6 ways Southern Civil Society Organizations interact with marginalized groups; 4 ways they deal with closing civic space

February 24, 2020

     By Duncan Green     

Some interesting research on the realities of CSOs in the Global South and their interaction with the aid sector is coming out of the Netherlands (see last week’s post for more on this theme). Check out this new paper by the ‘Civil Society Research Collective’ – Margit van Wessel, Suparana Katyaini, Yogesh Mishra, Farhat Naz, B. Rajeshwari, Rita Manchanda, Reetika Syal, Nandini Deo and Sarbeswar Sahoo.

The research questions are:

  • How do different types of CSOs seeking to represent vulnerable and marginalized sections of Indian society construct their roles as representatives?
  • How do different types of CSOs seeking to represent vulnerable and marginalized sections of Indian society construct their roles in collaborations with other CSOs?
  • How do interactions with the state shape the roles of CSOs seeking to represent vulnerable and marginalized sections of Indian society?

The paper explores CSO representation, collaboration and interaction with the state in two areas – Disaster Risk Reduction and the rights of marginalized groups. The resulting findings are a bit mixed – some genuine insights, combined with a few fairly standard ‘it’s all context specific; gosh they’re all different’ platitudes.

There is a v helpful 6-fold typology of CSO forms of representation:

‘Organizations that identify their form of representation as that of observers value their long-term associations with communities, building a local presence and emphasizing their accessibility to community members. In collaboration with other CSOs, observers empower vulnerable people to access resources intended for them and to take control over decisions affecting their lives. Seeking social transformation, observers represent the needs and interests of groups facing social exclusion (e.g. indigenous groups/tribal people, groups facing caste-based discrimination, and women from multiple social groups). This is done to advance ‘social inclusion’ in policies and plans at state and national levels, largely in invited spaces and to some extent in invented spaces of interaction with the state.

Organizations that identify their form of representation as grassroots technical value priorities at the grassroots level and use diverse forms of technical expertise (i.e. architectural, engineering, or livelihood expertise) to advance these priorities. The identification of grassroots priorities is enabled by having members of the community as members of the organization. These CSOs empower vulnerable people to leverage resources from the state’s social safety net schemes concerning issues where technical expertise plays an instrumental role, such as housing and livelihoods. Interactions with the state are predominantly in invented/claimed spaces, involving collaboration with other CSOs and directing continuous effort towards demonstrating the relevance of their technical expertise to achieve grassroots priorities using state policy provisions (i.e. resources from social safety net schemes).

Organizations that identify themselves as knowledge brokers/partners value various knowledge systems and strive to ‘empower with’ people, working together to enable socially disadvantaged groups to access knowledge by engaging with both vulnerable and non-vulnerable groups. To access vulnerable people’s knowledge, knowledge partners have to build trust and relations with the community over time. Knowledge partners seek to overcome the power relations in society that restrict disadvantaged groups’ access to knowledge. They build vulnerable people’s capacity to be knowledge carriers and representatives themselves. In collaboration with other CSOs, knowledge brokers/partners influence change towards the inclusion of the knowledge of vulnerable people and experts on community practices and policies, largely through interaction with the state in invented/claimed spaces.

Organizations that identify themselves as facilitators value the inclusion of diverse perspectives in networks and collaborative efforts to address the multidimensionality of disaster risk. They facilitate interactions among different and complementary CSOs in a network to help CSOs access each other’s resources and capacities. They also facilitate vulnerable groups’ access to social safety net schemes by empowering them to make use of these schemes, and seek to facilitate groups’ self-representation. They do this for example by creating space for this self-representation in local meetings, where certain caste groups or women tend to be excluded. Facilitators link with communities through community members selected by the CSOs as community representatives.

Organizations that see their role as that of sensitizers value the rights and entitlements of historically excluded and disadvantaged groups (e.g. Dalits and Mahadalits) and work to empower these groups ‘from within’, building their self-esteem and awareness of their rights and entitlements. Sensitizers aim to address persistent and historic caste-based discrimination in the pursuit of social change towards equality through inclusion in development. Sensitizers’ sphere of influence is largely at the level of communities and local governing agencies, and they work in collaboration with facilitators.

Organizations that identify themselves as advisors value the interpretation of international-, national-, and state-level policies to inform actions where disaster strikes. In invited interactions with the state and other stakeholders, advisors give visibility to the issues of indigenous groups, religious minorities, and ‘invisible’ groups (e.g. migrants) who otherwise lack the required resources and capacity to attain representation in policy processes. Advisors’ engagement with communities is through direct interaction. Advisors interact with other CSOs, refraining, however, from engaging in formal collaborations.

The findings on the second issue – collaboration, fall more into the ho hum category of standard observations.

The third research topic – state-civil society interactions, has a bit more substance, and includes this nice graphic on how the state assesses CSOs:

‘CSOs associated with ‘voluntarism’ and democratic claims-making for the poor and marginalized are being displaced. In their place, there is an expansion of the involvement of technocratic management companies and corporate social responsibility actors in the civic sector….

However, even as the state closes and controls space for civic action, CSOs devise strategies to engage in the struggle for civic space in various ways:

1. Working multiple circles of power and through multiple entry points. Understanding that the state is not a monolith and that India’s quasi-federalism, with its three-tiered power structure, offers opportunities through multiple levels and layers of lateral contact. Access to national-level power can be used to offset opposition from provincial/state-level fields of power. Local, community-based power can serve as a bulwark in contesting top-down state domination.

2. Leveraging connections. Civil society professionals/activists are able to tap into common social and professional networks. Belonging to a shared ‘elite’ culture, they can use ‘insider’ access or become state actors as part of the ‘revolving door’ phenomenon, nurturing and building relations with political allies.

3. Developing multiple identities. CSOs faced with displacement may shift their focus, re-inventing their roles and relevance in project delivery/advocacy programmes by identifying gaps in civic action and mobilizing new community-based constituencies around new issue areas or framing their roles and agendas in a way that minimizes the appearance of threat to the state.

4. Juggling platforms. Making use of the diversity of the civil society sphere, which comprises formal CSOs as well as informal platforms of alliances, campaigns, and movements. Formal CSOs carrying out funded projects within state-set parameters have sometimes simultaneously floated independent, non-registered radical platforms, juggling between the two. In this way, formal CSOs have been involved in social movements confronting the state by demanding accountability and policy change and providing quiet support for convening, logistical funding, and research skills.’

A couple of caveats: By focussing exclusively on India (Delhi + 3 states – Gujarat, Bihar and Jharkhand) the findings may be of limited relevance elsewhere – it’s a bit of an outlier in terms of active civil societies. And I could not see any discussion of the extent to which the political economy of aid allows any of their ensuing recommendations to be put into practice. But a useful paper nonetheless.

February 24, 2020
Duncan Green