Interview – Dhananjayan (Danny) Sriskandarajah

Danny Sriskandarajah, Secretary General of CIVICUS since January, talked to Caroline Hartnell about the first nine months in the job. His overarching philosophy is to ‘consolidate and experiment’: to consolidate what CIVICUS does well but then to experiment and come up with new ideas that will themselves build momentum and garner support.
He would like to see the organization engage better with new social movements and citizen movements around the world – while cautioning against the view that Facebook and a Twitter campaign will bring about social justice and lasting change. 
You’ve been at CIVICUS now for nine months so it seems like a good moment to take stock. First, what do you think is most important about CIVICUS?
Solidarity comes to mind. I like that word because I think it’s a value that’s often neglected in today’s world. CIVICUS provides solidarity across civil society around the world. We’re there to share best practice, invest in progressive causes, strengthen civil society – to be there for each other across the world.
According to your website, CIVICUS is ‘an international alliance dedicated to strengthening citizen action in civil society throughout the world’. How does that relate to solidarity?
We’re a tiny organization by world NGO standards, and we’re not specialist enough to deliver programmes on a particular issue or in a particular country. So I think our role is to say, how do we connect civil society activists across the world so that they can support each other? How can we take the concerns of civil society and feed them into relevant processes and institutions? Strengthening and solidarity work are both about connecting and enabling civil society in different parts of the world, then building on this to influence agendas in our collective interest.
Whereas it’s usually easy to see what national organizations do, global organizations often have an identity problem. Do you think that’s true of CIVICUS?
I think the nature of civil society, and its wonderful diversity, provides a huge challenge for us. We believe we’re there to fight for civic space everywhere in the world and we hope that our activities will benefit civil society actors everywhere. But few of them would have any idea of what CIVICUS is.
Given the changes around new social movements and new or recent popular uprisings, we have a second challenge: that organized civil society itself is being seen as less relevant these days. When I started, I asked colleagues who in Tahrir Square in 2011 would have thought of CIVICUS while they were mobilizing for an unprecedented civil uprising. The ways in which citizens are organizing and mobilizing these days are changing, and that’s a challenge for us.
Are there ways that CIVICUS can take advantage of social media and be stronger?
Yes. Our core constituency is and will remain organized civil society and in particular the national associations and umbrella bodies; they’re the infrastructure that supports civil society. But I think there is real potential for organizations like ours to strengthen and support spontaneous citizen action where and when it happens. There’s a temptation to believe that, with the technological fetishism around online ‘clicktivism’, somehow a Twitter campaign and a protest in a public square will result in lasting change. As we’re seeing in North Africa, that hasn’t happened without institutional follow-up, without organizations that can hold governments to account. I see us having to straddle new and old forms of citizen organization, and I think it’s important for us to deal with both and not get carried away with the idea that Facebook is going to bring about social justice.
You say that you see CIVICUS as especially relevant for national associations. Do they have a special category of membership?
I’m particularly interested in AGNA, the Affinity Group of National Associations, which CIVICUS has incubated and supported since it was founded. It has about 60 members at the moment, and they are themselves multi-sectoral national platforms for civil society. We recognize the importance of having good infrastructure for civil society and of national or regional bodies that can share best practice and lobby for the interests of civil society. CIVICUS can’t replicate those organizations or roles at the national or regional level but we can supplement them at the global level. So we’re trying to scale up the activities of AGNA because we think there is a need to link these national and regional umbrella bodies and support them.
At the global level, what can you learn from the business sector, which does all this a lot better?

Danny Sriskandarajah at the 2013 Zermatt Summit]

There are some common agendas for civil society around the world: around securing civic space and improving the funding environment and the regulatory environment. I think we have to get cleverer about the ways in which we harness knowledge, convey our messages and influence the agenda. We’re designing something called the Civil Society Optimism Index, which is going to be a regular survey of several thousand civil society leaders, representing a cross-section of backgrounds and countries, to gauge how optimistic they are about conditions for civil society in their country. The idea is to come up with an advocacy tool that will help us communicate with policymakers and others about the need to pay attention to the civic space and civil society. Business has been using tools like this very effectively to keep the pressure on governments and policymakers to open up or liberalize the business environment. I think we can learn from that.
How does the Optimism Index relate to the Enabling Environment Index which you’ve just published?
I see the Optimism Index as a subset of a wider challenge that we in civil society face. There are countless examples of governments interfering in civic space. In the last few years, we’ve documented over 300 instances of harassment of civil society, of regulatory interference by governments that are trying to undermine or restrict the role of civil society. We know that’s happening, but we don’t yet have a sophisticated methodology for understanding when and where it happens, or communicating that in a way that policymakers, journalists and others can understand.
The Civil Society Index and more recently the Enabling Environment Index are a move in that direction. Based on participatory research in 70-odd countries to build up a comprehensive picture of the state of civil society in each of those countries, the Civil Society Index is the biggest project CIVICUS has ever undertaken. The Enabling Environment Index uses indicators drawn from secondary published data to provide a snapshot of the health of civic space or the enabling environment for civil society.
It’s the old analogy of being in a dark room with an elephant. We’ve had a few torchlights here and there trying to understand the health of civil society around the world. We need a floodlight. The Optimism Index is going to be another tool in our collective toolkit. It’s not going to be the be all and end all.
I do think we need a more comprehensive set of tools to understand the health of civil society in any given country. We know that donors are desperate to have some way of understanding which countries they should be investing in to strengthen civil society – or indeed which countries they should not be spending money in because of restrictions on civil society – and we don’t yet have the tools to do that job.
Are there any areas of CIVICUS’s work that you’d like to see more developed?
I think we have a role around thought leadership. Even if we’re not doing the research ourselves, I hope we can convene groups of people to provide better information about civil society. CIVICUS is lucky enough to count among its membership civil society actors in more than a hundred countries and our global staff give us a great network of civil society actors. I’d like to invest more in that, to hear from those actors about what challenges they’re facing and help them come together, build relationships and work together.
In the next 10 to 20 years, I think we will see a growth in civil society in many developing countries which will attract direct funding from institutional and independent donors. The intermediaries, the big international NGOs and others will become less relevant. We want to be there to understand these inevitable changes in the global civil society landscape.
Another area I’d like to develop is democratizing the international arena. CIVICUS, like many other global civil society groups, is very active in international processes. Though I’m new to this world, I’ve already become frustrated at how ineffective and unaccountable some of these processes are. I get invited to endless consultations on development post-2015 and I’ve begun calling them ‘insultations’ because it really feels like we in civil society have been invited simply to tick a box to confirm that governments and intergovernmental institutions have consulted with ‘the people’.
So I’d like us to focus a bit on how to democratize the international arena. How do we transform these thoroughly unaccountable global institutions into institutions that can start to incorporate citizen participation in a more meaningful way? How do we make development projects more responsive to beneficiary feedback? How do we ensure that when decisions are taken at the UN, they are more reflective of citizens’ concerns?
In these last few months I’ve been involved in so many post-2015 development discussions, and they still feel like a bunch of experts sitting in New York pontificating and deciding for people in other parts of the world what should or shouldn’t be on their agenda. Why does that still happen in 2013? We have the technological tools and political networks to empower citizens around the world to wrest control of the development process away from these actors in their high-rise buildings in Manhattan.
Are there areas of CIVICUS’s work that you feel you should give less emphasis to?
One thing is less direct convening. We want to work with local partners, particularly umbrella bodies and associations, to deliver capacity-building activities. But we’re a small team of around 30 people, primarily based in Johannesburg but with a small presence in London, Geneva and New York. We’re never going to be big enough to deliver substantial services to our members or partners, but we can convene and facilitate others to do so. So I think we’re going to do less direct convening and instead work with our members and our partners to do more of that.
And will you be carrying on with the civil society indexes?
My mantra has been ‘consolidate and experiment’. There are some things that we do, for example our Civil Society Watch Alerts, which look at threats to civil society, that we have to keep doing. That’s an example of consolidation. I’d like us to be better at collecting intelligence on what’s going on in civil society and at communicating what we know. The Optimism Index, for example, comes under the head of experimentation, using what we know about civil society more cleverly to pursue our agenda.
It seems that foundations are less prominent in CIVICUS than they used to be. How would you like to see CIVICUS’s relationship with foundations in the future?
Our founding by-laws state clearly that one of our three focus areas should be around the funding environment for civil society. And we were effectively started by a bunch of American foundations. Over the years, as our work has become more development-orientated and as we’ve become better at tapping into official aid flows, the proportion of our funding that comes from foundations has fallen. In a way, that’s not particularly surprising, and many foundations will be happy that they’ve incubated CIVICUS and it’s taken on a life of its own – although I’m glad to say that the C S Mott and Ford Foundations have stayed on throughout the 20-year period.
I’d like CIVICUS to be able to convene better dialogues between foundations and other civil society actors. In many countries, there isn’t yet a mature local philanthropic environment and many of our members complain that access to funding is limited or restricted to particular donor priorities. We’d like to convene conversations about the role of philanthropy in promoting social justice and indeed strengthening civil society.
One thought we’ve had recently is to create an award for brave philanthropy. Many of our members are deeply frustrated that access to unsolicited funds is becoming more and more restricted. ‘Log frames’, they say, are killing radical ideas. So we thought it might be interesting to work with the consumer, so to speak, to find examples of philanthropists who have been prepared to back radical ideas which may be socially unpopular but nevertheless support social justice. That’s a small way in which perhaps we can live up to our founding principle of engaging philanthropists as key actors in a strong civil society.
At the moment, then, I guess CIVICUS is fairly dependent on official aid donors. You said that membership accounts for 1 per cent, I think? Is that something you’re looking to change?
Yes, membership fees are a tiny fraction of our income.
And yes, I’m worried that we’ve become so heavily reliant on aid flows just as those flows are likely to get smaller in many cases. Also, long-term institutional relationships often restrict creativity and flexibility. We need to be an agile and creative organization, so I would like to redress that balance and access forms of support that will allow that to happen. Let me put it this way: we’ve been successful in weaning ourselves away from our founding grantmakers but perhaps in doing so, we’ve become over-reliant on aid donors, which has been great in terms of resources, but not so great in terms of flexibility.
How will you tackle that?
I hope over the next months and years people will see some new, creative ideas from CIVICUS, and that the quality of those initiatives will attract support. I’m not naive enough to think that we need to be funded for the sake of who we are. My overarching priority is, as I said, to consolidate what we do well but then to experiment and come up with new ideas that will themselves build momentum and garner support. I hope some of your readers will be finding new ideas or initiatives from CIVICUS landing in their inboxes one of these days.
Can you tell me one thing that has changed in the nine months since you took over and one thing that you’d like to see changed in the next year?
We’ve spent a lot of time looking at where exactly we add value and our five-year operational plan has a clear focus on those areas. That has been an important change and it’s around that which we’re building all our programming and even these new ideas.
The thing I’d like to change is for us to be able to engage more with new social movements, citizen movements around the world, to supplement our relatively robust relationship with organized civil society.
For more information
Contact Danny Sriskandarajah at

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