The Winds of Change in Civil Society

November 27, 2012
  • Aron Cramer portrait

    Aron Cramer

    President and CEO, BSR

Aron Cramer, President and CEO, BSR

Dubai is not the most obvious place to discuss the future of civil society. The future of skyscrapers and vanity engineering projects, maybe, but I arrived in Dubai for the World Economic Forum’s Summit on the Global Agenda earlier this month as civil society was under threat in many parts of the Middle East.

The arguably inauspicious setting did nothing to thwart a lively debate that illuminated both the threats facing civil society and also the remarkable opportunities the sector has before it. 

The World Economic Forum has, for the past five years, convened more than 75 Global Agenda Councils in the United Arab Emirates to debate key questions on topics ranging from water to Japan to design. My Council was charged with the task of identifying crucial questions that will shape the role of civil society around the world over the coming decade.

Over the course of three days, three key questions emerged:

  • First, and most significant, there remains a genuine difference of opinion within the NGO community about how much to invest in collaboration. For some, low levels of trust in business and government, along with a desire to maximize the watchdog function that NGOs have played over the past couple of generations remain real stumbling blocks to collaboration. Others in Dubai accept all of these concepts, but also believe that NGOs can maximize their impact by employing a diverse array of strategies, including both collaboration and confrontation.

In my view, the latter position is crucial to solving the big challenges before us. As COP-18 unfolds in Doha over the coming days, we will again see evidence that governments are unable to “solve” issues like climate. In this context, a “pure” approach that fails to take advantage of opportunities for collaboration is not likely to maximize impact. It is certainly up to individual organizations to decide how they choose to balance collaboration and challenge, but what is most needed is a diverse ecosystem of civil society organizations that cover the full spectrum of strategies.

  • The second question we debated is of equal significance: the impact of social media on NGOs. Simply put, the rise of social media means that NGOs no longer have a monopoly on the ability to pull citizens together in service of a cause, or to build campaigns calling for change. Social media has the potential both to undermine and magnify NGO activities, a situation well understood by the dozen of us on the Council.
  • The third question was how the globalization of NGOs will impact some of the most familiar and important global organizations. Amnesty International and Oxfam, to name just two, are changing their model to put more resources in emerging economies. These changes will certainly change both the perspectives and impacts of the world’s largest NGOs, mainly in a beneficial way, but not without the same kinds of tough decisions about staffing that companies have faced.

As it turned out, Dubai and the broader Middle East were a very apt location for this meeting. Change is sweeping the region, just the like the NGO world, with a desire for a more fluid social structure taking shape in fits and starts. Over the long run, successful NGOs will employ multiple strategies, become more global in perspectives, and need to figure out how to use social media to their advantage. Some will figure it out more quickly than others, just as newspapers, political figures and businesses have (or have not).

We are in an era when a sector committed to changing other institutions will also have to change from within.

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