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CIVICUS World Assembly in Bogota

Posted on 03/06/2016
By Vijay Krishnarayan
CIVICUS World Assembly in Bogota

Been there, done that…

There are two types of delegate to the CIVICUS World Assembly. The hardened veterans who have been there, done that and worn out the tee-shirt. They take a particular joy in telling anyone who cares to listen how many times they have heard it all before. Then there are those that are never tire of this amazing moment when civil society colleagues from across the globe come together to talk and think. I’ll confess here that this year I felt myself drifting dangerously towards that first rather unattractive group. But that was before I had a chance to stop and take stock of what was being said.

This was the first opportunity for civil society to come together in the Sustainable Development Goal era. It was one of the most diverse CIVICUS gatherings with more than 900 people converging in Bogota. They reflected the gamut of civic perspective: concerned individuals; local groups; national associations; international federations; development donors; government officials; and the occasional tribune from business.

These are interesting times for civil society. The new agenda for 2030 brings with it a new reality regarding its resourcing. We’ve known for some time that there is less money around for the usual work from the usual sources but last year’s Financing For Development discussions in Addis signalled the end for Official Development Assistance. That cat has the attention of many pigeons: from government donor agencies increasingly having to defend their ever smaller budgets to international NGOs having to review their business models accordingly.

Ever since the phrase War on Terror was coined it was clear that civil society would be caught in the cross fire. In the run up to the conference the violent deaths of brave people working for social justice in each part of the world brought that home to delegates in a chilling way.

The move to have the conference in Colombia at this time was in part a decision aimed at making it more diverse with a better balance between delegates from the North and the South. It was also designed to support the continuing peace process and highlight the importance of civil society in making the ultimate outcome a lasting one.

These contextual factors made delegates look at some of the usual agenda items through different glasses. “Shrinking space for civil society” has been a preoccupation at these gatherings for nearly 20 years but the evidence of the increasingly violent closing down of dissent with impunity is transforming this issue from the metaphysical to something very real.

The context also revealed the tensions within civil society. I heard from several delegates and not just the young, a sense that the organisations that were established in the 1980s to coordinate and articulate civic voice were now impeding. These intermediaries were taking up too much of the “shrinking space,” coveted by new social movements and networks.

The frustration of these new players is fuelled by government institutions that are still unable to engage with multiple stakeholders let alone those who continue to be kept at the margins. It’s also driven by an awareness of the need for urgency in addressing inequality, violence and a damaged environment.

Reduced funding from established donors is also turning civil society in on itself. New initiatives portray themselves as closer to people than established civil society organisations with the promise of impact and results. “Fundamediaries” or those that make the connections between donors and implementing agencies are despised for skimming scarce resources. At the same time civil society in the South rightly question why only 1% of official development assistance comes to them directly.

The diversity of civil society and the operational constraints faced by the sector as a whole means that competition is inevitable but it comes at a time when collaboration with the sector is needed more than ever. Organisations like the Commonwealth Foundation have an obligation to enable dialogue and cooperation between civic stakeholders. At the same time there is also an obligation to help civil society organisations to adapt and come to terms with a changing context.

The evidence from this year’s ICSW is that new approaches are challenging the orthodoxies – space for some may be shrinking but for others new opportunities are being taken advantage of. Funding for some is reducing but new forms of social organisation are coming up with ideas for self-financing and effecting change. The painful truth is that hardened veterans like me will be some of the toughest to convince that these new ways can work but at the very least Bogota convinced me that I need a new tee-shirt.