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We live, lead and plan in Turbulence, Uncertainty, Novelty and Ambiguity (TUNA) times. The unpredictability of global trends and their effects complicate the way we deal with the present, and cope with the future. We often don’t even know what we don’t know. And while there are some good ideas to deal with uncertainty and to navigate the unknown, civil society actors struggle to navigate a multiple crises world, like everyone.
Given the state of the world, the ambition of well-meaning actors in civil society should go beyond just coping and aim at shaping the future positively
The pandemic, global insecurity and geopolitical power shifts, the climate crisis and rising authoritarianism are just a few of the more visible factors that currently determine the operating conditions for Civil Society Organisations (CSO). The latest publication of the Solidarity Action Network from the ICSCentre, a platform for collaboration for international civil society organisations (ICSOs), provides a good overview of the key developments that stand out: mis- and disinformation, the polarisation of societies, proliferation of anti-rights groups, cyberattacks, surveillance, and growing “securitisation”.
Given the state of the world, the ambition of well-meaning actors in civil society should nevertheless go beyond just coping, and aim at shaping the future positively, particularly for those who are marginalised and lack opportunities to participate in global development.
Is this asking too much? If we don’t want to give up on reaching at least part of Agenda 2030; improving living conditions for millions of people while protecting the environment and addressing climate change, there is simply no other way than buckling up and getting ahead of the curve.
CSOs have shown a remarkable level of resilience over the past years of crises. Despite shrinking space for ensuring human and civil rights, dramatic changes in the operating conditions for service delivery and social justice work, the sector responds with agility, and innovation. ‘Crisis mode’ is the state where many CSOs, whether local or international, show their best. Humanitarian assistance is effectively provided under the most challenging conditions in Ukraine, Afghanistan or Yemen. Authoritarian and repressive regimes have not silenced human rights actors and activists. Funders of CSOs have also been exhibiting flexibility in responding to the changing conditions and increasing needs, including through waiving of bureaucratic reporting requirements and the provision of institutional funding to local organisations in need.
However, there remains a dire need for increased anticipation capabilities of CSOs. While many CSOs engage in foresight and liaise closely with think tanks and strategists to understand what’s coming, there are resources that can be more widely utilised to bring collective intelligence to the table (e.g., ICS Centre’s ‘Scanning the Horizon’ community, InterAction’s ‘NGO Futures project’, and similar undertakings by BOND, and Dutch Partos).
Also on the Forum Network: Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future, by Margaret Heffernan, Professor of Practice & Lead Faculty, University of Bath & Forward Institute Responsible Leadership Programme
We have also realised that it is tricky to determine the terminology that reflexes best with the operating realities in the communities we work in. ‘Civic space’ is sometimes perceived as a self-serving concept for CSOs and resonates less with local activists and communities. But surely, we are facing more than ‘complex working conditions’. Is ‘active citizenship’ a good way to describe what we are aiming for? Or ‘enabling environment for social justice work’?
Whatever the terminology, a few ideas seem to be useful for expanding the role of CSOs, and our recent ‘mapping’ exercise describes some key elements that can be helpful to better anticipate the future of civil societies:
- Better investment in and deployment of foresight and forecast tools, balancing response to crises while tackling their underlying systemic drivers.
- Improve narratives in communicating a compelling case on the ideal futures and the value of civic space and civil society.
- Increase competencies and areas of expertise to prepare for and shape the future, including strengthening ties between CSOs and other sectors of society to increase collective anticipatory capacity.
- Support local CSOs to build anticipatory capacity and overcome systemic or institutional changes (and decolonisation) within the CSO sector to strengthen inclusive anticipatory action.
- Develop a collective sector-wide approach to building anticipatory capacity and the infrastructure behind it, ideally led by the ‘Global South’.
Graphic from: Anticipating Futures for Civil Society Operating Space: Mapping the Landscape
None of this sounds impossible, but CSOs need to overcome some internal and external obstacles to explore the potential of dormant or underused capacities. As always, there is insufficient and inflexible funding preventing organisations to pivot in response to foresight analysis and exploration. Unequal power relations between CSOs inhibit locally-led decision-making, contribute to the sector’s weaknesses in planning for the unexpected and the unknown, and prevent it from capitalising on diversity of experience.
There are also organisational cultures that prioritise reaction over preparation, and investment in foresight and strategizing is sometimes seen as futile. As one colleague in the ICSCentre’s Scanning community has phrased it: “There are two groups of people in our organisation, those who write papers, and those who don’t read them”.
However, with uncertainty and crisis becoming the new normal and authoritarians pushing back the values of liberal democracy and human rights, CSOs need to expand their toolbox and live up to their potential. Ultimately, there is no one better placed to support the most marginalised and discriminated than a prepared, alert and collaborative civil society sector.