June 5, 2012

The New Tie that Bind Us: The Future is Calling! (Part II)

1. Let us think outside the box – The Activists should join the ‘Clicktivists’!

Innovations and ideas that may change the world seem to be coming from elsewhere and not from CSOs.  We need to recognize this and partner with those who are making a mark on the world – the most prominent being social entrepreneurs and ‘clicktivists’ (as opposed to activists). The civic energy that swept the Arab world was anchored in the new global generation of digital natives.  These citizens have brought down dictators, Occupied Wall Street, have the 3rd largest country in the world known as Facebook with 800 million people, are on twitter, youtube and have changed the face of journalism.  Many NGOs especially in my part of the world are seemingly invisible in these new forms of organizing and yet this is what will stop the downward spiral towards death and irrelevance of NGOs - at least in terms of the transformative potential that they offer.

2. Drop the jargon and let us talk and act simple!

For too long we have hidden our good work behind the terminology of development and charity.  In fact terminology sometimes stands in the way of transformation.  To become sustainable we must speak a language of simplicity and allow for citizens and all our partners to understand and connect with our causes.  We sometimes spend too much time pleasing our donors and government, framing political work in technical terms, simple interventions are cooked up in complicated log frames that we can please donors. We live in a world of aid fatigue and the more we make sure that our work is understood the better.  As NGOs we may not have the magic bullets to ‘fix’ development, but there is plenty of evidence on how NGOs have made meaningful impact on the global civil society eco-system than its critics suggest.  We need to speak the ‘everyday’ language to stay connected in the globalized world.

3. Let us showcase our work

The world is awash with innovative ideas that have clearly changed people’s lives.  From work of small organizations and initiatives in the area of HIV/AIDS, the Hunger Project, the Citizen Manifestos in India and Africa, the Women’s Movement across the world, gender budgeting, rural transformation and food sovereignty and many others.  Obscuring our work is certainly making it hard for people to see the many pockets of ‘thick’ progressive and transformative action on the NGO scene. Indeed most of the good stuff that NGOs implement doesn’t seem to have enough substance to counter the wave of NGO-bashing that the sector is experiencing everyday in all kinds of fora.
4. Think! Reflect! And Learn!
The last thing NGOs need in these turbulent financial and social times is another shot of megalomania to swell their heads.  The change that NGOs are able to make in the world is huge and yet subtle. It requires us to develop more qualitative understanding of how change works. It’s about treading much more lightly, but with a much sharper eye for emerging ideas, inspiring relationships and interesting questions.  As one writer put it, we need to move the ‘“thinnest” of innovations in the direction of deeper impact through a continuous stream of small changes that head in the same direction – “baby steps”. Many an NGO has these skills on offer, but mostly they’re being crushed by institutional pressures, lost in quanti-philia and neglected in training programmes.  We should not stop learning from our work.
5. Let us return to value based development

NGOs need to strengthen their value bases as a key ingredient for a more transformative role. I came across the term ‘pragmatic visionaries’.  This is a term that sounds nice but to be a pragmatic visionary demands rigorous discipline. There are many things being dangled at us.  Consultancies, corruption money, singing development mantras we do not believe in, deceptive reporting to create larger than life impact and many other ‘sweet things’ that we try and create.  All this calls for a balancing act between good-sustainability and bad-sustainability.  This will require a balancing act that demands rigorous and continuous reflection about what to embrace and what to let go.  The latter being particularly difficult – many times we do not know when to let go but sometimes we should allow things to die.

Is there hope for NGOs?  Should we retire, be replaced or be rejuvenated? For us at the Uganda National NGO Forum, retirement is not an option. Rejuvenation in a midlife crisis can easily become preposterous, thus not a good idea.  Starting to lift weights at 45 years may sound good but it is also laughable.  That leaves replacement, but the big question is: with what shall we replace NGOs in the current world. 

Let me finally submit that in the current global economic trends, the role of NGOs is an illusion. What we make of the future is up to us. Yes, we operate in the difficult terrain, with many temptations and obstacles on the road to transformation. We could complain about the aid fatigue and many other things gone wrong until we really are irrelevant. But we could also focus on the positive forces around us so that they can expand.  All over the world, citizens are demanding change.  Clearly there are progressive connections to be made between the state, private sector and civil society. We can’t afford doomsday scenarios or self-fulfilling prophecies. The future needs a dose of optimism and creativity coupled with a can-do attitude to make things happen!

Richard Ssewakiryanga
Executive Director
Uganda National NGO Forum

Presented at the Canadian Council for International Cooperation Annual General Meeting
May 25th, 2012

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