Lessons from our work across 2017 to 2022 and implications for our current strategic action
A message from Lysa John, Secretary-General of CIVICUS
Dear CIVICUS members and allies
At the close of our 2017-2022 Strategic Plan period, we committed to review the most significant outcomes achieved and lessons learnt from its implementation. Our work in this period was organised around three strategic goals, namely Defending civic freedoms and democratic values, Strengthening the power of people to organise, mobilise and take action and Empowering a more accountable, effective and innovative civil society. The review was undertaken through a 2-stage process which included an in-depth, external review of key strategic documents and fifty interviews with selected CIVICUS staff, alliance members and external partners to corroborate the information collected and assess the most impactful stories.
Around the world, this period was marked with increasing attacks on democracy, soaring inequalities, economic shocks and social crises at a scale surpassing anything we have seen in recent years – including the tangible effects of the climate crises and the staggering impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. This was also a time of relentless organising for change as evidenced through an inspiring scale of local and global struggles for justice, equality and sustainability around the world. On one hand, many governments stretched emergency measures to suppress basic civic rights and democratic freedoms and on the other, communities joined forces across the world to demonstrate the persistence and agility of people power. Internally, the CIVICUS Secretariat also adapted to a rapid growth in membership, Board and leadership transitions as well as and a range of internal reviews accompanied by follow-up actions to adjust strategic direction and implement key recommendations.
Key findings from the CIVICUS’ strategy review
While the full review report is available here, I am using this update to reflect on five observations that speak directly to where we have been impactful and opportunities for further improvement that we can pursue.
CIVICUS has produced timely and world-class knowledge and analysis, shifting from retrospective research to regular up-to-date data and analysis on global events and the state of civil society and civic freedom around the world. Our flagship research initiatives, such as the CIVICUS Monitor and the State of Civil Society report - have enabled us to position ourselves as a field leader and trusted partner in civic space, referenced by media, academics, activists and decision-makers around the world.
We have made significant progress in advocating for open civic space and systemic change, securing key wins at the global level with the adoption of General Comment 37 and key campaigns like #StandAsMyWitness to defend human rights defenders around the world. As attacks on civic space increase, activists and civil society groups will need further efforts from CIVICUS to support and sustain their work. There is also room for improvement in terms of involving members in these efforts and tailoring campaigns to local needs.
We have successfully built solidarity, fostering a sense of community and collaboration even in the face of challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic and crises in places like Afghanistan or Ukraine. While there is scope to better leverage the online community platform as a tool for sharing best practices and connecting groups, CIVICUS has been appreciated by partners for its role as a network enabler that creates connection and a sense of belonging to a community for joint action and advocacy for civic space.
We have been leading the way in sponsoring solidarity mechanisms within the alliance and re-shaping programming and grant-making initiatives to better reach the people most exposed in the frontline. While CIVICUS has made visible efforts to shift the paradigm in donor/grantee relationships for more equal partnerships, it has a further role to play in channelling resources to civil society actors and grassroots activists who face greater restrictions on civic and democratic freedoms.
CIVICUS has made a significant impact through its efforts to connect civil society, providing opportunities for networking and learning through online and in-person initiatives that have brought partners closer together, building connections across civil society that transcend issues, geographies and organisation types. We have also been a leader in promoting and disseminating best practices in the sector. We are now placed as a progressive and innovative Global South leader in co-creation, co-design and the protection of civic space and democratic freedoms.
Recommendations for our 2022-27 Strategic Plan
In addition to a range of specific examples of impact, the review also offered specific suggestions for how the findings that emerged can be integrated into the implementation of our current strategic plan (full learnings document can be found here). Three major recommendations in this regard are listed below.
BREAKING SILOS. One of the key shifts in CIVICUS’ 2022-2027 strategic plan is the creation of one overarching goal across the work of the alliance – as opposed to three distinct goals in the previous strategy. This overarching goal, namely ‘to strengthen civil society and civic action for expanded civic and democratic space’, reflects CIVICUS’s desire to focus on actions that are not just defending but also improving civic and democratic freedoms through a combination of influencing, organising and solidarity interventions. Our Strategic Plan accordingly aims to better capture CIVICUS’s contribution to long-term, systemic change, through four outcome statements that connect and consolidate the impact of the work across all levels. Through the launch of our new results framework, we have an opportunity to monitor and evaluate progress against this overarching goal, while also assessing and adjusting the course of our implementation and direction of travel, if needed.
DEEPENING PARTNERSHIPS. The last strategic period showed how powerful it was to explicitly target a key constituency group as part of the organisation’s strategic plan. As such, in 2016, youth became a strategic priority for CIVICUS and, by the end of the 2017-2022 strategic period, CIVICUS had secured US$ 3 million for programming targeted at those under 30 years old, and 43 per cent of new individual CIVICUS members in 2021-2022 were under 30. In keeping with our focus on engaging groups most affected by the dual challenges of civic space restrictions and systemic discrimination across 2022-27, it will be important to reflect on the key lessons learned from the meaningful engagement of youth, grassroots and local civil society actors. The alliance also has a continued role to play in influencing the civil society ecosystem towards more equitable and meaningful partnerships. In addition to efforts to influence changes in donor policies and practices, CIVICUS is advised to keep improving its own grant-making processes - building up agile funding mechanisms, avoiding burdensome contractual processes and ensuring sustainability for partners.
CELEBRATING NETWORKS. Over the past strategic period, networks and coalitions initiated or hosted by CIVICUS have played a key role in rallying civil society forces by collating the experiences and unifying the positions of the many different types of groups affected by the closing of civic space and persecutions. Coalitions provide economies of scale through sharing resources such as technical expertise, joint strategies, or they can help to coordinate responses, providing a unified voice across multiple groups. The last strategic period (2017-2022), however, revealed some tension and lack of clarification regarding CIVICUS’s overall goal and objectives with some of the networks and coalitions it had launched over the past years. While some networks are getting ready to become independent, others have clearly highlighted the key role CIVICUS is playing in launching these initiatives and it would be important for CIVICUS to nurture these initiatives in the long-term for more coordinated action in the civic space arena.
(Lysa John is Secretary General of CIVICUS. She is based in South Africa and can be reached via her Twitter handle: @LysaJohnSA)