Planet, struggle and future: CIVICUS’s International Civil Society Week
Thursday, December 14, 2017
Wendy Richardson

When Cyclone Winston, a category five cyclone, hit the Pacific Islands of Fiji, Vanuatu and Tonga in February 2016, it brought with it destruction, loss of life and displacement. The impact of global warming to the planet is already being lived by many communities of small island states of the Pacific Ocean. Scientific projections for these remote islands predict widespread increases in extreme rainfall, large increases in the incidence of hot days and warm nights, droughts and further sea level rise. All threatening their existence. 

Danny Sriskandarajah, CIVICUS ED (L) & PIANGO representativeIt was against this stark backdrop of climate change that CIVICUS’s 2017 International Civil Society Week was held from the 4 - 7 December in Fiji. The reminder that the status quo was no longer going to save humankind from itself, ran through the three-day meeting with its themes of “Planet, Struggle and Future”, clearly intrinsically linked. With Fiji having been scheduled to host this year’s COP meeting, which was then moved to Germany, the co-hosts the Pacific Islands Association of Non-governmental Organisations (PIANGO) along with the Pacific Island Forum, went to great lengths to make the delegates from 100 countries welcome, and to demonstrate their gratitude for traveling so far to be there.  

The need for rethinking the current model of civil society engagement, the failure of top down funding and development assistance to bring sustained social change, growing inequalities, as well as the gravity of the social justice issues the world is facing, were evident during the three days of discussion. The shrinking space in many countries, tracked in CIVICUS’s civil society monitor, left many comparing experiences of increased intimidation from the state, along with how repressive new laws and association with foreign funders was making it harder to operate. The need to identify new ways to respond and remain relevant resonated from organizations based in both the North and South. Questions on how civil society can be more rooted in the communities they serve, how to become less reliant on external sources of funding, and do more to change the structures of power were the focus of much concern. The limitations of donor driven service delivery, along with the negative impact of donor dependency, were echoed by many of the delegates. The corporatization of domestic NGO culture, who more and more seem to replicate the models of the larger international charity sector, with their obsession on project timelines, matrixes and deliverables was acknowledged and blamed for increasingly alienating them from local people and being able to respond effectively. 

The potential of community philanthropy to build locally empowered constituencies, create long-term sustainability, provide legitimacy and address power imbalances resonated. Jenny Hodgson, GFCF Executive Director held a captive audience in a discussion on new approaches to civil society resilience, as she spoke to the potential of using models that build on local assets, capacities and trust. In a timeline of how community philanthropy has grown over the last decades, she reminded delegates that big money doesn’t need to displace local institutions and relegate local systems of solidarity to the history books. Instead, local resources could help create more equal systems of collaboration. She described how grantmaking could serve as a tactic to give power back and allow communities to determine their own solutions. While not diminishing the task, she challenged how civil society could build, create and retain trust within communities, especially those who have borne the brunt of social injustice.  

Aya Chebbi, a young activist from Tunisia, who has set up Afrika Youth Movement, echoed the failure of the donor driven agenda. She made it clear that the younger generation needs flexibility and time to learn by doing, in order to build a viable and credible movement for change. They did not want to be beholden to anyone’s agenda except what they believe will bring change.  

The Global Assembly, on the final day of the conference, featured a series of high level plenary discussions from an all-female panel on climate justice, as well as a session with three CIVICUS former Executive Directors. Reflecting on the organization’s 25-year-old history, they celebrated how civil society membership had grown from the era of the cold war, yet lamented the shrinking space for civil society. They warned that these new struggles required new thinking, including around how to better strengthen connections to their constituencies and avoid being perceived as elitist outsiders by ordinary people.

Panel of former CIVICUS Executive Directors

A panel discussion on democracy illustrated the growing frustration with current political systems in many countries, where money and not people were driving policies increasingly. There was consensus that new coalitions between different allies, including those in philanthropy were needed to counteract both the cynicism with politics if we are going to be able to effectively tackle inequality, climate justice and other pressing social concerns. 

As the week wrapped up, the hope for the future was focused on a new generation of young activists, who are more open to taking risks, are quick to adapt to change and are more willing to think outside of the box and assert their independent voice. As Ingrid Srinath, CIVICUS Executive Director from 2009-2013 said, “we need to lift a new generation of leaders or get out of their way.”

In a final act of solidarity to the Pacific Islands, who have renamed themselves “Big Ocean States” to illustrate the possibility of climate migration caused by carbon emissions in far-away places, delegates were urged to sign a Declaration on Climate Induced Displacement. A reminder on how important local community action will be to cope with the fall out of our globalized world.

Shantha Bloemen, GFCF


Article originally appeared on Global Fund for Community Foundations (
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