Going forward hopeful: Reflections and farewell from outgoing SG of CIVICUS

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As my time at CIVICUS draws to a close, I wanted to say a proper farewell to those who matter most at CIVICUS – the alliance of members and partners - who make this organisation unique and so special. The last six years have been a wonderful mix of change and constancy, of frustration and fulfillment, of pride and humility.

The markers of dramatic change are many. Our annual income has risen from around $3m to over $13m. This year, we will issue $2.5m of subgrants, to smaller, Southern organisations. Our staff team is more diverse than ever before and our technological capabilities far beyond those that I encountered upon my arrival.

Other things, I am pleased to say, have remained reassuringly constant, not least the fact that we remain proudly headquartered in Johannesburg. And, perhaps most importantly, that we have retained, I hope, the same professional, yet humble, approach to serving civil society that has been a feature of CIVICUS since its beginnings. I tried to label it being ‘profumble’ but it didn’t seem to stick with colleagues 😉

Of course, the last six years have also held their fair share of frustrations and setbacks. We could have been more strategic and intentional in the way we’ve grown, particularly in terms of our geographical footprint. We’ve talked a great deal about democratising the international system, as well as about the SDGs, yet our programmatic work does too little to reflect or support these goals.

My tenure at CIVICUS has also coincided with a period in which the crackdown on civic space has solidified into a persistent, pernicious, truly universal phenomenon. The space for civil society is shrinking, not by accident or in accordance with the natural ebb and flow of social change, but by design. Our democracies – we, the people – are under siege.

But I do not move on from CIVICUS convinced that we are living in dark and dangerous times. Quite the opposite: I go forward hopeful.

For, wherever I have been, I have encountered not just frustration with broken politics, but a desire to shape better democracies; to satisfy an unquenched thirst for participation; to re-imagine democracy for a new age. It is this hunger – a hunger for the power to better our own lives, to better our communities and countries – that civil society must look to satisfy.

But, if we are to have any hope of succeeding, we will need to embrace radical change. Neither the market, nor state alone can mend our social fabric, or rebuild our ailing democracies, but nor can we assume that civil society organisations, in their current form, will be at the vanguard of driving social change in the 21st century. Those that are – and will become – our most influential civic formations are those that are already reshaping, reinventing and renewing themselves.

If civil society can find new dynamism in its shifting shapes and come together to stand united in the push back against shrinking space, then we will be ready to take on what I have come to see as our three major challenges.

Our common, digital future

The first will be to reimagine our rights for a digital world. Nowhere are our freedoms being more fiercely contested than they are online. The handful of corporates that dominate cyber space, convinced as they are of their pioneering role as digital saviours of our ailing world, are fiercely anti-regulation. But we need to find ways of promoting better behaviours online and supporting a fairer, more transparent structure. We need to work out how our legal and social norms apply in digital spaces. We need to get the rules and the governance right.

Any new rules cannot be solely state-led, nor can they be led by the private sector alone. Governance of the digital space will need to be a truly multi-stakeholder initiative. Without conscious, purposeful struggle, the digital era won’t only fail on its promise to emancipate citizens; it will achieve the very opposite. [By the way, please do let me know in this area – the High Level Panel on Digital Cooperation I sit on will report in April 2019]

Reimagining democracy

Our second major challenge is to reimagine our democracy, as we outlined in our latest report Democracy for All: Beyond a Crisis of Imagination. We – as civil society – need to be rethinking our ideology of power, rethinking our democracies, in such a way as to enable people to reclaim their voice and sense of agency. We need to be experimenting, engaging those who are most under-represented in our existing system in designing new prototypes.

It’s a process that urgently needs to happen at the global level as well. Many of the decisions that affect our lives are taken in the headquarters of remote, opaque, inaccessible institutions, cogs in a system that privileges a few, powerful states—and often corporations—over the interests of people.

We need institutions of global governance that offer recourse to protection and support when authorities at the national level abuse their power. We need them now more than ever.

And so, we must develop new forms of global consultation, we must insist upon more direct citizen participation in key decision-making, we must demand more transparency, so that trusted – and therefore, more effective – global institutions can form part of a reimagined democratic system.

Redrawing sectoral boundaries

Finally, we cannot reimagine our democracy until we reimagine our economy. Modern capitalism has concentrated power and wealth to an absurd, immoral degree.

We need to find ways of enabling people to reclaim their sense of economic agency. We need to repurpose technology to create services equivalent to those offered by today’s corporate monoliths, without the extreme levels of exploitation, extraction and inequality.

Civil society enjoys a freedom that neither the state nor market can lay claim to. Sitting beyond those sectors, we are free to reimagine the rules and dynamics that govern their systems. This constitutes perhaps the most fundamental challenge for CIVICUS. We cannot afford to simply defend ‘our sector’, nor can we fall prey to the fallacy that these sectors – state, market and civil society – are as neat or eternal as many make out. The future is going to be blurry and hybrid, and I hope CIVICUS can be ahead of the curve, helping others to navigate these changes.

Finally, let me finish where I started by saying that it has been a hugely fulfilling privilege to be part of the CIVICUS journey. I feel proud to have been part of a dynamic and diverse community of people. I leave with a conviction that there is something beautiful, precious and powerful about CIVICUS. I also leave knowing that there are some brilliant colleagues at CIVICUS continuing and evolving our work, led by the wonderful Lysa John, and overseen by the best Board in the civil society world.

I will be watching with great interest to see what comes next for CIVICUS. And I hope that I can work with my new colleagues at Oxfam Great Britain to play our part in strengthening people’s power.

Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah