Monday 24 April 2017

What is the value of civil society?

David Sasaki of Hewlett has written a first class post which throws down the gauntlet to civil society: either shape up to the extent that the people you claim to represent appreciate your value, or ship out. Harsh perhaps, but overdue. Sasaki calls for a frank conversation, and does not disappoint:

“Many civil society organizations do not add substantial value to the lives of those they claim to represent. They are more focused on pleasing their wealthy donors than the people they intend to serve”.
Sasaki’s next observation, however, is even more challenging, in particular for Northern INGOs beloved of policy reports and conferences in important places. Quoting former Hilary Clinton staffer Anne-Marie Slaughter he notes that CSOs:
“…will need to do more than just technocratic policy analysis if they are to remain relevant in our age of institutional distrust and government dysfunction”.
Phew – I can hear many famous names within Northern civil society say, that’s not us. We do field programming in hard places as well. But how much of that programming is driven by bottom up need, shaped by what communities themselves are saying that they want, compared to pre-cooked Northern policy agendas from both civil society and the donor community? I think most of us know the answer to that one.

So while I agree with Sasaki’s diagnosis of the problem as far as it goes, I think he overlooks another critical element. That of the role of donors in creating the very incentives that require CSOs to be ‘focussed on pleasing their wealthy donors’. Until both Foundations and statutory donors stop creating such a short termist and questionable set of incentive structures, including the widespread use of profit-making firms at the expense of civil society with questionable impact, then it is difficult to see this changing. The current 'payment by results' fad is hardly conducive to this either.

I also disagree with the primary treatment he prescribes. Sasaki says that civil society should catch up, emulate and seek to support more people like Maria Sarungi Tsehai in Tanzania. Maria is a deeply impressive individual who uses social media to mobilise and amplify the voices of communities often overlooked by powerful elites. I have had the privilege of working with Maria in the past (interestingly enough as a donor) and I agree that this sort of politically informed working is by far more impactful than standard and pre-shaped governance programming. Yet I do not think that civil society is necessarily right to emulate individuals like that, but rather to find and develop others like her.

In some ways this speaks to Positive Deviance programming, which the work of boundary-pushing organisations like Twaweza in Tanzania have done much to advance. In my reply to Sasaki’s blogpost I gently pointed out that those positive deviants might not be as highly educated, resourceful or fluent as Maria. But their ideas are just as important and in many ways more so. Hence learning from another resident of Dar es Salaam, Amina. Her life chances were robbed by State corruption and continue to be shaped by it. Yet her commitment to public service and piercing analysis of where problems really lie and what needs to be fixed is compelling. It's just not presented in policy or development-speak.

But to develop this new way of working, which we can all agree is likely to be working with the grain rather than against it, and thus more transformative than policy-led technocracy, the inescapable conclusion is that donors will need to buy into this agenda too. So far, there are precious few signs of that at scale.

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