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

The major political, economic and social shifts affecting the world are having dramatic impacts upon civil society locally, nationally, regionally and globally. Economic recession in some parts of the world and growth in others is affecting the roles of and priorities for civil society organisations, as well as sources and flows of funding. Civil society has been central to political upheaval in many countries, with new forms emerging to advocate for change and represent the views of new generations of citizens in innovative ways. While some doors are opening, however, other doors are closing as revolutions turn sour and entrenched political elites curb social freedoms and civil society spaces.

In this fast-changing context, how can civil society organizations adapt in order to contribute to new development challenges? Moreover, how can they enhance both their sustainability and their legitimacy in the face of rapid change?

The panel organizer, INTRAC, has been heavily involved for the past few years in projects which have been monitoring these trends, critically examining what is happening, convening discussions, producing publications, and using the knowledge gained to support the civil society sector and influence policy-makers and practitioners. Different projects looking at civil society in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Europe have examined: the changing face and future of civil society in response to new political and economic configurations; challenges affecting northern and southern-based NGOs in light of changing funding patterns; new relationships between civil society organisations and emergent middle classes, the private sector and philanthropists; changing roles and relationships with government and public authorities as service providers and critical voices; sustainability strategies of civil society organisations; and the ways in which local civil society organisations can operate in spaces where international ones may struggle. The roles and responsibilities of civil society organizations in contributing to sustainable social, economic and political development are central themes running through all these projects. The accountability, legitimacy and credibility of civil society organizations as a locus of collective citizen voice and action are likewise key themes.

This policy-oriented panel will provide space for debate with academics, practitioners and policy-makers around the central question of: ‘how can civil society organisations that have traditionally depended on external funding redefine their relationships with their national middle classes, political authorities, private actors and their old external partners in order to fulfil their roles as key development actors’?

This panel will bring together three thinkers – an academic, a practitioner, and a policy-maker – with expertise in emerging economies, civil society, citizenship, development and the middle classes to debate:

  • Roles and responsibilities of citizens in different parts of the world in relation to civil society organisations as activists, donors, recipients of services, members and staff.
  • Changing relationships between northern and southern-based civil society organisations in middle income countries, emerging economies and fragile states
  • Sustainability strategies for civil society organisations in countries facing rapid social, political and economic change, where the lens through which these organisations are perceived is changing rapidly from a delivery mechanism for aid to a part of the new politics of once aid dependent countries.

The objective of the panel is to produce recommendations for policy-makers and civil society actors, 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.