How civil society must adapt to survive its greatest challenges

MINUSMA SRSG Visits Menaka in Northern Mali

UN Photo/Marco Dormino (UNU, 2016)

This article is brought to you based on the strategic cooperation of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Silvia Magnoni, Head of Civil Society Communities , World Economic Forum

We live in a world of major geopolitical shifts and life-changing technological innovations. It’s fair to wonder, then, what our biggest hopes are for society in the coming decades.

It’s certain that the world has become a better place, according to nearly every measure of human well-being, and yet there is a need to acknowledge that new and looming challenges are looming. From the rise of nationalism, to increased demands for privacy, following widespread data leaks; from balancing growing human needs with planetary and environmental limits, to the impacts of sophisticated automation on people’s lives.

The list is long, and there is undoubtedly space for all stakeholders – policy-makers, civil society, corporations, media, academia – to take responsible action that brings about a stable, sustainable and peaceful world.

In this context, the work of civil society has become of even greater importance.

Problem solving

Civil society is a dedicated and committed problem-solver, but it seems clear that it needs to step up its efforts to adapt to a new reality of rapidly changing interconnected problems. When we look at the numbers, it appears the sector has the size and scale globally to be able to robustly adjust to change.

In the past, civil society organizations have found it difficult to statistically measure the economic impact of their work and the size of their sector; but data and new research has changed that. Recent figures provide evidence of a far larger force than previously predicted, amounting to $2.2 trillion in operating expenditures, and employing the equivalent of an estimated 54 million full-time workers globally, along with over 350 million volunteers.

But adapting is not enough. Innovation, creativity and transformation are imperatives in the sector if it’s to tackle the big challenges of our time.

So what’s next for civil society? Here are four key considerations:

High ambitions and high expectations

The workload of civil society organizations has increased in the past few years, and with more work comes more responsibility and the need to manage expectations.

For example, civil society groups are being counted on to realize the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and to work with other societal actors and decision-makers to transform the global development landscape over the next decade.

This is no small challenge. There are 17 goals covering a whole range of thorny societal issues to plan for, deliver and monitor – and new roles for the sector to operate in against a backdrop of blurring boundaries between civil society, governments and businesses.

This context of dramatically increasing demands is completed by larger-scale security, humanitarian, and climate-change-related challenges that are looming over the horizon. All this is forcing the civil society sector to find effective coping mechanisms by rethinking programmes, operations, mobilization strategies and partnership models.

Expectations on the sector to show its relevance and capabilities are high, but these expectations are accompanied by a generalized evaporation of trust in civil society institutions – as well as businesses, governments and media.

This collapse of trust means civil society needs to work harder, more effectively and more transparently, and to communicate better with current and prospective recipients, members and stakeholders.

The recent scandals that have hit some international NGOs, as well as the growth of right-wing, populist ideas, are further contributing to misperceptions and distrust in the sector, and damaging its credibility. This could create a potentially vicious cycle of decreased grassroots engagement and funding, ultimately threatening the whole sector.

Difficult legislative and operational environment

Across the globe, the general trend towards more restrictive regulatory measures, increased controls, and funding restrictions by governments is unquestionably making it more challenging for certain civil society institutions to carry out their activities.

While on the one hand this could be interpreted as an opportunity to introduce more transparency and rigour in the sector, on the other it is also contributing to a restrictive civic space, whereby civil society and citizens are limited in their civic freedoms and activities.

In some specific cases, government-promulgated anti-NGO regulations – mostly targeting non-governmental groups working in the human rights/corruption/governance spaces – create a narrative of repression and criminalization of the sector’s work. This can make it impossible for civil society organizations to function independently, and forces them to quit their operations despite a growing need for their services.

The current landscape of legislative frameworks is at best only creating a greater bureaucratic workload; but at worst it is putting at risk the safety of committed individuals in the sector, and raising many questions about the cost-opportunity of operating at all in certain contexts.

Image: CIVICUS, State of Civil Society Report 2018.Year in Review: Top Ten Trends

Reworking the relationship with the private sector

Meanwhile, businesses have become more visibly engaged with the social and environmental agenda.

Multinational companies, and those operating on a global scale in particular, have been increasingly proactive in the field of sustainability. With 10% of publicly owned companies accounting for 80% of profits, the market dominance of a growing concentration of multinational corporate power – while worrisome in some regards – provides leverage to positively influence public policy and accelerate societal investments.

On an engagement spectrum ranging from bland PR to corporate activism and forceful campaigns addressing sensitive social and political issues, the corporate sector has emerged as a partner for change on social and environmental issues.

From the implementation of the Paris Agreements to the United Nations development goals, the international community is expecting businesses to be as responsible as government and civil society for progressing the sustainable development agenda. It expects business to contribute private-sector competences, such as innovation and efficiency, as well as resources, like assets and financial support, in the process.

In this respect, civil society’s relationship with business has become more nuanced and sophisticated, with interesting examples of forward-looking collaborative partnerships and unlikely alliances emerging.

This relationship is helped by the increasingly online nature of political organizing and civic engagement. On the one hand, online tools make it easier for individuals and civil society actors to mobilize and join efforts; on the other hand, corporate ownership of these tools has implications for the ability to safeguard individuals’ privacy and internet access rights.

Image: The Dawn of CEO Activism

Technology matters

Civil society is facing a dramatic transition as it moves into the Fourth Industrial Revolution. This raises key operational concerns and questions about its ability to stay agile, to understand and respond to the impact of technology on the communities civil society organizations have traditionally served.

Some of these transformations mean an enhanced role for civil society; others challenge the sector to define its responsibilities and contributions in the context of a hyper-connected world. The sector has built at least a decade of knowledge on engaging with information and communication technologies (ICTs); but digitization and the emerging proliferation of artificial intelligence, biotechnologies, 3D printing, blockchain and other technologies warrant a new level of preparedness, investment and adaptation for most of today’s civil groups.

It is not simply a matter of integrating innovations and capacities in services, products and programmes. The widespread use of big data across sectors has ushered in new challenges associated with accountability, fairness, trust and transparency that could negatively affect societies by engendering discrimination, injustice and the exclusion of vulnerable populations.

The sector needs to develop a nuanced understanding of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, its implications for society and, consequently, its impact on how civil society champions human rights, delivers services for sustainable development, and fosters dialogue on society’s values.

Civil society leaders should develop a vision of their role in influencing the development and deployment of emerging technologies in the market to ensure these are harnessed for social good, and that beneficiaries – and humanity in general – are protected from harm.

Innovation is the new normal

Innovation has become even more critical in the non-profit sector in recent years. This applies in all contexts, whether it is devising new ways to deliver services, adapting to difficult legislation, creating new partnership models with the private sector, setting new benchmarks for workers’ rights in the digital revolution, or rethinking the relationship with technologies and their governance.

New responsibilities are falling on the shoulders of civil society leaders, and the sector needs to show its ability to remain agile and adaptive, and to pioneer new approaches and solutions to social development through responsible innovation and inclusive technology. It needs to do this the civil society way.

Working with innovative organizations committed to improving the state of the world is at the heart of the World Economic Forum, as the international institution for public-private cooperation. Over the next few days we will be featuring on our blog platform, Agenda, inspiring stories of how civil society is transforming itself and embracing and influencing a technology-enabled world.

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