Charities are no longer drivers of social change; for many saving the world has become big business. How did we lose our way?
Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah in Johannesburg
Mon 11 Aug 2014 17.10 BSTFirst published on Mon 11 Aug 2014 17.10 BST
In the last 40 years, we have witnessed an explosion of growth in civil society. There are now up to 4 million charities in India (pdf), 1.5 million in the US and 81,000 international NGOs and networks, 90% of them launched since 1975.
This should be music to my ears. The organisation I lead exists to strengthen civil society and citizen action around the world. So why am I worried? Because this exponential growth, and the institutionalisation and professionalisation that has accompanied it, has some serious downsides.
Sure, we're winning battles here and there, but we're losing the war; the war against poverty, inequality, exclusion and climate change. Too many of us who work in organised bits of civil society – including myself - have become removed from the forces that drive deep social change; from the causes that first inspired us. In devoting our energies to designing log-frames and reporting to donors, we've become mired in bureaucracy.
For better or worse, the biggest NGOs today look and act like multinational corporations. The largest of them employ thousands of workers around the world and their annual budgets reach hundreds of millions. They have corporate-style hierarchies and brands worth millions. Saving the world has become big business.
And big isn't always bad; just as small isn't necessarily beautiful. But it's the effect of these trends on global citizen action that should unsettle us. We – civil society – have been co-opted into economic and institutional processes in which we are being outwitted and out-manoeuvred. Our conception of what is possible has narrowed dramatically. Since demonstrating bang for your buck has become all-important, we divide our work into neat projects, taking on only those endeavours that can produce easily quantifiable outcomes. Reliant on funding to service our own sizeable organisations, we avoid approaches or issues that might threaten our brand or upset our donors. We trade in incremental change.
And so we find ourselves reinforcing the social, economic and political systems we once set out to transform. We have become part of the problem, rather than the solution. Our corporatisation has steered us towards activism-lite, a version of our work rendered palatable to big business and capitalist states. Not only does this approach threaten no one in power, but it stifles grassroots activism with its weighty monoculturalism.
To bring about radical political change, we need to build from below. We need to help communities organise and drive change. We need more Arab Springs, but we need them to endure. Organised civil society must prioritise meeting the challenge of how we can build upon these sudden upsurges of social energy without suffocating them. When peaks of protest are connected to long-term action, temporary shifts in power have a far greater chance of becoming permanent gains in democracy, equality and freedom.
How can civil society reform and re-energise itself to meet this critical challenge? On 6 August we published an open letter, endorsed by some leading figures in global civil society, calling on all of those who have the privilege of working in this sphere – getting paid to do the things we believe in – to engage in this debate.
We believe we need to find better ways to put the voices and actions of people back at the heart of our work. Our primary accountability must be not to donors but to all those struggling for social justice. We must fight corporatism in our own ranks, recognise the power of informal networks, tap into the wisdom of the street and re-balance our resources. We must promote and protect civic spaces, and strive to build global people-to-people solidarity from the grassroots up. And this should not be about abandoning the civil society organisations we have created, but rather we must evolve these NGOs to be more open, agile and accountable to those they seek to serve.
All this will be not be easy to do – especially for those of us who have to keep an eye on donor deliverables and balancing the budget. But it will be worth it. Civil society needs to offer a new set of global organising principles, a new paradigm, an alternative model. No-one else is going to do it. And, if we can – if we can turn the tide of corporatisation and technocratic management that threatens to overwhelm us – we will rediscover our understanding of civil society as a deeply human construct, as a facilitator of empowering social relationships. And it is these relationships, history teaches us, that can truly change the world.