CIVICUS International Civil Society Week: Why did we let it happen?


Alan Fowler


As a past board member, and having missed CIVICUS conferences for a few years, it was a great opportunity to connect with the organization and be invited to help out in a couple of sessions at CIVICUS’s International Civil Society Week (ICSW), held 19-25 November in Johannesburg, South Africa. The familiar faces provided a warm frame of reference. This anticipated enjoyment was reinforced by the vibrant energy of the many expressions of activism and of young activists I did not know.

Inevitably, perhaps because of my long involvement – most intensely as an elected board member for six-years – this blog is more reflective then descriptive of the week and of CIVICUS as a player in the ebb and flow of local, national and international civic engagement.

Here, an overarching context projected itself: the ebbing away of political space for people’s self-driven actions to improve the lives of themselves and others and to make gains in the fairness of the societies they live in. A retreat of the civic tide is in the shadow of a growing flow of legislation in many countries restricting basic rights that give citizenship full meaning.

Perhaps the most abiding impression from my re-meeting with CIVICUS in the flesh, so to speak, was a sense of collective, critical self-reflection and soul-searching on the one hand and on the other the dynamic imagination of a younger generation that is unencumbered by an institutionalized history of CIVICUS as ‘activism-lite’. Panels on the last day questioned the extent to which the era of the 1990s when CIVICUS was born has moved on in ways that have left the original inspirations behind. Put another way, have the strategies and relationships negotiated by the founders and earlier leaders – myself included – compromised too much for too long: a ‘confession’ made in an open letter from the Secretary General to the Guardian newspaper.

It is this debate that places me on a time spiral where I can look back at CIVICUS of old to think about how to answer the question posed by the younger activists of the CIVICUS of now looking up towards what will be their history in the making: why did you let this happen? Obviously, each member of CIVICUS will have their own perspective and reply. Mine is a too late realization of the danger of buying into a three ‘sector’ narrative of society adopted and financed by the system of international aid and its geopolitics rather than one emerging from civil society itself. We did not invest early enough in our own story. This ‘framing’ form of co-optation was reinforced by a legacy of NGO-ism treating organizational growth as a proxy for achievement. And it is here that the week encouraged me to imagine a CIVICUS 2.0. Why?

First, because the genie of defensiveness towards critics – like the ‘50 Years is Enough’ and the anti-globalization ‘Nix it not Fix’ Campaigners against the World Bank – is out of the bottle and evaporating. An honest debate about fractures with ‘progressive’ civil society is on the horizon, but far from guaranteed. Old habits die hard, but they can be whittled away.

Second, the e-tools now available and showing creativity in application, for example in and many others, open up an array of local, self-resourced civic ‘horizontalisms’. As respect for representative politics dwindles further, in novel ways people’s repertoire of action can and is taking hold in a more direct democracy. Formal hierarchies for making collective decisions give way to e-mandates at increasing scales that do not require transfers of funding in order to operate. Looking around the many stands and exhibits reinforced a perception that myriad activisms of the everyday will be seen to matter more than formally constructed programmes of development professionals. It is this citizen-driven narrative of change that is gaining ground, replacing that which has been relied on for too long.

But let us not be naive. Those whose agendas run counter to those of CIVICUS members and fellow travellers are also e-savvy: ISIS being but one extreme example, the Koch Foundation’s hidden financing of climate change denialism another. Talking to the like-minded at the CIVICUS ICSW must pave the way for greater attention to who is not yet in the room and why. Similarly, an event in South Africa with its history of struggle against racism might have imbued a sensibility towards open activism and power during the ICSW that may be a few statistical standard deviations away from the averages to be found in many other countries. In CIVICUS 2.0, care remains needed to marry agenda and action with context.

Aided by a new Advisory Panel and a recent retreat of young activists, CIVICUS is already exploring ideas in a direction of renewal, not just reform. These were up for debate at a number of panels. However, a momentum of 20 years will not be changed overnight.  Throughout the week was a call to SLOW DOWN. To take time for reflection so that thought and action are better aligned and more effective. But the pace of global change may prevent this call from being appropriate to CIVICUS just yet.

Finally, my heartfelt thanks go to whoever persuaded Hugh Masakela to entertain us at the closing of the CIVICUS assembly. An inspiring end to an inspiring week.

Alan Fowler is Professor Emeritus, International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University, resident in South Africa.

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