Civil society: Time to walk the talk

Aruna Rao, chair of Civicus, says there will be hard questions and honest answers at this year's Glasgow gathering.

Civicus is an idea ahead of its time. As a worldwide alliance of organisations, movements and individuals, it strives to represent the real interests of different players, while creating a whole greater than the sum of its parts. That is both the core of its dream and its greatest challenge. At the World Assembly, Civicus's signature event, the best face and the toughest tests are on stage for all to see.

We know what civil society organisations look like at ground level - from neighbourhood associations and cricket clubs to trade unions and women's rights organisations. All of these live between family, market and government and seek to promote their views of the common good. But at the global level, the homogeneous character of issues and actors leaves many out. Who is on that global stage and what are they discussing? Does your civil society include me? Do I see my face in your pictures? Do I see my language in your words? Do I see my networks in your gatherings?

It's no secret, for example, that the notions of citizenship and accountability underpinning the efforts of global civil society to restructure governance infrastructure are, by and large, gender-blind. Assuming universal needs, interests, opportunities and constraints is at best unhelpful and, at worst, fatal. Although 'citizens' are mobilising, the infrastructure and resources for supporting women's activism and challenging gender power relations are dwindling. This is having serious consequences on women's health, welfare and their ability to survive. It also affects their opportunities to participate in and influence agendas and outcomes.

As a researcher and activist working on women's empowerment with civil society bodies, I care how Civicus reflects such nuanced realities and priorities. Can it be everything to everybody, or should it stick to more generic global preoccupations? Civicus's role in the Global Call to Action against Poverty, a significant civil society movement, was aimed at constructing a worldwide coalition to hold governments accountable for Millennium Development Goals. Some would say that's exactly what Civicus should be doing - breaking down barriers to forge new relationships and address agreed goals. Others contend that this is too specific - not all civil society will find its face in that picture.

Challenging exclusion lies at the heart of civil society activism. That means not only storming the ramparts, but also doing the dishes. Do civil society groups walk their talk? This is another key challenge facing organisations such as Civicus that often punch above their weight, promising far more than they can easily deliver, given stretched resources, uncertain funding, turbulent organisational histories and cultures buffeted by ever-increasing demands of accountability, representation and impact. In my role as chair of Civicus, I care how the organisation navigates these currents.

The World Assembly in Glasgow, hosted by the SCVO, is a gamble because it hopes to focus global attention on key issues and the work of civil society activists while offering dialogue, debate and negotiation between like and unlike. It is creating this space in 'the north', primarily with northern resources, while generating the support necessary to make it a truly global event with strong southern participation. I hope that will happen and that the interaction will be participatory and meaningful.

Civicus is striving to spark the sharing of ideas, work and dreams. It is also making room for hard questions to be asked and honest answers given-this means providing a space large enough to accommodate all while holding firm to cherished foundations. If that isn't a tall order, tell me what is.


Chair of the Civicus board Aruna Rao is an expert in gender and institutional change with more than 25 years' experience addressing gender issues in a variety of development organisations, primarily in Asia. Currently director of Gender at Work and on the Commission on Globalisation convened by State of the World Forum, she has served as president of the Association for Women's Rights in Development.

In the 1990s, she co-ordinated Population Council research in five Asian countries on gender issues in the planning and implementation of rural development programmes, as well as organising major world conferences and leading a team pioneering a new approach to organisational change in Bangladesh. She has consulted widely with UN organisations, academic institutions and development NGOs.

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