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When the tough get going: civil society resilience

Posted on 29/11/2018
By Sarah Peck

The term ‘resilience’ is often thrown around in the context of climate change, but my research on civil society in Barbados and Grenada showed that resilience is in fact essential to achieving social justice goals.

Between September 2014 and January 2018 I worked with the University of Sheffield and the Commonwealth Foundation on my Doctoral research. The purpose of the project was to understand more about how civil society groups operate in the Caribbean: their hopes, challenges, and everyday experiences; my purpose was to foreground the opinions and voices of civil society activists.

A summary of the project findings is available here.

Recent academic and practice-based engagement with civil society has focused on understanding civil society through the lens of sustainability, and less tangibly the wider civil society space they occupy. This is partly in response to changes in donor funding and the global economy, increased emphasis on terrorism and security, and also in response to the closing down of civil society space around the world. The sustainability literature does, however, highlight two key areas of concern for civil society: firstly, the ability of civil society to operate in an increasingly restrictive environment and, secondly, the ability of CSOs to continue their work with reduced levels of international funding.

‘Many are starting to utilise technological advances such as PayPal and crowdfunding to maximise their financial connections to diaspora groups.’

Whilst greater understanding of what sustains civil society is important, I want to use the remainder of this piece to think about the related, but subtlety different, concept of resilience. Resilience can be defined as the ability to recover from difficulties or challenging events. Critiques of this definition include the notion that ‘bouncing back’ does not challenge the status quo: they dispute the idea that vulnerabilities are entirely self-created and that responsibility lies with the individual and their coping mechanisms (see Commonwealth Insights paper ‘What makes societies resilient’). Despite these convincing critiques I want to put forward an argument for considering civil society’s’ resilience as well as its sustainability. For me the concept of sustainability implies stasis and predictability; the assumption that if certain procedures are continuously followed civil society will be sustained. This sidelines the importance of national and regional contexts and indeed innovation in the sector – factors that are far less predictable. The idea of resilience is perhaps more useful for reflecting the inherently variable, dynamic, and fluid nature of civil society. These inevitable fluctuations make being part of civil society exciting and challenging, and the need to be flexible, adaptable and resurgent in the face of change is critical. Resilience in this context can be thought of as ways of rearranging the status quo and taking control of the complexities that are part of civil society work.

This can be illustrated in a number of ways as civil society resilience takes many forms. During my research civil society activists described occasions when they have had to bounce back in the face of criticism from outside and inside the sector. This increases fatigue and places an emotional toll on activists, but in response civil society groups are finding alternative ways of engaging, for example through different media, and are using their social networks for support.

‘Groups also […] commit to a culture of reciprocity to aid their resilience and continue the work they do’

It was also apparent that civil society groups in the Caribbean need to develop financial resilience in the face of multiple challenges, including: reductions in donor funding, increased competition between organisations, and changes in the global economy. Working in civil society is often associated with having several part-time occupations, and often working during unpaid hours over evenings and weekends.. Not knowing where funding for the next project might come from also increases anxiety levels. This insecurity has the potential to reduce human resources and human capital in the sector. In the face of this, civil society groups have to be resilient to succeed. To build their resilience they are crafting multiple financial opportunities to sustain their work. This includes income-generating schemes within the organisation and engaging with the corporate sector and philanthropic institutions. Diaspora groups also offer a valuable source of revenue and other forms of social support. Many are starting to utilise technological advances such as PayPal and crowdfunding to maximise their financial connections to diaspora groups. Users of crowdfunding felt that the system had the potential to create more democratic relations between donors and civil society.

Civil society groups are also promoting their resilience through social connections, with friendships, for example, providing morale. Groups also: mentor each other, use volunteers, and commit to a culture of reciprocity to aid their resilience and continue the work they do.

In the future, developing networks between locally based organisations across the Caribbean region could allow the sharing of experience and resources and build solidarity. Civil society in the Caribbean may also benefit from meeting in informal settings to build a feeling of solidarity, share experiences, and share expertise. This could provide a forum to discuss wider issues that may be relevant for the sector. Such a forum may also offer moral and emotional support for civil society groups during challenging times.

Civil society groups need to be resilient if they are to sustain their work and identity as a sector that promotes social justice. The idea of civil society resilience promotes the ever-changing nature of the sector and the need to be versatile and adaptable. A key question is: what is the role of the international community in helping civil society groups become more resilient?

Sarah Peck is a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) candidate at the University of Sheffield.