Civil Society's Time Has Come -- as an Enabler and Constructive Challenger

In the past decade it seems that the world has passed an important tipping point linked to citizen engagement. Populations today are acutely aware, globally connected, increasingly educated and willing to act on local and international issues. As a result, civil society is more dynamic and influential than at almost any point in history. But equally, in a turbulent global environment, civil society is rapidly evolving in terms of structure and roles.

The experiences of the past two years have demonstrated that inequality and social and political inclusion are once again powerful drivers of protest, while the mobile revolution has transformed the way citizens interact with business, government and international organizations. More and more businesses are actively engaging with social and environmental challenges. Some governments have responded with new mechanisms for engaging civil society actors, while others have put in place new restrictions intended to stifle them.

As powerful trends shift the roles that actors play, old structures and ways of working are being fundamentally challenged. This is as true for traditional civil society organizations as it is for businesses, international organizations and states whose models of engagement are optimized for passive, individually-focused consumers and citizens. Thus, current global governance is widely viewed as no longer fit for purpose; sources of capital are unstable; demands for accountability, transparency and measurement of impact are multiplying; and almost everyone is struggling to connect meaningfully with younger generations.

The World Economic Forum has been interviewing and convening experts across civil society, business, government and international organizations over the past eight months to explore the challenges and opportunities that these shifts are creating. A central question that emerges is what the changing context means for how stakeholders address common societal issues.
Some of the results of this work are presented in the Forum's The Future Role of Civil Society report, released on Tuesday during the Annual Meeting in Davos-Klosters. The report highlights the pressure for civil society to balance the role of facilitator, collaborator and enabler on the one hand, with that of being a constructive challenger across sectors on the other hand. An element covered by the report is the increasing recognition of the importance of the role of faith in delivering social capital and services, with a look at emerging models of engagement with faith groups that some governments are taking to build on this value.

An example of the sector-spanning work being pursued by civil society actors from the faith sector, is the recent united effort between faith organizations, business and government to target the high-profile issue of immigration in US politics. In its June 2012 report, Voices of the New Consensus: Bibles, Badges and Business, the National Immigration Forum outlined elements of a consensus between faith groups, law enforcement and business leaders around a legislative agenda for immigration reform that has profound policy, social and economic implications.

Other examples of the emerging set of high-level, cross-sectoral initiatives include the joint initiative of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), and the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC) to represent a coalition of leading businesses committed to sustainable development in the United Nations RIO+20 process; the World Economic Forum's Friends of Rio+20 group; the B20 summit and taskforces to provide recommendations to government leaders of the G20; and the appointment of Unilever Chief Executive Officer Paul Polman to the UN High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons on Post-2015 Development Agenda.

It is precisely in this space between sectors and across stakeholders that civil society has the opportunity and ability to create social resilience while driving agendas forward, engaging with business and government in ways that enable it to effectively inspire and support innovative change at multiple levels.

This is not to say that the future context demands that civil society actors become best friends with business and governments. Civil society actors should hold on to the value they provide by constructively challenging other sectors and one another, representing those with little voice and looking for transformative opportunities, even as they work across traditional boundaries. Civil society plays a key role in modelling the kind of organizations, individuals, movements and partnerships that are built on trust, commitment, a sense of service and a focus on the collective good. In all its forms, civil society can continue to hold all stakeholders, including itself, to the highest levels of accountability, helping other sectors to realize the value of challenging the status quo and pushing for change.

Just as current roles of civil society actors vary widely in the turbulent present across and within different countries and cultures, the future roles of civil society will be multiple and diverse. However, factors such as technological change, demographic shifts, environmental pressures and continuing political and economic uncertainty suggest that these roles will gain in importance and impact, and that new engagement models and balancing acts will be needed. As one of our project participants declared, "Civil society's time has come."