Civil Society Sustainability in a Polycentric World: New Roles, Challenges and Responsibilities

By Albert Arhin

Why this panel?
This INTRAC-convened panel which is one of the sessions of the 14th EADI General Conference, taking place in Bonn from 23-26 June 2014, was aimed to provide space for debate with academics, practitioners and policy-makers to explore theoretical implications, to identify research gaps and opportunities, and to consider capacity building needs of civil society organizations in light of their changing roles and responsibilities in a rapidly changing world. The panel focused on how civil society organizations can enhance both their sustainability and their legitimacy in the face of rapid global change.

The speakers
The session was deftly chaired by Michael Hammer, the executive director of INTRAC, who also share perspectives from a Civil Society Support Programme in Ethiopia. Other panellists for the session were David Lewis from the London School of Economics (LSE), Heike Spielmans, director of the German International Development NGO Network VENRO and Albert Arhin from the University of Cambridge. The various speakers drew on experiences from policy dynamics in donor countries and northern NGO networks, the Ethiopian experience of a civil society research projects, as well as an exploratory study examining views of NGOs in Ghana on challenges, opportunities and implications for civil society sustainability in a rapidly changing development context. There were interactive questions and answers session after the presentations.
Highlights of presentations
The Changing development landscape: An opportunity for NGDOs to become knowledge brokers
Professor David Lewis opened the discussion with highlights of some of the ways and context through which the landscape that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operate have been changing over the past few years. These include but not limited to the emergence of rising powers and new groupings of countries (such as BRICS, MINTs), new aid architecture, emergence of new middle class and increasing levels of social and economic inequality. David opined that, the idea of ‘civil society’, which for a while helped to underpin the work of NGOs as progressive organizations reflecting citizen activism, appears to be losing traction. He explained that it appears people seem to be tired with NGOs and are not interested in the excitement that greeted the concept in the early 1990s. His presentation therefore argues that rather than viewing this development as constraint, NGOs need to rather grab these changes as opportunities and reflect on how best to adapt to the new realities–and particularly the opportunities to become knowledge brokers. He advocated for new forms of partnerships and linkages between NGOs and researchers as well as activists.
New era requires new ways of thinking and understanding of development
Heike’s presentation focused on how the failure of the dominant development model challenges not only governments but civil society organizations worldwide to think about new ways of thinking and understanding development. Focusing on the work of VENRO as well as the implications of current development models for the strategies of development organisations and the civil society groups they work with, she argued for a shift from development cooperation towards international cooperation as a new paradigm

Sustainability of some NGOs in the south remains threatened in a new era
Albert’s presentation focused on the changing political and socio-economic context in which NGOs operate in Ghana and their implications for their operations and sustainability (in terms of existence). Using findings from an exploratory study conducted with Dr. Emma Mawdsley in Ghana, he explained that NGOs are now confronting a rapidly changing development environment driven by factors such as Ghana’s new economic status as a low middle income country, the changing priorities for the ‘traditional’ donors, the dwindling funding resources from the ‘traditional’ donors and the growing role of the ‘rising powers’ such as China, Brazil and India. He argues that there is a perceptible feeling that the sustainability of many NGOs in Ghana remain threatened in the long term partly due to factors such as retreating of funding support from traditional donors, the sidelining of NGOs support from the ‘new’ donors and rising powers and the imbalance associated with advocacy and service delivery funding support.
Civil Society Organisations are at cross-roads; but it takes longer time to build capacity
Contributing to the discussion, Mike Hammer (who chaired the function) shared some perspectives from recent civil society research projects (Civil Society at a Crossroads and Legal Frameworks and Political Space for NGOs). He opined that civil society organisations are at crossroads partly because of the shifting roles and challenges currently faced by civil society. He further drew on a EUR 35 million Programme dubbed the Ethiopia Civil Society Support Programme (CSSP) to explain how the programme has spearheaded an innovative countrywide approach to strengthen the capacity of civil society organisations and their relationship with government. He narrated how the programme had focused on people and communities which are historically hard to reach for public service provision. His presentation concluded that it takes quite a longer time (often going beyond budget and project cycles) to build capacity for civil society organisations and that there is always a tension between capacity building and funding drive–which have implications for the sustainability of civil society organisations.

Albert A Arhin is currently undertaken a PHD studies at the Department of Geography, University of Cambridge. His research focuses on REDD+ policy processes in Ghana with a particular focuses on the role played by different actors and the diverse pathways for (not) achieving transformational change in the forestry sector.