CIVICUS at a crossroads

Caroline Hartnell

What is CIVICUS actually achieving? Is it any more than a talking shop? Would it make any difference to anything if it disappeared? Despite the undoubted success of the recent World Assembly in Vancouver, these questions will not go away. There seems to be a widespread feeling that the organization is at a crossroads. One new board member goes so far as to express the view that the new board is ‘not inheriting a going concern, just a lot of good will’. Can CIVICUS come through and meet the challenge?

CIVICUS’s recently adopted Strategic Plan[1] spells out both the problem and the proposed solution very clearly. ‘CIVICUS has taken on too much over the years,’ it says, ‘raising doubts about its impact and sending confused signals to its supporters about its function.’ The solution: ‘narrow the focus, select just a few programs, do them well.’ According to newly elected board member Stuart Etherington, CEO of the UK National Council for Voluntary Organizations, choosing the best possible programmes is not the issue: the issue is adopting a few clearly focused programmes and delivering on something tangible in the next two years.

Deciding what to do

This isn’t as easy as it sounds. CIVICUS’s ‘sole purpose’, as the Strategic Plan puts it, is to ‘promote the generic interests of civil society and citizen participation’ – something which no other organization focuses on as such.

But deciding how, practically speaking, to deliver on this mission has been a problem from the earliest days. Brian O’Connell, co-chair of the founding board, writing of the situation in August 1994,[2] refers to ‘a staggering diversity and intensity of expectations’ coming from ‘different people and parts of the organization’ and to ‘program aspirations far beyond possibilities’.

Patrick Johnston, new board chair and president of the Canadian Centre for Philanthropy, sees the lack of unanimity about what CIVICUS should do to achieve its ‘amorphous’ mission as a major challenge. What some see as achievements, others will see as irrelevant. This realization on the part of the previous board was the driver behind the strategic planning exercise that culminated in the adoption of the new Strategic Plan. ‘CIVICUS was trying to be too many things to too many people and not doing a really excellent job at one thing in particular. The Strategic Plan is designed to help us focus.’

The new programme areas

The Strategic Plan sets out two programme areas for CIVICUS: ‘promoting citizen participation’ and ‘strengthening enabling environments’ but leaves the content of these largely open. A footnote explains that the Management Plan and annual operating plans will establish ‘specific content’ for each programme. Pinpointing specific activities within such broad programme areas will be a formidable challenge.

No activities within the enabling environment area have yet been specified, but the first programme area already has both the Civil Society Index (see p9) and a new ‘crisis response programme’ falling within it. The latter is ‘an ongoing programme for mobilizing quick, principled and constructive responses’ when governmental or inter-governmental decisions ‘threaten serious harm to civil society’.

Many people feel that CIVICUS should be taking up issues of NGO accountability. ‘Who are the big global organizations accountable to? Where are the checks and balances?’ asks Miklós Marschall, CIVICUS’s first executive director. ‘Why isn’t CIVICUS taking up the post-Genoa issues of representation, legitimacy and accountability?’ asks Michael Edwards of the Ford Foundation.[3] Stuart Etherington puts it in a slightly different way: he would like to see CIVICUS ‘mapping out the protocols for engagement between international NGOs and other international bodies’. Following the events of 11 September, these issues could turn out to be more pressing than ever.

Responding to the events of 11 September

The need to respond to what happened on 11 September illustrates some of CIVICUS’s strengths and limitations. It has already taken a lead in terms of civil society response. On 19 September CIVICUS, with the support of ActionAid, convened a meeting of around 20 international NGOs in London. One immediate outcome of this meeting was a ‘joint civil society declaration’, which CSOs all over the world are urged to endorse.[4] At this meeting CIVICUS was ‘encouraged to act as a facilitator and information gatherer, bringing together the various threads and commonalities between the various civil society responses around the world’.

This convening and facilitating role is one that CIVICUS is well placed to play: it is widely connected and reflects a broad range of perspectives. But if it comes to taking part in meetings convened by other multilateral institutions like the UN or the World Bank, what is CIVICUS’s status there? It cannot claim to represent global civil society; it does not speak for any national or regional organizations or groupings; most of the world’s CSOs will not even have heard of it. CIVICUS is certainly represented at many very high-level meetings, but some question what exactly this achieves. O’Connell admits to ‘concerns’ at hearing the debates about whether CIVICUS should expend resources influencing the World Bank, the IMF and the UN: ‘CIVICUS will only have power in these assemblies if citizens have power.’

Responding to recent events also holds a danger for CIVICUS. As Johnston puts it, ‘we must be flexible and adaptable in responding to what has happened and what is coming’. But being flexible and adaptable could seriously undermine what CIVICUS desperately needs at this point: to be seen to be effective in implementing a few focused programmes.

Can the new board deliver?

Whatever programmes it eventually adopts – and ‘eventually’ needs to be soon – the key question is whether CIVICUS can deliver on them. Central to this is the new board. The recent strategic planning exercise found widespread agreement that the previous board was too large, unwieldy, costly, often ineffective, even ‘dysfunctional’.

Reducing the size of the board from 27 to 13 members was seen as a way to achieve greater effectiveness. Some observers have expressed doubts about the newly elected board’s representativeness and experience. Johnston regards representativeness as an impossible requirement: you would need thousands of people on the board to achieve that. He feels that it contains ‘a good cross-section of people reflecting many different aspects of civil society’. There is no longer a funder representative, but this is the case with many boards, and ‘there are other ways to get perspectives from the funding community’. The gender balance is certainly good, with seven women and six men, but there is one obvious geographical gap in that there is no CEE/NIS board member.

But the litmus test is surely how effective it will be, and after only one meeting it’s too early to judge.

The location question

In the meantime the board faces some formidable challenges. Top of the agenda at the next board meeting in London in November will be making a decision about where CIVICUS should be located. The Strategic Plan states that ‘most funders contacted in the planning process suggest that another key[5] to raising sufficient resources is not being seen as an “American” institution’. The suggestion is that CIVICUS should move its headquarters to a Southern country.

However, not all funders or others share this view. One counter-argument is that if CIVICUS is to play an effective advocacy role with multilateral institutions like the United Nations and the World Bank, it needs to have its headquarters on the East Coast of America.

A solution that seems to be favoured by more than one board member is to have multiple locations with different functions. Etherington suggests a hub in the South for administrative functions and programme coordination, a UK-based hub for fundraising and development, and a ‘significant presence’ in the US for advocacy and programme development, with the Secretary-General spending time in all three places.

In fact CIVICUS’s operations are already very decentralized, with staff in seven countries. Johnston admits that he had thought that simply changing the letterhead and giving the different offices equal status might solve the problem, but he concedes that the fact that CIVICUS is registered as a legal entity in Washington DC may give ‘the wrong message’.

What sort of organization is CIVICUS becoming?

It is clearly becoming a global rather than a regional body. The Strategic Plan refers to ‘nearly unanimous agreement’ among stakeholders that this should be the case. It says that CIVICUS will be ‘reorganized as an “association of members” rather than a “federation of regions”’. In practical terms, this translates into an end to mandatory fiscal support for regional organizations from CIVICUS funds, though members will still be free to operate regional structures or activities that are fully funded from other sources. Another suggestion is that support for regional activities such as conferences could come from programme funding. Etherington feels that a regional focus could be useful to help ground global projects and make them ‘a bit more concrete’.

What is also clear is that CIVICUS will not be delivering capacity-building services to member organizations – something it sees ‘many other intermediary organizations’ as better able to do. Its work in the two main programme areas outlined above will, rather, aim to strengthen CSOs across the world. It follows from this that organizations will join, and remain in, CIVICUS primarily because they support its mission and work.

Is CIVICUS becoming an NGO coalition?

This is how ex-CIVICUS Chair Rajesh Tandon expressed his concern that CIVICUS is abandoning its role as a convenor of the different sectors. Certainly corporate and government representatives were few and far between at the Vancouver Assembly, and CIVICUS’s ‘Promoting Corporate Citizenship’ programme seems to be largely in abeyance. Marschall feels that what he calls ‘anti-globalization, anti-market rhetoric’ is not helpful here. He sees a danger of CIVICUS developing into a ‘civil society feel-good ghetto’, with the Assemblies presenting ‘feel-good comforting speeches’ rather than real, live debates.

Marschall’s concerns are echoed by others in Central and Eastern Europe. Nilda Bullain of the Civil Society Development Foundation Hungary expresses widespread disquiet at the prevalence within CIVICUS, and on Assembly platforms, of what she describes as ‘a one-sided view of development’. CIVICUS, she says, seems to be increasingly relying on ‘traditional resources for development’, largely foundations, with business being seen as the ‘bad guys’ rather than crucial potential supporters of local development, as they are seen throughout the CEE region.

Dan Gertsacov, General Manager of Latin American business network EMPRESA, has a rather different take on this, however. EMPRESA first saw itself as involving everyone interested in engaging business, including NGOs, but the decision has since been made that its first goal must be to establish a strong business network. Describing society as a ‘three-legged stool’, with the aim being to have three strong and equal sectors, he sees it as a constructive strategy for CIVICUS to focus on building a strong civil society sector.

An association of associations?

Finally, is CIVICUS ever likely to become an ‘association of associations’, the top tier representer of national and regional groups? The overall feeling of an interesting Assembly session looking at networks of networks was that this is unlikely, at least for the time being. The more successful national and regional associations tend to be thematic, focusing on the environment or human rights for example, rather than focusing on civil society as such. Sectorwide networks often find it difficult to attract members, largely because people can’t see the need for them. This seems to be the common experience in Latin America, Europe, Africa and Asia. Strong sectorwide groups of the sort that CIVICUS might plausibly be at the apex of are therefore lacking at national and regional level.

Is CIVICUS still needed?

This article has looked at some of the challenges that CIVICUS currently faces and some of the concerns that those observing its progress are expressing. It will end by looking back to its very beginnings in the heady days following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. What do CIVICUS’s founders and early board members feel about it now?

Miklós Marschall puts it succinctly: ‘Citizen empowerment was a promise ten years ago. It’s still not been delivered on and it still needs to be.’ Victoria Garchitorena from the Philippines holds a similar view: ‘Democracy is still under threat in many countries, and civil society is not established everywhere. CIVICUS is still needed.’ CIVICUS’s niche, according to Brian O’Connell, was, and is, to ‘find ways of helping people who have no rights and no hope to persuade their governments to give them a bit more space; to frame the dream and keep the dream alive’.

1 CIVICUS 2002-2004 Strategic Plan, 15 May 2001.
2 Brian O’Connell (October 2000) First Lights: Recollections of the beginnings and first years of CIVICUS.
3 Michael Edwards is author of NGO Rights and Responsibilities: A new deal for global governance. See p16 for ordering details.
4 To endorse this statement, send an email to For further information, visit the special ‘Civil Society Responds’ website at or the CIVICUS website at, or contact
5 Other ‘keys’ are laying out a ‘compelling but focused agenda’ and developing an ‘infinitely more pleasing’ governance structure.

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