Putting the ‘citizen’ back in civil society organizations: a final look at the CIVICUS 2011 World Assembly


Patrick Johnston


Patrick Johnston

The 2011 CIVICUS World Assembly has ended. This Assembly – the tenth in the history of CIVICUS – coincided with the 10th anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, which brought an added degree of poignancy to the discussions.

The irony was not lost on delegates. The Assembly offered several opportunities to remember those who have lost their lives to war or terror attacks, at the hands of brutal dictators, or as the result of humanitarian disasters – both natural and human-made. The most touching of these was a late-night candlelight procession down one of the main streets of Montréal with Assembly delegates following a 65 person strong youth choir singing Leonard Cohen’s haunting song Hallelujah.

Assembly delegates had the choice of attending four different programme track small group sessions. I attended those on civil society and democratic space. As I mentioned in my previous post, however, this means that my ‘take-aways’ from the Assembly may be quite different than those of delegates who followed different or multiple programme tracks.

Much of delegates’ conversations throughout the Assembly centred on two inter-related themes: the relationship between civil society organizations (CSOs) and the state on the one hand, and CSOs and the citizenry on the other. These conversations, and the Assembly itself, reinforced the key findings of a report released by CIVICUS just days before the Assembly.

The report, Bridging the Gaps, was informed by detailed and current input from 29 Analytical Country Reports prepared by CIVICUS and its national partners as part of the Civil Society Index project (CSI). It provides a refreshingly candid but very sobering critique of civil society organizations.

In short, the report concludes that CSOs, as a whole, suffer from two significant gaps or disconnects. CSOs are disconnected from other key sectors in society and especially from the state and the markets. And, even more troubling, CSOs are disconnected from citizens. The report should be required reading for anyone wanting to take the pulse of civil society, and CIVICUS should be applauded for having the courage to produce it. It delivers a message than many CSOs will not want to hear.

The disconnects described in the Bridging the Gaps were evident during the course of the World Assembly. Although I did meet a woman from Microsoft who was attending as a delegate, she was very much the exception to the rule. Private-sector delegates could have been considered an endangered species at this Assembly.

Representation from government officials was better, but not substantially. Former Ministers from South Africa, Croatia and Indonesia participated on plenary panels and their contributions were very constructive. But relatively few current government representatives actually participated as delegates. For example, the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), a major CIVICUS donor, is headquartered in Ottawa – just a 2-hour train ride from Montréal. And yet you could count the number of delegates from CIDA on one hand. The World Assembly could have been used as a useful, mutual learning experience for CIDA staff and the conference delegates. Instead, the opportunity was missed and the disconnect continues.

One of the Assembly highlights was the opportunity for delegates to hear directly from a range of individuals who have been intimately involved with the Arab Spring movements. As a speaker from Egypt reminded us, however, what are often referred to as ‘uprisings’ are better described for what they are: revolutions.

Those speakers brought into sharp focus the fundamental paradox that now confronts CSOs. For all intents and purposes, civil society may now have bifurcated.

On the one hand, you have the traditional, structured, formal, institutional organizations that are often run by ‘professional citizens’ who have been in the game for many years. I include myself among that number. The search for funding is a never-ending quest. Huge amounts of human capital are expended to prepare grant applications or comply with the myriad of accountability and reporting requirements of funders.

In contrast, as we have seen during the Arab Spring, civil society also comprises groups of citizens who appear to materialize spontaneously and organically with little in the way of structures, rules or money. They are often, but not always, driven by youth and they have mastered the use of social media and technologies to mobilize and organize citizens in ways that few could have imagined even a decade ago. As one delegate put it, however, it is a mistake to consider these new constellations as ‘less’ organized. Rather they are ‘differently’ organized.

This bifurcation was evident in the Middle East and North Africa earlier this year. Citizen action and participation, in its purest form, broke out in countries with relatively few and comparatively weak CSOs. This paradox was also highlighted in Bridging the Gaps, which reported that ‘it was in this region that the CSI reported the lowest levels of membership in CSOs, suggesting that the existence and membership of formal CSOs is not an accurate barometer of the potential for activism’. One of the plenary panellists summed it up by posing this question: ‘are CSOs leading the streets or are the streets leading CSOs?’

The kind of citizen action we have witnessed in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt is not limited to that region, however. One speaker used, by way of another example, the grassroots anti-corruption campaign in India sparked by Anna Hazare.

While the disconnect between CSO and citizens becomes more evident, however, a number of delegates referred to the increasing restrictions being placed on CSOs by governments. Cambodia was frequently cited as an example of a country intentionally trying to shrink the space within which CSOs function. One delegate from Africa argued that these issues may be linked, saying that ‘the citizens are no longer with us and are aligning with the anti-CSO activities of governments’.

What emerged from these discussions was an understanding that we can no longer conflate the terms civil society and civil society organization. As one speaker said, civil society as a whole may actually be quite healthy. The problem may actually be restricted to the more formal structured, organizational forms of civil society that we refer to as CSOs.

While all of this left many of the Assembly delegates somewhat shell-shocked, it also led to calls to see this as an opportunity to re-imagine CSOs. In fact, CIVICUS Secretary General Ingrid Srinath brought this home in her opening remarks, suggesting the need to re-invent the organization.

CIVICUS is a different organization today than it was when it began almost two decades ago. But it should be. The world is a different place today than it used to be. In fact, events of the past 8 months suggest that those differences may actually be much greater than we realize.

As CIVICUS and other CSOs undertake the process of re-thinking, re-inventing and re-imagining their role and their relationship with citizens, they may want to go back to basics. They might benefit from re-reading First Lights, a paper Brian O’Connell wrote many years ago about the founding and early days of CIVICUS.

Brian described the challenges confronting members of the exploratory committee that eventually led to the founding of CIVICUS. The members brought disparate and often contradictory views about the new notion of ‘civil society’ that were shaped by differences in culture, values, ideology and traditions.

He tells the story of a November 1991 meeting that was especially fractious, but he described an intervention by Miklós Marschall that found common ground. Miklós asked if his colleagues could agree to the following statement: ‘Free and effective societies exist in direct proportion to their degree of citizen participation and influence.’ They did, and CIVICUS was founded two years later as the ‘World Alliance for Citizen Participation’. Those of us who care about civil society may want to start with that 20-year-old intervention of Miklós as we try to envisage the optimum role for CSOs in the years to come.

Patrick Johnston is founder and principal of Borealis Advisors and was a member of the CIVICUS board from 1998 to 2004, serving as Chair in the years 2001-4

Tagged in: Arab spring CIVICUS World Assembly Civil society

Comments (1)

Chet Tchozewski

Patrick: Your timely, vivid and candid reflections on the CIVICUS World Assembly make me feel like I was actually there (which I wasn't). Really valuable to understand it through your seasoned eyes, ears, head and heart.

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