10 Top Recommendations for Civil Society from Civil Society

February 17, 2018

In 2017, United Edge led twelve training sessions across Southeast Asia. Our aim was to bring together different national players in civil society to look at how we can develop and improve our work to lead to more tangible and permanent positive changes for society.


During these sessions, we spoke with 269 participants about creating a different future:

  • A future in which civil society is playing a leading role in striving for social and environmental justice, rather than propping up a broken system.

  • A future in which corporations, governments and NGOs are held to account for their actions and responsibilities to people and the environment.

  • A future in which the people most affected by injustice are the same people who are making decisions to address and prevent it.

  • A future in which innovation, learning and evidence are at the heart of the way we cultivate more holistic, people-led solutions to the problems facing us all.

  • A future in which individuals are empowered to think critically and act in line with their beliefs and the best interest of others and the planet.


At the end of every workshop, we asked our participants for ten recommendations to share with other people around the world who are working for justice. Many of these people come with decades of experience while others bring fresh and local perspectives on how we can succeed in creating a better world. After twelve workshops, we had more than four hundred recommendations from those on the ground in some of the most challenging environments in the world.


Despite the fact that the recommendations represent voices from seven different countries, there are some key themes that were highlighted by participants in almost every workshop. Clearly, civil society across Southeast Asia is in alignment about our pressing priorities. Thank you to the 269 participants from 129 organisations who contributed. Here are the top ten recommendations for civil society that emerged… enjoy! (And act!)


1. Integrity: Practice what you preach



Whether you work for a development or humanitarian agency, a charity, a community-based organisation, or you’re simply working on issues you’re passionate about, integrity is the key. While the UN continues to develop programmes and campaigns on gender equality around the world, for example, only one in five senior staff members within the organisation are women. Our own organisations must lead by example in the way we champion the rights of our staff, clients and partners.


Through strong policy and practice, we need to address wider issues and systemic problems such as over-consumption, climate change, the environment, hierarchy and women’s rights in the workplace and beyond. Even as individuals working in social and environmental justice, we must cultivate the courage to ask questions, reflect on our impact and take tangible action in our everyday lives to work towards a better world.


2. Capacity: Invest in people



Organisations, networks and movements working on human rights, the environment and justice cannot succeed in their work without skilled, confident and knowledgeable staff who are aware of key issues and approaches in social change. You wouldn’t want to have surgery from a doctor with only a basic understanding of human anatomy. In the same way, those working in humanitarian, development or social work are dealing with people’s lives and should have a solid grounding in human rights principles and instruments, social and cultural systems that affect people and the planet, and international and national laws and accountability mechanisms.


Every person should be trained in evidence-based decision making and best practice in monitoring and evaluation, participatory methodology, gender, inclusion and safeguarding. They should also be supported to recognize and understand power and privilege in their everyday lives. Building internal capacity and encouraging professional development not only improves our work, it also makes us more accountable and helps to create the sort of leadership and innovation needed to affect change for the world’s most vulnerable communities and ecosystems.


3. Collaboration: Work together for effectiveness



People working in social change all share the same goals. If we didn’t, then we’d definitely have a long way still to go! All around the world, different actors for social change are fighting for the same funds. We all hope to gain the best reputation, stand above the rest, be the leaders that the world needs. On a community level NGOs are fighting over opportunities to work with certain groups of people or in certain locations, and each social change player is dedicated to building the most productive relationships with both governments and donor institutions.


The sheer amount of time that goes into competing with others is staggering. If civil society is to succeed in creating lasting change, we must be prepared to put the work before the rewards. We must work together through thick and thin – supporting advocacy initiatives or campaigns that already exist, sharing knowledge and data, coordinating our plans and developing shared research. Only then can we become effective enough to create change. We can be far more than the sum of our parts.


4. Accountability: Become critical friends with the government



States are the principal duty bearers for human rights. Although we all have a moral obligation to act, they have a legal responsibility for ensuring that every citizen is able to enjoy all of their rights. What we often forget is that governments are made up of people, and in order for the state to be accountable for human and environmental responsibilities, the individuals who make up governments must fully understand these responsibilities and how to address them.


Civil society must invest in building the capacity and interest of governments while supporting them to engage with the groups most affected by each issue. We need to support transparency and initiatives that make the state more accountable to its citizens. It is time to strengthen anti-corruption policies while working together to tackle corruption on a national level, advocate and model greater transparency, and support initiatives to strengthen rule of law and the impartiality of the judiciary – all factors that are essential for lasting change. Building strong working relationships while remaining true to the principles of justice helps us to be ‘critical friends’ who will support state actors in their mission while holding them to account for their responsibilities.


5. Participation: Hand over decision-making to those most affected



Those working in social change talk a lot about participation – so much so that the true meaning of this buzzword has all but disappeared. The idea of participation does not mean simply consulting with communities, having youth trustees or getting local people involved in project activities. Participation is all about decisions being made by those most affected by those decisions. It means identifying and enabling the people who are most affected and, importantly, it means sharing power.


It cannot be the place of donors to decide what our work should focus on. We have a responsibility to advocate and support the leadership of local people and local civil society in decision-making about programme and policy priorities, and we must ensure that the communities and individuals most affected by the issues are leading decision-making throughout the project cycle – from needs assessment and project design to monitoring, evaluation and ongoing management. We have been talking about participation for years. Now is the time to put it into practice in everything we do.


6. Power: Address the underlying system



When we see the same injustices happen again and again, we need to ask ourselves whether they are actually the results of something deeper – a broken system. Through our work, we often tackle massive injustices, but unless we start to address the underlying systemic issues, these injustices will continue to happen. Economies that favour the rich over the poor, cultures that favour men over women, governments that favour those in power over those in need: these are all examples of broken systems that continue to cultivate injustice.


As civil society we need to develop a clear understanding of underlying systemic issues that need to be addressed in order to achieve social justice and seek out the most effective ways of solving society’s problems without contributing to broken systems. We also have to look at how our own system – whether humanitarian, environmental, community development or human rights – is fundamentally flawed and create a viable alternative. Change will only happen when we are cultivating systems of justice and tacking systems of privilege and power.


7. Innovation: Seek out alternative models for change



Ironically, the social ‘change’ sector is extremely reluctant to change! Due diligence requirements from donors, a skeptical public and bulky bureaucracies mean that true innovation is infrequent and happens within the confines of the ‘way things have always been done’. The fact that something has always been done in a particular way, of course, says nothing about whether that way is the best  way. 


We need to challenge our assumptions about everything we do and actively seek out better models for our work that take a more holistic approach to social change – addressing not only one key issue but making sure that our models also challenge power structures, ensure true participation and address multiple rights. We need to pool our evidence, work with others from outside of the sector and pilot new approaches. This way, we can ensure we are being effective at true social change.


8. Learning: Use evidence to improve work and be more accountable



We talk a lot about impact in our line of work. But what exactly do we mean by it and how, precisely, can we measure it? People often say that it’s almost impossible to measure the true impact of our work. This is probably one of the main reasons that we have such poor monitoring and evaluation mechanisms in place. However, any decision we make in our programmes should be based on some sort of evidence that demonstrates what is needed. Decision making without evidence is both futile and potentially dangerous.


We need stronger monitoring and evaluation systems, improved capacity in this area and better guidance. These systems are possible but require time, financial investment and commitment from all main actors. Donors, for example, should be prioritizing learning over contractual compliance, and we need to be better at sharing our data, lessons and actions with others – creating a more transparent sector and adding to a global movement for open data. Even more importantly, we should ensure that data analysis and decision-making are happening on the ground by those affected by our projects, making us more accountable to those that matter most – the communities and individuals we work with.


9.  Business: Tackle the private sector to affect social change



As organisations and individuals who address social and environmental justice, it’s important to remember where injustices arise and who are the key actors. Communities, governments and NGOs regularly work together to tackle certain issues but one massively influential group we often overlook is the private sector. Companies and private interests often wield incredible power over governments, resources and policy, and their impact on human rights and the environment can be catastrophic.


We must directly address human rights violations and the negative environmental impact from businesses in our work if we are to address the root cases of so many of the world’s problems. We also need to support the cultivation of new models for business. At the same time, we have to ensure our corporate partnerships and procurement policies are aligned to stringent environmental and human rights criteria – otherwise we become a part of the problem.


10. Education: Ensure everyone knows their rights



The first step in ensuring that people are able to enjoy their rights is making sure they know exactly what their rights are. This is a little more complicated than it first sounds since there are international, regional and national laws that all in some way represent the rights of both groups and individuals, as well as well established standards when legal rights are missing. One thing is clear though – no one can try to claim their rights effectively if they don’t know what their rights are. Knowledge is power.


All people in all our programmes should be supported to learn about their rights in ways that are most appropriate and useful to them. We should support governments to better understand human rights and how to mainstream human rights in their services and priorities. Importantly, we must support communities and individuals to advocate for their rights so that we are simply facilitators in the relationship between duty bearer and claim holder.


For upcoming trainings from United Edge check out www.unitededge.net/events

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