"The problem is not that we don’t tell our story – the problem is that we don’t LIVE the story we tell" - Dr. Burkhard Gnärig

04 april 2017

Today we are launching a series of blogs, that will be published in the lead up to our conference, Reclaiming the Story, which will take place on Friday 12th May in the Croke Park Conference Centre.

We're going to be asking leading figures across civil society 4 questions - around what they think of the challenges facing civil society, what NGOs need to change to fight these problems head on, how activists need to protect civil society space, and ultimately, how we can reclaim the story. 

We are delighted to be featuring Dr. Burkhard Gnärig today, Founder and Executive Director of the International Civil Society Centre in Berlin.

The International Civil Society Centre helps the world’s leading international civil society organisations maximise their impact for a sustainable and more equitable world. As part of their work, they have undertaken the Disrupt and Innovate project, which aims to assess the fundamental challenges that is disrupting civil society as we know it, and to consider the ways in which we need to innovate to respond to those challenges. 

Here are his answers to our 4 questions:

1. There is a sense of crisis in Europe and the US—that there is a major political shift going on that is challenging the concept of multi-lateralism, of the human rights framework, and indeed the very idea of aid.   Do you think that is the case, and if so, what is the most worrying aspect of that challenge? 

Yes: populism and selfishness seem to prevail over democracy and solidarity. This is a wake-up call for leaders in politics and civil society. We have become complacent and all too comfortable with the status quo. A growing number of people see both politics and organised civil society as outdated systems that resist change and primarily serve insiders and office holders rather than their constituencies.

We need fundamental reforms taking us from a 19th century representative democracy to a 21st century one that provides citizens with much more of a say in shaping their societies. We need civil society organisations that empower their “beneficiaries” rather than patronising them. We need to get rid of the very idea of aid and disrupt our own colonialist and charitable tradition: we must learn how to engage in respectful cooperation and equal partnership.

2.    What do you think is the one most important change NGOs should make to adapt to this new political reality?

Digital communication and cooperation makes civil society organisations’ (CSOs) traditional role as intermediaries between donors and recipients of aid largely redundant. CSOs that ignore this development will fade away as a new generation of donors emerges who are not prepared to pay expensive overheads for services that are no longer required.

There are still important roles for CSOs to play: as open platforms, where partners can meet and agree on collaboration – as initiators, facilitators and moderators of cooperation. These new roles – I call them “intermediation light” will require less physical infrastructure and less manpower. Successful CSOs of the future will be much more effective with significantly less money.

3.    We know also that civil society space is shrinking wherever you look — what do you think is the most important thing we as activists should do to protect and defend it?

We should do four things:

1.    Sign the Civic Charter – The Global Framework for People’s Participation, and commit to upholding each of its provisions.

2.    Practice solidarity and support each other when our rights are being curtailed. All too often I see CSOs that try to keep their head down rather than standing up for our rights to operate. In the long run this behaviour will harm them.

3.    Get out of our ivory tower and re-connect with the people; provide the people we aim to serve with a say in what we do; regain legitimacy and convince people to support our right to operate.

4.    Explore new spaces for civic participation: use the internet and partner with new social movements to support people’s empowerment.

4.    We’re aiming to “reclaim the story”—what do you think INGOs need to do to more effectively tell our stories?

The problem is not that we don’t tell our story – the problem is that we don’t LIVE the story we tell. CSOs need to go back to their roots, to the motivation, dedication and legitimacy of the activists and social entrepreneurs who founded them. CSOs need to re-learn to evaluate their work in terms of progress towards their vision and mission and not in terms of income growth, number and size of projects or number of employees. CSO leaders must lead based on their organisation’s vision, rather than managing by incentives and sanctions.

The scary developments we observe in the world around us threaten civil society from many angles, but they also provide a strong reason and a great opportunity for CSOs to re-invent themselves and come back stronger than before. The world calls for activists and leaders to be much more bold, creative, and courageous.


Dóchas Conference 2017 - Reclaiming the Story - will take place on Friday 12th May from 2pm - 5.30pm in the Croke Park Conference Centre. Featuring inspirational speakers such as Kumi Naidoo, Director of Africans Rising and former International Executive Director of Greenpeace, Ellen Dorsey, Executive Director of the Wallace Global Fund, James Crowley, author & founder of the Crowley Institute, plus many more! 

You can get your tickets here.


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