Of course, I’m not the first person to ask this question. Quite a bit of discussion has already been had within the sector on whether NGOs are necessarily always the best development partners. But I think it’s still a very valid question to ask which civil society actors we’re working with and why.
We need to be constantly re-evaluating our approach, particularly given that civil society is not the same from one country to the next and that, even within a given country, it’s still a pretty dynamic beast. As INGOs we need to make sure we’re aware of and adapting to these changes.
I’ve been meaning to write a blog for a while now about ‘emerging’ civil society. I’m not talking about contexts where a traditionally weak civil society is starting to increase its influence. I’m talking more about places where it’s already fairly established and strong but where what civil society means and looks like is changing.
Now, admittedly, ‘civil society’ is a fairly broad ranging term anyway, encompassing anything from NGO to Church to labour unions. However, in some countries we are starting to see previously dormant civil society actors begin to take a more active role.
For example, in Cambodia, we are starting to see citizens organise themselves into informal groups to engage with the Government and the Private Sector. These groups aren’t quite what we might call social movements but they are fully owned and driven by citizens. The work of groups like the Prey Lang Network (see picture), the Community Peacebuilding Network and the Boeung Kak Lake community has been widely reported on internationally and have operated independently of support from more traditional civil society actors like NGOs.
Of course, that’s just one example and we’re not seeing the same changes everywhere. In Latin America, for example, social movements are much more common and INGOs, including CAFOD, have been working with them for some time. Although, of course, a social movement in Brazil won’t look the same as a informal citizens’ group in Cambodia.
But I suppose the point I want to make is that in some places (and on some issues) popular movements can sometimes be more effective at influencing decision-makers than NGOs engaging with more formal (yet perhaps stale) spaces for engagement. What’s important is being able to identify and adapt to where this is the case.
However, although we might like to get all excited by direct citizen action, I do think these sorts of informal groups have their limitations. (I’m going to skip over the practical challenges of partnering with non-legal entities in terms of funding and accountability).
Firstly, they tend to organise only in extreme circumstances or for a specific purpose. They are not generally suited to sustained long-term engagement on or monitoring of certain issues, which is what I believe is necessary to achieve long-term wide-reaching change.
And, secondly, while I support subsidiarity as a general principle, I think there are often some pretty unreasonable expectations of average citizen. (Not least because the vast majority of people involved have other duties to balance, jobs to go to and/or families to support). Yes, it’s absolutely central to ensure that decisions are informed by the realities and priorities of citizens but direct civic participation is not always the most appropriate or strategic way to do that.
And yet, if our goal is ultimately to support the voice of citizens, surely it would be foolish not to find a way to support the direct voice of citizens being expressed through these emerging informal citizens’ groups as well?
The risk is that, by trying to be involved, INGOs (or national NGOs) might undermine citizens’ ownership of the process and might even decrease their legitimacy in the eyes of decision-makers (and increase their risks). In some cases, financial or direct technical support might be appropriate, but in other contexts, maybe it’s enough just to make sure we are not undermining grassroots efforts and energies. This could be about advocating to get citizens a seat at the decision-making table or about supporting NGOs and informal groups to find ways of working in harmony together.
These are difficult questions that are context-specific and need to be revisted regularly. But we should remind ourselves that what works in one context may not work in another, and that what has worked in the past may not be working so well in the present.
I don’t have all the answers but I think it’s important to keep asking the question.
As always, comments welcome.