10. The revolution will not be televised: Can NGOs learn to adapt?

NGOs are having a tough time. As states devise new ways of restricting dissent, we need a shift of mindset to survive the next 25 years. Can NGOs learn how to do this by looking at social movements?

In 1971, Gil Scott-Heron’s poem declared “you will not be able to stay home brother, you will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out – the revolution will not be televised”. In an interview, years after the phrase soared in popularity, Scott-Heron remarked that his poem hoped to highlight that revolutions can never be captured on film, because they start with a change in mindset.

In 2018, these words still ring true. With growing questions over their relevance, these are uneasy times for both international and local non-governmental organisations (NGOs). While the last 25 years has seen an explosion in their numbers, questions remain over NGOs’ role in driving meaningful social change. From questions over connections with constituents, to their rigid operational structures that are easily targeted by aggressive states or concerns of co-option by an ineffective global governance system, NGOs are beset by challenges on all sides. In this increasingly hostile environment, what lessons of adaption can NGOs learn from social movements? 

As CIVICUS reflects on the past 25 years, one trend quickly emerges. The rise and prominence of NGOs has been met with a barrage of restrictions by states seeking to silence these “professionalised” critics. A glance at the CIVICUS Monitor highlights the severity of the problem, with just four per cent of the world’s population living in countries rated as having “open” space for civil society. While shocking, this shouldn’t surprise us. Data tracking restrictions against civil society between 1994 - 2004 shows the steady creep of state aggression against independent NGOs. As NGOs flourished and played a more central role in holding states to account, they quickly found themselves in the crosshairs of state aggression.

CIVICUS’ monitoring has shown restrictions as a dynamic game of cat and mouse between agitators and state. Both civil society and the state are trying to outfox one another in a cycle of agitation, restriction, adaption and tactical concession. The truth is, social movements are far better placed to play this game. Frequently driven directly by an aggrieved community, they have the flexibility and motivation to adapt quickly. Often with no long term objective other than a singular policy change, these groups’ dogged determination fosters innovation. Their fluid structures also attract numbers, creating flotillas where disparate struggles can coalesce under the umbrella of policy change. These numbers build momentum which enables rapid mobilisation, adaption and participation.

Yet, even in this context of hostility, NGOs continue to fight each other for scant resources from international donors. Battling for prized positions, some of these professionalised champions of social change have shied away from speaking truth to power. Rather than upset the applecart, too often NGOs choose tired and largely ineffective avenues for advocacy. All the while, despite the odds, millions of people at the candlelight revolution forced the ousting of the President and her cronies in South Korea. Persistent protesters mobilised on the streets of Yerevan to spearhead a peaceful regime change in Armenia. Another example is AfricansRising, a Pan-African movement of individuals and organisations, working for peace, justice and dignity. Which began as the Africa Civil Society Centre in 2015. The Innovation for Change African Hub, an initiative to drive new and exciting responses to civil society challenges in the region, has since last year been collaborating with Africans Rising.

Yet, rather than being central to many efforts, many NGOs have been left as observers on the periphery of these movements. So, what can they learn from social movements? Despite a chorus of voices from within the NGO community calling for greater collaboration between social movements and NGOs, fostering meaningful and balanced relationships between these two groups is notoriously challenging. Given competing demands and disparate organisational cultures, the risk of co-opting and sanitising social movements should make us cautious. Instead, we need to focus on the re-radicalisation of NGOs before the civil society landscape as we know it succumbs to state aggression. NGOs need to learn to adapt to stay relevant and fight for their survival.

NGOs can learn from the tactics and methods of social movements, especially when faced with restrictions. We need to do a better job of resonating with broader sections of society, telling our story and making ourselves relevant to as many people as possible. NGOs also need to be more creative when adapting and applying pressure where it is needed. Rather than pursuing narrow and technocratic objectives, we need to be braver in finding ways to be flexible, dynamic and responsive to the needs of constituents. Rather than jostling for position in a crowded market, we should all learn when to take a step back, as well as when to complement the work of other NGOs. We needn’t compete like corporations seeking profit.

Social movements are unpredictable, dynamic and leaderless. Flatter structures enable participation from across the social strata making them challenging to restrict and smear. Against this backdrop, NGOs need to do better.

As Gil Scott-Heron reminds us, the revolution starts with a change in mindset. As CIVICUS celebrates its 25th birthday, it is an important moment to reflect on how fit for purpose NGOs are in an increasingly hostile world. The revolution will only begin when formalised groups, like NGOs can learn from other parts of civil society. Not the other way around. For NGOs, they must change. Learn to adapt or die.

Dominic Perera is a Civic Space Research Officer at CIVICUS.

This article is part of a series to celebrate CIVICUS’ 25th anniversary and provide perspectives and insights on citizen action around the world.

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