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Promoting collaboration between people, not just organisations

February 28, 2018

This article was included in the February 2018 newsletter of INTRAC – the International NGO Training and Research Centre – where I am a trustee. INTRAC believes, as I do, that when people come together and organise in ways that are effective, sustainable and legitimate, they make the world a better place. INTRAC’s staff and associates provide high quality support to help civil society across the world challenge poverty and inequality, empowering people to gain greater control over their own future. 

INTRAC, Peace Direct, Instituto de Comunicación y Desarollo (ICD), and Y Care International organised a webinar during the CIVICUS International Civil Society Week last November. Participants from across the world discussed responsible partnerships between international and indigenous civil society, which clearly remains a challenging ethical and practical issue.

The distinction between indigenous and international civil society is important. People from any context should be in the lead when framing the problems most in need of solutions there, and guiding international counterparts in identifying where and how to offer support. But external actors in many places still call too many of the shots, and – as the webinar report just released shows – changing this will need a sustained effort by all concerned.

The CIVICUS event led me to reflect further on this. I have been a volunteer or staff member in international development NGOs since 1985. I’ve always been conscious of my status as an outsider in other people’s countries, and tried to calibrate my behaviour accordingly – not always as successfully as I’d have liked. But I’m also a little uncomfortable with how ‘North’ and ‘South’ have come to be used in the context of this discussion: with North being code for outsiders with limited legitimacy, and South for those with more legitimacy.

A simple definition of civil society is when two or more people work together peacefully to promote or prevent something about which they jointly care. This can be short term – a group of traders mobilising to stop a fellow trader being harassed by border officials – or a longer-term initiative to advocate for a change in agricultural policy, or a women’s savings and loans group. It can be local or much wider in scope: protecting this stretch of river from pollution, or preventing global accumulation of greenhouse gases. It can be something overtly political, linked to protecting and expanding freedom of expression, or may have a simpler, social purpose: my local poetry society, for example.

If this is a useful definition, it’s one that allows for people from different contexts to work together. This is the basis of my trusteeship and support for INTRAC: the notion that collaboration across international boundaries can be beneficial. But international development norms can get in the way. Words like partnership, capacity-building, strategy, exit and sustainability conjure up images of organisations, not activists.

Looking back at my own experiences, it’s working with people I most recall – activists defined by their passion, competencies, values and actions, not by their employer. So in considering how to improve cooperation between international and indigenous civil society, I think we should focus as much on maximising collaboration between people, as between organisations. While it remains self-evident that sustainable solutions are normally those emerging locally, rather than those brought in by outsiders, this does not mean that outsiders have nothing to contribute.

To be sure, collaboration must be done ethically and responsibly. Collaboration must be freely entered into by all. Organisations must still define and enforce codes of quality and conduct for their members, staff or volunteers, and provide them with protection and practical resources. But we do need to remind ourselves, when considering big picture notions of strategy, sustainability and the like, that in the end, civil society is people coming together to work on something they jointly care about. We therefore need to ask how leaders in organisations can liberate their people to collaborate first and foremost as fellow activists, rather than as representatives of their organisations.


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