Read a new successor to this piece, “challenges for civil society in 2020 – and opportunities to do something about it”

By Brian Pratt.

In no particular order, here are eight challenges for civil society for you to think about.

1) The reversal of 20 years of increased funding for development NGOs from official donors. There will be exceptions, but the trends in some of the previously most generous official donors such as the Dutch, plus the withdrawal from many countries that previously received aid, shows a pattern of reduced resources for the aided section of civil society – especially for both developing and developed country NGOs whom for a generation have been dependent on such funding.

2) The contracting culture is now being taken over by for-profit companies, in areas many NGOs assumed were ring fenced for them.

The expansion of privatisation of welfare, health and education globally has led to new entrants from the private sector. International aid has seen a similar process, with companies branching out from their comfort zones of finance and construction into civil society, education, health, and rural development – with some even learning how to masquerade as ersatz civil society groups to project a cuddly image. There will be more manoeuvring between NGOs and official aid agencies as we close in on 2015, when for many development goals will be reviewed and revised.

3) There is a chronic generational stagnation in many NGO sectors. This shows up even more strongly when compared to the new energy from civil society groups which are emerging from citizen action and challenging illegitimate authorities, repressive governments, and abuses of power by governments and private sector. The new generation uses different methods (social networking, online petitions, direct action and protests) and relies on volunteers rather than formal organisations, boards, and professional staff

There is a generation of NGO leaders who have known nothing except relatively easy funding and professional full-time NGO work This which is set to change, and indeed is already changing. There will undoubtedly be winners and losers. The general financial stagnation will increasingly drag in countries that previously were not directly affected – both from the developed world and the faster growing emerging economies where growth will, and indeed already is, faltering.

4) If the 1980s were the end of the Cold War and demise of Marxism as a major alternative to capitalism, the 1990s were around democratisation and 2000s the consolidation of the less acceptable elements of the free market. The actions of financial organisations destroyed the security of many, reduced governments to penury, and took resources from citizens to rebuild the very institutions which created the crisis.

But where are the thought-out alternatives these days? Do they lie with the emerging new civil society groups? The very basis of democracy internationally has been challenged by “companies and banks too big to fail”. Civil society has yet to address how citizens can engage with this change in power relations.

5) It is not much use to look to universities for the alternative ideas; they seemed to have stepped back from the exploration of grand narratives and taken refuge in the micro, and in post-hoc rationalisation and policy-driven evidence collection that is politically acceptable to government funders.

The decline of economics into the micro and mathematical left it exposed and unprepared for the economic changes of the past three years. There is little evidence that they will regain their position of being able to explain to us what has happened and how to deal with it! Meanwhile, political study at best talks about governance, but all too often reduces this to public administrative reform, avoiding difficult political decisions and conflicts of interest. This leaves many of us looking for new sources of debate and discussions.

6) Civil society must regain the higher moral ground by direct citizen action and questioning the political causes of poverty, rather than play the game of accommodation with those maintaining the status quo and denying those causes. Helping alleviate the worse aspects of human suffering through, for example, emergency aid, is an important role, but let us not confuse this with confronting the causes of this suffering – whether those causes are directly political through elite capture of power and wealth, or a failure to act on those aspects of climate which could reduce the increased “natural causes” of emergencies.

Some of the largest NGOs still claim to be representing civil society, but are in fact heavily funded by official donors to provide humanitarian programmes. As such they often stand accused of avoiding the real issues around the causes of poverty, inequality and injustice. Meanwhile we will watch with interest whether civil society can help movements such as the Arab Spring finally reach a positive set of solutions for people frustrated by the status quo.

7) In 2013 we will see another year of changes which challenge civil society; from the resources issue which probably dominates too much the thinking of boards and CEOs, to questions over priorities, roles, and visions of the future. Meanwhile new groups will overtake those older groups failing to adjust to the realities of the day. We would expect new examples of citizens coming together to confront poor governance and endemic structural causes of poverty, to challenge illegitimate actions by the state, and to seek alliances with some private sector groups whilst looking to curb the excesses of others.

Having recently been to the closing ceremony of one large Dutch NGO, I realised the courage it takes to make a clean break and close down in an orderly manner, rather than die a slow lingering death with no real plan once their real role had come to an end.

8) What will be exciting in 2013 is where civil society is challenging undemocratic governments and those that have gone beyond their remit and the law. It will be often young people looking for alternative ways of working, challenging and constructing new futures. It will be the continued reduction of autocracy and the slow, sometimes painful, rebuilding of societies. It will be about learning to live sustainably within the means of the planet. It will be about celebrating people power, not the greed and selfish behaviour of a global minority holding too many citizens to ransom.

For me this is more important than whether we add another couple of things to the MDG wish list. The real issues of inequality, global environmental challenges, continuing constraints on freedom will exist alongside the ebb and flow of new political formations and faces – a new leadership in China, Barack Obama’s re-election, debates on the future of Europe, protests against a corrupt and dated elite in India, a call for renewal in South Africa – the challenges are immense for civil society and humanity generally.