support. In other words, the relevance of national platforms will depend on the context in which they operate, the content of their communication and their interactions (contact) with those they serve and support. The relevance of national platforms finds expression in its purpose in a particular context. 

One of the issues emphasised was the challenge for national NGO platforms to adapt their model of membership in response to environmental changes and shifts in order to remain relevant. It is for this reason that they have to see reading, noticing and analysing the local, national, regional and global contexts as an ongoing practice.  Following on this ongoing reading, noticing and analysing of the context national platforms then have to adapt accordingly. By doing so national platforms will remain relevant and ensure that their actions are in alignment with the contextual realities and so guarantee their make a difference in their respective contexts.  

Legitimacy and credibility  

With regard to legitimacy and credibility of national platforms, a spirited discussion ensued amongst participants. The members acknowledged that it is important for national platforms to ensure that in terms of their role, positioning and actions they are in alignment with other actors in the civil society eco-system. This, they mentioned, will determine their sphere of influence as well as their credibility. Legitimacy, they emphasised, has to be earned – it is not something that is simply granted.  

Credibility on the other hand is about the quality of being trusted and believed in by the people and institutions they serve and support. It is critically important that national platforms inspire belief in them as civil society actors; they have to work towards cultivating trust between themselves and the people they serve as well as between other civil society actors and other stakeholders. To enjoy the credibility of the people, through their work they must want what is best for the people and ensure that their own values are aligned with the values of the people. More importantly, there has to be congruence between what they say and their actions – they must be an embodiment of the messages they communicate. 

Once again, participants acknowledged that both legitimacy and credibility have to earned, national platforms have to work hard to be seen as legitimate and credible. It is the people and other institutions who give national platforms the authority to operate as a key role player in the civil society eco-system – such authority stems from whether national platforms are seen as authentic by others.  

Participants shared stories of how their platforms are viewed by other civil society actors.  

In some contexts the relevance, legitimacy and credibility of traditional NGOs is deeply questioned by other civil society actors – NGOs are generally seen as having little impact, being disconnected from constituencies, being delivery vehicles for government programmes and pushing donor agendas in the name of development. Need to remain awake to the factors of their legitimacy – stability, relationship with other agencies, operating within the parameters of the law. National platforms therefore need to remain awake to the factors that affect their legitimacy – their stability, relationships with other civil society actors as well as operating within the parameters of the legislative frameworks in their respective contexts.  

What emerged as challenges facing national platforms?

The following are some of the challenges that emerged from the reflections and deliberations. Looking deeper into the issues, it was recognised that these challenges are common to national platforms. What differs is how these issues manifest and play themselves out in the different contexts.    

Working collaboratively  

Participants acknowledged that there is a growing need to work collaboratively as part of a community of civil society actors. This, members pointed out, poses challenges as it requires of traditional NGOs to work beyond their organisational boundaries. Increasingly NGOs and other civil society actors are required to define their role & contribution in relation to the eco-system of civil society, public and private sector players.

Participants recognised that national platforms have to learn how to play a fuller role in the eco-system of players – this requires continuous reflection & articulation of their identity, role, positioning and contribution. Working collaboratively is a way of working that demands a shift in paradigm, attitudes and orientation. 


Level to focus the work  

The issue of where to focus the work of national platforms was raised. Whilst some participants raised this as an issue they are grappling with, there was a strong voice that indicated that given the complexity of the social problems national platforms and their members are addressing, it is critical that the work happens at multiple levels.

Given the interconnectedness of the social issues at community, district, national and regional levels, it is important that national platforms work at multiple levels. Towards this they have to ensure that their strategies for work at different levels are clearly defined – there has to be clarity about the ‘golden thread’ that connects their work from grassroots through to national and global levels.  

The question of where to put the emphasis when working at multiple levels – should the focus be on the process or on the result? In response to this question, the general feeling was that if the process is good then results will be achieved. With regard to where to focus the work, participants indicated that perhaps it does not matter at what level national platforms are working but rather with whom and to what end. Towards this, the importance of partnerships was emphasised. As mentioned previously, no single actor can adequately address the social problems – it demands working in partnership with other actors.  

Making national platforms more inclusive 

Another issue raised was how to make national platforms more inclusive of different forms of civil society organisations and grassroots. The two case studies shared showed that in some national contexts this is no longer an issue as the respective national platforms have already made strides towards becoming more inclusive of more informal and disruptive civil society formations. The real question was whether the national platforms of more structured, professional NGOs are able to work with social movements, citizen-led groups and other more disruptive formations.  

For national platforms the question is how to open up the membership beyond traditional NGOs? In some contexts such opening up of membership would mean including social movements, Sustainable Development Goals initiatives, trade unions, tertiary institutions, feminist and LGBTI+ movements. Whilst these more disruptive civil society formations and popular movements work out of a different impulse from more traditional NGOs, they often focus on similar social issues & problems as traditional NGOs. They also have different ways of working and are sustained through different modalities.  

Participants also reflected on the implications of being more inclusive – what implications does it have for national platforms to work with these new emerging formations? From the case studies there is no question that traditional NGOs are challenged by the new emerging civil society actors. When operating in a civil society eco-system defined by its diversity, traditional NGOs struggle to articulate their added value. Further, traditional NGOs do not have the flexibility of social movements and grassroots, citizen-led groups – it takes them longer to respond to the needs of constituencies and communities.   

In addition to the case studies presented, other participants also had opportunity to share from their own experiences of national platforms becoming more inclusive. From other national contexts participants pointed out that when national platforms opt to become more inclusive, it is critical to have shared values and goals – there has to be a common cause that the different actors pursue as a collective. In terms of how the more formal NGO formations relate to the less unstructured formations within the eco-system, participants pointed out that these new ways of working and relationships have to be nurtured. New strategies for working together have to be developed. Whilst the sustainability of the unstructured formations was raised as a concern, participants pointed out the benefits of working together outweigh the challenges. Working in the same space as these unstructured formations opens up opportunity for developing new kinds of alliances and coalitions. 

Flexible, sustainable funding  

Funding support to sustain the work and contributions of national platforms is a global challenge; all countries are experiencing shifts in the funding climate and national platforms are forced to explore different mechanisms/strategies for supporting their work. Although some national platforms are financially supported from the national fiscus, the kind of flexible funding that recognises the independence and autonomy of civil society formations is not easy to come by.  The importance of flexible funding was acknowledged, it allows national platforms the freedom to pursue their social change agendas without interference from governments, donors and other agencies.  

In spite of the challenges national platforms face regarding funding support, a few participants shared experiences of new resourcing models that they are experimenting with. The range from establishing coalitions for resource mobilisation to partnerships with private sector corporations. These initiatives are in line with the realisation that into the future national platforms are operating in a context where they have to diversify their funding. In addition, they have to explore and experiment with more sustainable funding mechanisms.  

Positioning national platforms in the political space  

Another issue of debate and challenge was the positioning of national platforms in the political space. Although some national platforms recognised this as normal, there were some participants who questioned whether this is a space in which national platforms should be operating. In some national contexts operating in the political space is seen to be the work of human rights and advocacy organisations whose work is focused on policy formulation and development.

On the other hand there are national platforms that see working in the political space as unavoidable; they not only see it as the domain of human rights and advocacy organisations.  

Participants emphasised that national platforms have to learn to navigate in the political space and engage with political power. National platforms and other civil society formations have to bear in mind that social change is politically grounded. An important question national platforms have to ask themselves is how do we achieve good collaboration at the political level when working with political actors. This requires of national platforms to have clear visions and to position themselves within the space confidently with clearly articulate intentions and motivation.   

For national platforms to engage within the space effectively, there is need for a shared conception of the political economy. They also need to organise their voice as civil society actors and make use of the power of collective action.   

A social change agenda 

There was recognition working in social change requires of national platforms to have a clear social change agenda, there has to be clarity around the shared agenda. Working in social change also requires a thoughtfulness on the part of national platforms – they have to understand their role as nurturing, supporting, enabling, accompanying and facilitating transformative change. This requires of them to be responsive to the needs, aspirations and struggles of the people they support and serve.

There has to be a consciousness that not the programmes of the national platforms but the reality on the ground (contextual reality) will determine the direction of the change. It is for this reason that national platforms have to connect to the visions of the people – it is these visions that drive the social change. In addition, national platforms have recognise their role as only one of the actors in the social change eco-system. This role has to connect with, support and complement the roles of other actors.  

To make a real contribution to social change, national platforms have to revitalise, renew and remobilise – they can no longer rely on old, traditional strategies and approaches. They have to be innovative, they should seek new alliances, coalitions and also relate in new ways. There has to be a consciousness about who to work with and towards what ends. 


In conclusion  

In concluding it is important to mention that there was an awareness that any future model for national platforms has to take into consideration that the national contexts continue to evolve. Towards this national platforms have to be responsive to the shifts and changes.

In addition, future models have to ensure that their membership models are reflective of the contextual realities – the reality is that there is a diverse mix of civil society actors operating in the space. The space is inhabited by the more formal and structured traditional NGOs as well as by emergent, informal and less structured movements, networks and groups that are more disruptive in their approach and practices.  

In addition, any future model also has to recognise that while the traditional NGOs have strong developmental agendas, in the space there are also human rights and advocacy organisations and social movements which seek to disrupt the status quo. National platforms have to build organisational forms that are fit for the future; that will allow them to meet future challenges. For this reason national platforms have to develop models that will allow them to operate as a community of civil society players – such models should allow them to be inclusive of the diversity of members. This will allow national platforms to offer new services and will open up space for new sectors and new ways of working with government and the private sector.