I have been a member of CIVICUS since it was founded in the mid-1990’s. CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation is an international alliance of NGOs (Civil Society Organizations in CIVICUS parlance) and partners who work together “to strengthen citizen action and civil society throughout the world”.  In its short life CIVICUS has been enormously successful but has also carried the weight of  “being many things to many people” in the international NGO world.  I have greatly appreciated that it has provided a focal point for knowledge-sharing and especially engagement among  disparate sectors and players on the world scene.

A little background: CIVICUS, like many global organizations, rotates its conferences around the world.  The first conferences changed locations every year;  a couple of years ago the pattern was changed to three years in one location.  This year’s conference was held in Montreal, the first of three scheduled to take place there.  I was extremely fortunate to also attend this year with my university age daughter, Rachel,  who attended the CIVICUS Youth Assembly which started a few days before the World Assembly.

In thinking about this blog, I went back and took a look at the post I did from a CIVICUS World Assembly held almost 10 years ago Interestingly enough, although much has changed, other themes still hold true.  Where are some of the areas that I commented on in 2001 in which the international NGO community has progressed?

Accountability:  Among other movements towards NGO accountability and transparency, an INGO Accountability charter was adopted in 2006.

Youth: Commitment to including youth in decision making has increased over the past decade with prominent examples including the creation of the CIVICUS Youth Assembly and Plan USA’s YUGA program

Some Major Themes from this year’s World Assembly:

Civil Society Space – The need to create and protect the space for civil society to function.  In a post 9/11 world this not limited to non-democratic countries. Rachel adds: We need to create and protect the space for civil society to function, but civil society also needs to get more involved.  One of the things the Youth Assembly in particular, but also the World Assembly, emphasized was that we need to make sure we are also getting civil society involved- eg. It does not matter how open a government is about voting, if people don’t vote there’s less democracy, transparency, etc.  Civil society needs to create and protect space in which to function, but it also needs to USE that space.”

Urgency of the challenges require more collaborative and innovative ways of operating:

  • Need to find a balance between pragmatic incrementalism and the urgency of the challenges we face.
  • Need to create and use better mechanisms for “local listening”.
  • Need to use terminology that can help us to better communicate cross-sectors – NGO, government, business.
  • There is a traditional African proverb: “If you want to go fast go alone, if you want to go far, go together. “We must now learn to go fast & far.” Kumi Naidoo, former CIVICUS executive director and current CEO of Greenpeace urged.

Breaking out of thematic silos – We still do too much in ‘silos’ in our organizations, and in our sector.  This is exacerbated by funders who prefer to fund in ‘issue areas’ and not cross-thematically.

Global Alliances – The importance and challenge of broad-based alliances. For these to work effectively, there needs to be a focus on where agreement can be found, and a willingness to minimize, overlook  or go separate ways vis a vis differences. Rachel adds: “One of the ideas emphasized in global alliances was the need to look for unusual allies and allies in unusual places.  If multiple groups/sectors/organizations/interests are all working towards the same goal, there is space for them to work together to achieve that goal, even if they are not traditional partners.”

What is Success? We need to move away from “Obsessive Measurement Disorder” – a mindset that counting everything will produce better policy choices and improve management, to measures of success that will aid and support transformational actions.  There is momentum growing to try and better measure what is hard to measure.  Rachel adds: “It was also emphasized, and is important to remember, that success does not have to mean and is not always fully reaching our goals.  While celebrating larger goals and aiming to complete them, we also need to celebrate the small steps and recognize them as progress towards meeting our full goals.”

As always, at such conferences, and especially given the diversity of attendees, the informal dialogue among participants was rewarding and broadening.  The multi-generational dialogue added an especially inspirational dimension.

Still to come:  Some resources for civil society organizations shared during the Assembly