Galvanising civil society

James Taylor is an Associate with the Community Development Resource Association in Cape Town, which advances conscious and continuous learning about development processes and the art of intervention.

This article is also available in Inyathelo's latest Annual Report.

Galvanising civil society

As a part of the theme ‘finding the courage to step forward’ I have been asked to share some thoughts on ‘Galvanising Civil Society’.

The thoughts I bring come from my work of providing organisational development services to civil society organisations in support of their striving for social justice. I have engaged with remarkable organisations – organisations highly effective in challenging and countering the dominant forces and societal systems that exclude and impoverish. I have learned from them that the underlying causes of the societal ‘problems’ they address are systemic. The problems they are addressing are integral functions of the way society’s major systems are organised. The tendency of human society to ‘other’, to marginalise, exclude and impoverish is not a minor dysfunction of an otherwise developmental system. This tendency reflects the foundational organising principles of society’s dominant organisational systems. Systems that are highly effective in extracting human and natural resources in ways that concentrate wealth and power amongst a minute minority.

I have also drawn learning from the work I am called to do, inside these leading civil society organisations. Too often the problems they are experiencing internally stem from the same organising principles they are trying to change in society. I interview staff members who experience themselves as being marginalised. Their greatest frustration stems from not being heard or taken into account. Inside organisations dedicated to (and often successful in) empowering others, there are passionate, committed and able members who feel disempowered. Many experience their organisational cultures as toxic, where they feel undermined and under-valued.

As organisations work harder to become more efficient and effective in achieving systemic change, they are adopting more and more of the organising principles of the very systems they are attempting to transform. The harder they try to be effective, the more they unintentionally become a part of the problem. It is out of this experience and conclusion that I use this thoughtpiece as a challenge to find the courage to think differently.

When contemplating the prospect of galvanising civil society, the dominant way of organising suggests we must turn it into a time-bound project (ideally between a year and three years). The project must have clear outputs and outcomes with objectively verifi able indicators to prove achievement of results. Its design must refl ect a ‘theory of change’ that reveals the assumptions behind linear, cause-andeffect, logic. The role of the ‘change agent’ is to leverage and roll out pre-determined change and account for the use of societal resources in proving effi ciency and impact. This is the language of the instrumentalist organising principles now so ubiquitous and dominant that questioning them has become sacrilege.

The thought I bring to share is that the realisation of the creative and formative role of civil society is not best served by approaches dominated by externally-designed, instrumentally-managed, development projects. We do not have to galvanise civil society. The essential power of civil society lies in the self-generated life processes that are unleashed when the essential needs of groups of people are not being met. When the potential of human individuals to contribute to creating, shaping and benefi tting from the larger systems of which they are a part is diminished, they start galvanising around unmet need. In South Africa we have experience of the power of this force. Despite this, in order to sustain themselves, many of the more formal, funded civil society organisations are slipping into the dominant practices. To support civil society’s galvanising force for change, they need to shift the focus from trying to be the mechanistic agents of change to really listening to and hearing what is moving in civil society. To the point of being shaped by it.

Those at the margins of society are constantly galvanising into action around unmet need. Those of us closer to power and resources are so busy trying to implement our projects and solutions that we are not hearing their need to contribute to shaping their world. In the process we do not contribute to, or benefi t from, the foundation force and energy of civil society. Organisations committed to serving the civil society impulse for inclusion need to find the courage to be shaped by those they strive to serve. Opening themselves to the innovative impulses, thinking and priorities constantly emerging from the margins. The project is to experiment with new organisational forms and practices that are more effi cient and effective in achieving social transformation.

The place to start our learning, un-learning, and experimentation is closest to home, first in ourselves and our own organisations. Once we have learned to listen to and be shaped by the needs and aspirations of our closest colleagues, and then by the fellow beings we serve, we have a greater challenge still. In a sustainable world our human systems will need to be shaped by the needs of all other life forms also aspiring to contribute.