Some of us at ETC have just spent the past three days in a drafting group for the Dag Hammarskjold Foundation's inspiring What Next? project. Hopefully we will write more about What Next? as it gets closer to completion. Briefly the What Next? project its an attempt to stop, reflect and look forward to the challenges and issues Civil Society faces in the coming thirty years. How will we organise ourselves? what new global trends will we be leading or responding to?
Its impossible here to summarise the rich discussions between inspiring reflective thinkers from across the globe and from different movements but one strand of concern might be interesting to pluck out: the conflicts within civil society itself.
To begin with there was strong agreement that the boundaries between NGO's, Civil Society groups, Social Movements and grassroots activists were unclear but that these terms represented fractures in culture, vision, and strategy that were sometimes problematic.
One participant pointed to the rise in cross-movement collaborations that were aimed at simply 'winning' - rather than 'building' and criticised the manner in which win-oriented coalitions such as 'Make Poverty History' undermined the longer term ability of social movements to build power together. You can find some of the critique of Make Poverty History here
Besides the fake 'civil society' of trade groups disguised as social-interest organisations, the so-called BINGO's (Big International NGO's) came in for a lot of questioning. Some increasingly appear to ape corporate models of organisation, language and visions - even brokering deals without any clear mandate to do so. A good new article by Bob Burton of PR Watch illustrates this precisely - questioning a recent partnership on Nanotech Safety between Du Pont and Washington-based lobbyists Environmental Defense (ED).
According to Bob Burton, ED's enthusiasm to be seen brokering deals with indutry has in the past led ED to "undermine the campaigns of other environmental health groups". He cites a 1990 grassroots campaign against McDonalds use of ozone-depleting sytrofoam where ED stepped in and 'partnered' with Mc Donalds to implement a waste reduction plan rather than eliminating the material as demanded - "snatching defeat from the jaws of victory".
Social movements inability to listen to each other and carry each others struggles with them was another illuminating refrain. Imagine my sadness this morning therefore to see this recent ad by Greenpeace who seem happy to endorse the logic of a war on terror to win their anti-nuclear campaign. The story of an omnipresent terrorist threat has been a powerful tool by governments to win public support for new anti-immigration powers, racist behaviours, growing surveillance and foreign wars. Greenpeace has just endorsed and amplified that story for narrow tactical ends. I wonder what The International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group think of it?
Some of us in the What Next? discussions recognized that the quest of NGOs to become more professional can lead to being "held hostage" to processes and institutions. Instead of monitoring these institutions and processes, we end up in dependent relationships with them. At ETC group we call this The Stockholm Syndrome - expect more on that too.