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Volume 4 | Issue 3 | Page 66-71 | Aug 2012
Breaking Out of the System Trap: Civil Society Organizations
baggis (via Flickr)
Intensifying pressures on the planet’s ecosystems are often felt by geographically and temporally distant populations, as with the small village of Newtok, Alaska, which will soon have to evacuate because of coastal erosion. Consequently, local solutions are fast becoming insufficient for contemporary problems.
Civil society organizations (CSOs) have a crucial role to play in catalyzing transformative change, yet new ideas and strategies are needed to address the global crises we face. Their current pragmatism means that while they may win many battles, they are losing the war. CSOs should develop and put into practice strategies that embrace the cultural and systemic root causes and learn new ways to influence the political and social systems.
  • The vision of the Great Transition can become an important game changer in the fight to tackle global ecological and social crises if civil society organizations (CSOs) embrace this journey toward a new paradigm.
  • Embedding systems thinking in organizations is essential to confronting complex, interconnected global crises.
  • CSOs should develop strategies and campaigns appealing to the values and frames compatible with a post-consumerism society.
  • CSOs can support the emergence of a global citizen movement for the Great Transition by making critical connections.

Civil society organizations (CSOs) are groups such as developmental and environmental non-governmental organizations (NGOs), community groups, women’s organizations, faith-based organizations, and trade unions. They have had much success in addressing global problems like climate change, food insecurity, drought, resource scarcity, and poverty. But despite the many CSO victories, we are facing an unprecedented environmental and social crisis.

Increasingly, civil society leaders are questioning the efficacy of current strategies and are searching for new ways to tackle the systemic and cultural root causes of global environmental and social crises. Here we discuss a number of key opportunities for CSOs to fulfill their potential as effective change agents.

The Need for a Course Correction

As economic development improves the material conditions of millions, we are moving beyond the earth’s capacity to supply resources such as fresh drinking water and clean air and to absorb waste. The consumption habits of a growing global middle class are intensifying the pressure on the planet’s ecosystems, and the poorest, most vulnerable communities are the most affected (as exemplified by droughts in Africa or floods in Bangladesh).

Local solutions are often insufficient when the causes of climate change, biodiversity loss, and other problems are geographically distant and the effects fall most heavily upon future generations. Conventional approaches to solving global problems break them down into manageable pieces, but the complexity of such problems often leads to unintended consequences somewhere else in the system. Issues are interlinked: a response to one problem can lead to a different problem. For example, the adoption of intensive agriculture to address food scarcity can lead to soil degradation and greenhouse gas emissions.

It is important to ask whether governments, businesses, and CSOs are taking the complexity of economic and ecological systems into account in their responses. The dominant paradigm of free markets and economic growth constrains the actions of governments, businesses, individuals, and other social actors, limiting the development of effective responses to the environmental and social crises we all confront. Governments are reluctant to act, caught between the need for tough remedial action and the short-term imperatives of economic growth. Businesses, due to the nature of financial markets and the pressure to grow shareholder value, are limited in what they can do. Individual consumers’ behavior and motivations are deeply entrenched in social norms and fueled by unhelpful economic incentives; even when people step out of their roles as consumers, they have little individual impact on the structural and cultural dynamics that are driving the crises.

Civil society organizations are a set of social actors that have the potential to tackle global problems. They include well-known NGOs like Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, Oxfam, and Transparency International. CSOs have missions with society’s interests at heart, they make a positive difference, and people trust them. A poll of nearly 5,000 people in 22 countries found that NGOs command trust among 62 percent of the public, more than business, government, or the media.1 Although these organizations have the capacity and mandate to be an important force in confronting intertwined global challenges, many CSOs are recognizing that their current strategies may not be sufficient to address the structural and cultural drivers of today’s crises. A recent survey by the Action Town Project of CSO leaders suggests some core reasons.2

First, most large national and international CSOs tend to pragmatically focus on short-term solutions instead of tackling root causes. This is because of pressure from most funders to make a short-term impact and CSOs’ fear of losing credibility with their base if they demand more systemic shifts. As a consequence, many CSO visions remain based on the assumption that problems can be solved within the existing system. However, this approach often leads to tackling the symptoms in the short run without solving problems in the long run.

Second, much CSO work focuses on national and international advocacy, within a business-as-usual political context that prevents far-reaching societal change. The failure of the Copenhagen summit on climate change in 2009 and the lack of progress at the Rio+20 Earth summit have demonstrated that rational scientific arguments will not be enough to move the global political system to take strong action.

Narberhus_Figure2.jpg
Sterling College
A Great Transition to a sustainable society will only succeed if it lends support to grassroots organizing efforts like 350.org, which spearheaded the world’s most widespread day of political action in history on October 24, 2009.

Third, most large national and international CSOs focus on single issues like climate change, marine protection, or poverty alleviation. This specialization undermines connections across issues and effective collaborations across organizations. A prominent example of this has been the disconnect between human rights organizations that do not take the existence of ecological limits into account in their demands and, from the other direction, environmental organizations that pursue policies that do not take equity and human rights issues sufficiently into account.

With the planet hitting biophysical limits and economic growth failing to alleviate poverty, it has become clear that an issue-by-issue approach within conventional development values and institutional structures is not working. It is not leading us to the path of sustainable and equitable development that we so urgently need: a policy trajectory in which the environment is sustained for current and future generations and the benefits of economic activity are widely and equitably shared.

Such a transition will require broad and deep change across many areas: technology, legislation, economic and governance institutions, social relations, culture, and values. Therefore, CSO strategies must emphasize that a focus on small incremental improvements will not be sufficient and, indeed, might even undermine the possibility of transformative change. Instead, CSOs need urgently to develop and put into practice strategies that embrace the cultural and systemic root causes behind the social and environmental crises of our times.

Leveraging the Full Potential of CSOs

If a narrow policy approach has failed to galvanize enough public support to drive the political will for more radical government action, CSOs need to fundamentally redesign their strategies. This will require that CSOs abandon their current fragmentation and start working toward a common and coherent vision that addresses the root causes of our sustainability crisis, such as human values, lifestyles, and economic structures. With that in mind, CSOs need to rethink and redesign the ways they work, along the lines of the following strategies.

1. Finding a new vision: Nobody knows exactly how we will achieve a sustainable world or what it will look like. There is need for a broad diversity of ideas, approaches, and policies. Indeed, differences in history, culture, geography, and the like will both ensure and require many different visions and pathways. However, the more CSOs can agree on the core values and principles for a transition to sustainability, the more successful they will be as change agents.

The so-called Great Transition constitutes a flexible vision for a sustainable global economy and society. It was originally developed by the Global Scenario Group,3 making a deliberate analogy to The Great Transformation, the book written by Karl Polanyi about the Industrial Revolution.4 The Great Transition implies that deep systemic change, similar to the Industrial Revolution, is what we need now. It demands that societal values and lifestyles, as well as the structures of the current economic system, which are not set in stone, must change if we want to have a serious chance of tackling today’s global crises. The paradigm of the Great Transition has the potential to align a diverse range of CSO sectors, such as developmental and environmental NGOs, community groups, faith-based organizations, and trade unions, under one unifying vision, thereby providing a new source of collective strength.

2. Embedding systems thinking in CSO practice: Adequately addressing pressing global problems like climate change requires understanding the complex interconnections within the wider system of which they are a part. Since neither traditional issue-by-issue approaches nor linear cause-effect analysis are adequate, deeper systemic change in our culture and the economy is needed in order to tackle interconnected sustainability issues. It is therefore essential for success that CSOs start using the variety of systems-thinking tools available to examine overarching structures and develop strategies to navigate system complexity. Examples of such tools are organizational learning processes, individual capacity building, and leadership programs.

Narberhus_Figure3.jpg
Oxfam
To deal with worsening social and environmental trends, national and international civil society organizations will have to collaborate across issues—mending the current disconnect between human rights and ecological degradation, for example. Here, a focused Oxfam water engineer tests water quality from a well.

3. Developing a new narrative: Recognition that a sustainable economy must radically reduce its resource consumption and waste is in tension with the dominant materialistic and individualistic values embedded in today’s unsustainable consumption patterns. However, many current CSO strategies appeal to these dominant values (e.g., through the use of green marketing approaches), with the danger of reinforcing them. CSOs need to become more aware of the important long-term trade-offs of these pragmatic approaches and ultimately align their strategies with emergent sustainability values. Indeed, CSOs can nurture a shift in cultural values by fostering collaboration across the range of different CSO sectors that embody values of community, affiliation, and resilience. Such coalescence can advance a narrative and practice consistent with the principles of the Great Transition: the well-being of society, global empathy, and the rights of future generations.

Mainstream policy discourse opens many windows for CSOs to act together and have an indirect impact on values. Perhaps the most striking example is the current debate in many countries about introducing alternative indicators to gross domestic product (e.g., in France, Germany, Austria, and the United Kingdom). Since national governments increasingly acknowledge that excessive focus on GDP growth hurts rather than helps society and the environment, CSOs should create cross-sector alliances to push governments to take the big step from talking about to implementing new indicators that make well-being and environmental sustainability the key measures of successful development. This would create a key change in the national narrative: from a fixation on economic growth to attention to the many dimensions of societal well-being.

This deep shift in worldview requires overcoming the nature-culture divide by understanding humanity as a part of the environment and nurturing the design of institutions that will suit our increasingly interdependent world. To be effective, the new narrative must inspire and engage, offering a positive long-term societal vision based on equality and well-being rather than on consumer-based growth. In exploring new cultural values and fresh approaches, CSOs face the challenge of moving beyond the status quo. The Great Transition offers an opportunity for CSOs to collaboratively transform their specialized interests and narrow policy expertise through the co-creation of a narrative that aligns different social sectors under an umbrella of common values and principles. This new narrative must speak to the hearts and minds of a large number of people through a creative and compelling story about who we are and where we want to go.

4. Supporting system innovation: A shift toward a Great Transition future will require complex learning processes and fundamental innovations. Due to their narrow and short-term focus, national politics, international negotiations, and large corporations cannot alone deliver this fundamental change of direction. Therefore, CSOs should get more actively involved in catalyzing bottom-up initiatives as well as supporting and linking change agents who otherwise remain isolated in their communities and organizations. For example, larger environmental and development NGOs could support and partner with bottom-up initiatives, helping to cross-fertilize and build movement connectivity.

Initiatives that cultivate system innovation for a new economy and society can be found at all levels: community, city, industry, and government. They promote change by developing new institutions and challenging entrenched attitudes.5 New models of production, consumption, organization, ownership, and governance, developed through bottom-up innovation and rooted in local traditions and resources, are a key element in the story of the Great Transition.

5. Encouraging a new global movement: In the decades following the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, strengthening of grassroots political movements has played a subordinate role to policy advocacy and partnership with governmental agencies and business.6 Yet, during a time of deepening crises, a Great Transition can only succeed with the emergence of a global citizen movement that will “embrace diverse perspectives and existing movements as separate expressions of a common project.”7

Despite the need for synergy, the potential among existing movements is severely limited by current political realities. Social movements seeking to ally in the global justice movement, including indigenous, feminist, labor, peasant, human rights, environmental, and socialist groups, have difficulty moving beyond protest to articulate a common proactive agenda. Issues, priorities, and even goals often conflict. For their part, CSOs have increasingly been transformed from participatory, democratic, and grassroots forums into professional, oligarchic, and nonparticipatory “Astroturf” organizations. This needs to change.

Narberhus_Figure4.jpg
Ford School
Civil society organizations ought to invest in institutions that challenge entrenched behavior, argues the author, and that cultivate new models of production, consumption, and organization. Urban farming in rust belt cities like Detroit, pictured here, is one example along this frontier.

Because it is unlikely that a global citizen movement will spontaneously emerge through bottom-up self-organization, CSOs can play a crucial role on various fronts to help facilitate its birth and development. In order for such a movement to crystallize, civil society must overcome the current “politics of opposition” and develop new models of leadership and collaboration.

For example, the Widening Circle campaign to advance a global citizens movement anticipates a phased process of organizational development, beginning with a relatively small group of committed people, supported by loose networks of individuals and organizations.8 CSOs can support the expansion of these kinds of initiatives by providing resources and expertise. Additionally, large CSO networks can use their combined power and trust to inspire their members and a broader range of citizens toward a global citizen movement.

6. Engaging funders in systemic CSO strategies: CSOs will require funding in order to effectively shift toward systemic strategies This is a major challenge, since one of the main causes of CSO fragmentation is that “the interests of donors and the dynamics of professional organizations tend to favor a narrow issue oriented approach...encouraging NGOs to specialize in delineated niches (or ‘issue silos’).”9 Therefore, CSOs will need to work with change agents in the funding community and make the case for supporting a more comprehensive strategy.

Such a shift will require adapting monitoring and evaluation schemes to align with the requirements of strategies for systemic change, which tend to be longer term and more uncertain than conventional projects. In addition to efforts to broaden the perspectives and adjust the priorities of traditional funding sources, alternative sources of support might gain more prominence (for example, crowd funding, in which people pool money and other resources, usually via the Internet, to support efforts initiated by others).

A Way Forward: The Smart CSOs Lab

CSOs can play a vital role in realizing the potential of the Great Transition. The Smart CSOs Lab was created to pursue this objective. It is a collaborative initiative, with participants from organizations such as Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, Action Aid, Transparency International, the Tellus Institute, and the new economics foundation, among many others. They are working across disciplines in a community of practice to build effective CSO strategies for advancing the Great Transition. The initiative supports CSO leaders and change agents in developing cohesive strategies for CSO campaigns and projects. It is developing and testing capacity-building programs that support staff in enacting these new strategies. The lab is also catalyzing critical research on how CSOs can more effectively influence the social and political systems toward the Great Transition.

The Smart CSOs Lab encourages CSOs to move beyond piecemeal and fragmentary responses to instead developing strategies that align with the social and economic Great Transition. Ultimately the aim is to change the course of CSO strategies so that they contribute to mobilizing a global movement and generating massive political will for deep change. Is it possible to achieve this shift within the closing window of opportunity and the time available? History suggests that at critical moments, cultural values can shift relatively rapidly. In truth, though, we do not know what can be achieved if CSOs across the board start to work, with purpose, on influencing cultural values and promoting a new global paradigm. The size and influence of the CSO sector in many countries gives hope that, with such a program, something significant could be achieved.

Acknowledgments

This article was written with the invaluable assistance of Orion Kriegman, Pamela Pezzati, and Paul Raskin.

References

  1. Edelman. 2010 Edelman Trust Barometer: An Annual Global Opinion Leaders Study [online] (2010). www.edelman.com/trust/2010/.
  2. Church, C., Narberhaus, M., 2009. Identifying knowledge gaps of Civil Society Organisations and needs for insights in SCP. Action Town Survey Report. http://action-town.eu/wp-content/uploads/2009/01/Survey-Report.pdf
  3. Raskin, P et al. Great Transition: The Promise and Lure of the Times Ahead [online] (Tellus Institute, Boston, 2002). www.gtinitiative.org/documents/Great_Transitions.pdf.
  4. Polanyi, K. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time (Beacon Press, Boston, 1944).
  5. Leggewie, C & Welzer, H. Another great transformation? Social and cultural consequences of climate change. Journal of Renewable and Sustainable Energy 2(3), 031009-1 to 031009-12 (2010).
  6. Speth, J. The Bridge at the End of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and the Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability (Yale University Press, New York, 2008).
  7. Raskin, P in The Coming Transformation: Values to Sustain Human and Natural Communities (Kellert, S & Speth, G, eds), Planetary praxis (Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, New Haven, CT, 2010).
  8. Raskin, P. Imagine all the people: advancing a global citizens movement. GTI Perspectives on Critical Issues [online] (2010). www.gtinitiative.org/documents/IssuePerspectives/GTI-Perspectives-Imagin....
  9. Kriegman, O. Dawn of the Cosmopolitan: The Hope of a Global Citizens Movement [online] GTI Paper Series (Tellus Institue, Boston, 2006). www.gtinitiative.org/documents/PDFFINALS/15Movements.pdf.
Michael Narberhaus Founder, SMART CSOs Lab
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Comments (1)

Encouraging the Search for Tipping Point Strategies

It did not take a long time of skimming Michael Narberhaus’ article “Breaking Out of the Systems Trap”: Civil Society Organizations” before I felt that he had a “big picture” view that I have rarely seen, and that I am much in agreement with. I am writing this response to the “Breaking Out…” article to identify points of agreement, and to offer some resources to the Smart CSOs Lab (a “solutions” initiative, featured at the end of the “Breaking Out…” article).

Excerpts from the “Breaking Out…” article (emphasizing the need for new strategies)

Here are six excerpts from the article, which illustrate “big picture” insight, and emphasize the need to develop “new ways to tackle the systemic and cultural root causes“, and “strategies to navigate system complexity”.

“But despite the many CSO victories, we are facing an unprecedented environmental and social crisis. Increasingly, civil society leaders are questioning the efficacy of current strategies and are searching for new ways to tackle the systemic and cultural root causes of global environmental and social crises.”

“The dominant paradigm of free markets and economic growth constrains the actions of governments, businesses, individuals, and other social actors, limiting the development of effective responses to the environmental and social crises we all confront.”

“Second, much CSO work focuses on national and international advocacy, within a business-as-usual political context that prevents far-reaching societal change. The failure of the Copenhagen summit on climate change in 2009 and the lack of progress at the Rio+20 Earth summit have demonstrated that rational scientific arguments will not be enough to move the global political system to take strong action.”

“This specialization undermines connections across issues and effective collaborations across organizations. A prominent example of this has been the disconnect between human rights organizations that do not take the existence of ecological limits into account in their demands and, from the other direction, environmental organizations that pursue policies that do not take equity and human rights issues sufficiently into account.”

“Since neither traditional issue-by-issue approaches nor linear cause-effect analysis are adequate, deeper systemic change in our culture and the economy is needed in order to tackle interconnected sustainability issues. It is therefore essential for success that CSOs start using the variety of systems-thinking tools available to examine overarching structures and develop strategies to navigate system complexity.”

This “Breaking Out of the Systems Trap…” article ends with advocacy for “The Smart CSOs Lab” (at http://www.smart-csos.org/ ).

“The initiative supports CSO leaders and change agents in developing cohesive strategies for CSO campaigns and projects. It is developing and testing capacity-building programs that support staff in enacting these new strategies.”

Resources Which May Be Useful to the Smart CSOs Lab

Because I am in agreement with the need for new strategies, and because I would like to encourage people who are seeking out tipping point strategies (like the people at Smart CSOs Lab), I would like to offer some resources to the people at the Smart CSOs Lab. I believe much of the work I have done in building The Interfaith Peacebuilding and Community Revitalization (IPCR) Initiative (at www.ipcri.net ) recognizes similar “big picture” challenges (Ex: see the last page of the "Community Visioning Initiatives or General Elections?" document, at "IPCR Outreach 2012" webpage). I also believe that The IPCR Initiative emphasizes strategies for “growing into” a new paradigm, rather than developing a blueprint for a new paradigm, and then trying to build consensus for it—and that the "growing into" strategy may turn out to be a key tipping point strategy for the “Great Transition”.

Here are excerpts from three key IPCR documents, which I hope will be enough to illustrate that there are IPCR resources which can be helpful to the people at the Smart CSOs Lab.

From “A Brief Introduction to the IPCR Initiative” (1 page)
(accessible from the webpage for “IPCR Outreach 2012” at http://www.ipcri.net/IPCR-Outreach-2012.html )

The beliefs that there is a critical need for an exponential increase in compassion for our fellow human beings—and that at no other time in history has there been more potential for such an increase—have urged and inspired The Interfaith Peacebuilding and Community Revitalization (IPCR) Initiative (www.ipcri.net ) to explore how such potential might be realized. This exploration has identified a set of critical challenges which require problem solving on a scale most of us have never known before (see “IPCR Critical Challenges Assessment 2011-2012: Summary Report” on the IPCR homepage), and a “constellations of initiatives” approach to resolving the critical challenges identified (detailed in the “Summary Report” Appendix). The IPCR Initiative advocates for a combination of preliminary surveys to 150 local leaders, time-intensive Community Visioning Initiatives supported by many “Community Teaching and Learning Centers” (offering workshops suggested by the preliminary surveys), and “sister community” relationships as a way of creating local community specific and regional specific “constellations of initiatives”.

From “Community Visioning Initiatives or General Elections?” (9 pages) (accessible from the webpage for “IPCR Outreach 2012” at http://www.ipcri.net/IPCR-Outreach-2012.html )

One special value of the IPCR “constellations of initiatives” approach is that it encourages an “organic” approach to problem solving, peacebuilding and community revitalization: i.e. the process begins from wherever the community is, and proceeds to whatever emerges from Community Visioning Initiatives as the solution pathways preferred by the residents of each particular community. There is no need for consensus on a blueprint for a model community to carry out a Community Visioning Initiative. The idea of the Community Visioning Initiative is to maximize citizen participation in identifying challenges, and in solution-oriented activity—and to (thus) grow the project “organically”.

A continued emphasis on the basic themes of a Community Visioning Initiative—maximizing citizen participation in identifying challenges, and in solution-oriented activity—will, even in a matter of a few years, bring communities back into alignment with the realities of the times… and it will do so at a pace which is workable for those particular local residents, it will add valuable knowledge and skill sets relating to problem solving as a team, and it will give local residents many more opportunities to encourage and support each other in the everyday circumstances of community life.

In addition, when local community specific narratives are “grown organically” by the processes described above, such narratives are much more likely to be aware of, and responsive to, local specific needs and challenges, much more likely to maximize citizen participation and create solution-oriented momentum, and much more likely to inspire commitments of time, energy, and financial support.

There can be much very useful public discourse on how to create effective local Community Visioning Initiatives, of the kind which can succeed in turning polarizing circumstances into collaborative efforts (and thus make best use of the knowledge and skills each one of us has), and which can create, develop, and accelerate a full array of solution-oriented activity.

From “ A Four Page Summary of The IPCR Initiative”
(accessible from the IPCR Initiative homepage, at www.ipcri.net )

We must be honest with ourselves about what is going on: people who are not sufficiently informed about critical issues are everywhere, and they are investing their time, energy, and money—voting—all the time… and yet…an exponential increase in compassion for our fellow human beings is not, currently, widely recognized as an essential and critical element of truly comprehensive response to the challenges of our times. (One of the most persistent ironies in life is that with so many opportunities to provide real assistance to fellow human beings—and with the potential for such assistance to result in happiness “to those who extend help as well as to those who receive it”—there are still many, many people in this world who cannot find a “way to earn a living” providing such assistance.) This writer believes that there are many serious challenges before us now, and that we will need to invest our time, energy, and money very wisely to overcome these challenges. How can we do it? We must help each other.

Concluding Comments

Though this may seem like a long response to the “Breaking Out of the Systems Trap…” article, we live in a complex world, and there are many challenges ahead which will require problem solving on a scale most of us have never known before. The kind of problem solving which will work best has yet to be discovered. Many experiments will be needed. Initiatives like “The Smart CSOs Lab” should be encouraged, as we will need many people to identify strategies for campaigns and projects, and many people to test capacity building programs, before we can have some insight into what is creating solution-oriented momentum. There are no easy solutions. However, there are many ways to find, to fine-tune, and to implement the kind of strategies which will help us manage a transition from dysfunctional systems which are very complex to functioning systems which are much less complex. And there are many ways people at the local community level can contribute to such a transition...[Yes, it is true that most of the critical challenges ahead are very complex, and thus it will be best if people making decisions at the local community level sift through some of the evidence. But their motive for sifting through some of the evidence need not be understood as part of studying for a Ph.D on the subject, or as part of deciding how to “vote” for a particular candidate in elections. From this writer’s point of view, it would be best if their motive was so they can make informed decisions regarding how they invest their time, energy, and money in the everyday circumstances of their daily lives.]

The best strategies for such a transition will inspire a high level of citizen participation at the local community level, turn polarizing circumstances into collaborative efforts (and thus make best use of the knowledge and skills each one of us has), and give local residents many more opportunities to encourage and support each other in the everyday circumstances of community life. A key tipping point will be the level of trust the new problem solving systems inspire… and as long as citizens at the local community level can have a high level of trust in the new problem solving systems they are contributing to, it will be a vast improvement over the problem solving systems we have now.