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KEY LESSONS LEARNED ON PRACTICES AND STRATEGIES FOR BUILDING AND STRENGTHENING TRANSNATIONAL CIVIL SOCIETY

 

Memo submitted by Ghassan Moukheiber[1]
to the BTSC Conference – Hauser Center, January 2001
 
 
My experience with transnational non-profit action and with the so-called “Transnational Civil Society” was gained mostly through the successive involvement with the following associations: (i) the executive committee of the “World Alliance of Young Men Christian Associations”, (an organization incorporated and based in Geneva, including all national YMCAs of the world); (ii) the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network (an incorporated multiple-issue organization including a selective number of members that are Arab and European human-rights NGOs and activists); and (iii) the “Arab Initiative for the Freedom of Association” (an unincorporated single-issue loose network of individuals and organizations acting for the protection and the promotion of the freedom of associations in the Arab countries). The opinions expressed hereafter will draw essentially from the lessons learned from establishing and coordinating the latter “Arab Initiative”, rather from any written piece of literature.
 
The three experiences listed above suffice me to first pose the issue of defining and understanding Transnational Civil Society, even if the later is merely considered as emerging. Civil Society itself is already quite difficult to define and to understand in the context of a given society or state; this becomes all the more difficult to do at the transnational level. I will distinguish -- at least for the purpose of this short paper -- between Transnational Non-Profit Organization (TNPO) and Transnational Civil Society (TCS):
 
-          The former (i.e. TNPO) will refer to the association (whether incorporated or not) of persons and/or organizations that share the same non-profit object/mission and that works in more than one country and/or that draws its membership therefrom. These associations would typically take the functions of NGO federations or networks, more-or-less loosely/formally organized. They are the equivalent of domestic NGOs, coalitions and networks. This TNPO concept is therefore more institution/organization oriented.
 
-          And the latter (i.e. TCS), would rather refer to the system/web of national NGOs, individuals and TNPOs that interact, at the transnational level, with each other, with governments or with intergovernmental and semi-governmental organizations (e.g. United Nations, World Bank, WTO … etc.). This TCS concept is therefore more process oriented.
 
My comments will therefore address a selection of issues raised by, and lessons learned from, both establishing and running TNPOs and participating in transnational activities within the TCS.
1.         Why get involved at transnational level?
Why should one spend time, efforts and resources to form a TNPO or participate in transnational activities? This is the first question that was very pertinent for someone, like myself, who has long been committed to act locally within the confines of a single country. Experience has highlighted the following three main motives, with some caveats. It also seems to me that the first two motives are most relevant to service-oriented organizations, while the third is most relevant to advocacy-oriented organizations.
a.         To share experiences, ideas and resources where these are limited or not available locally: This motive is probably the one that can have the most direct impact on local action. It was sharing the Lebanese experience in advocating for the freedom of association that called first for the spreading of similar action to other Arab countries. Good practices in one country can be useful in giving others similar ideas while quickly learning from mistakes. Expertise and resources can also be shared transnationally in order not to duplicate efforts and resources where these can be scarce (e.g. organize training workshops, publish documents and materials).
b.         To advance research and understanding of issues of joint interest: a transnational perspective can also be useful in developing common standards that can later make joint action more efficient and effective (e.g. developing the “Principles and criteria for the freedom of Association” was core and essential to the Arab Initiative). However, one must present a caveat here: transnational involvement should not lose touch with reality and the ultimate goals of local/domestic action. Also, meetings should not merely become opportunities for officers of local NGOs to attend intellectually challenging conferences organized in interesting places aound the word, meet donors and fellow NGO friends. When the impact of meetings is not felt at domestic level, this might challenge the very usefulness of transnational action.
c.         To empower and provide a stronger front: it is believed (and also felt) that the larger the number of participating organizations and individuals, the greater the power and contacts that can be deployed in advocacy activities to face local governments as well as intergovernmental organizations. At least, such increase in numbers may afford a psychological assurance and the feeling of security and support that comes with it; very much like the visual impression that is given by small fish swimming in a large school. The stronger front may also be required to better attract funds and funders, who seem increasingly more concerned to better allocate funds and resources, in what is believed to be a more efficient use of financial resources (i.e. the transnationally coordinated action).
Depending on their motives for transnational action, and depending on their goals, national activists (individuals or NGOs) would become engaged within Transnational Civil Society, most often participating through a TNPO, that will be set-up and operated depending on these motives and goals. The effectiveness of such action will very much depend on the quality of their establishment and organizational structure as well as on the dynamics of their interaction with their own members and other parties and partners, i.e. other TNPOs, funders, governements and inter-governmnetal organizations.
2.         How to establish and operate a Transnational Non-Profit Organization?
There are a great number of lessons to be learned at the transnational level from the successes and failures in building and strengthening NGOs and their networks at the domestic/national level. In that sense, almost the same lessons and skills can be transposed from the local to the transnational level. However, these lessons must be put in the context of a number of factors that are impacted by, or specific to, the transnational nature of the establishing and operating TNPOs. The following is a list of selected issues that need to be properly addressed.
a.         Regional Vs. Global Georgraphic Scope: the global arena faces activists with a more diverse/different environment on any grounds, e.g. culture, language, politics and law. One can single-out language as an obstacle for effective communication, despite the widespread use of English as the emerging “Lingua Franca”. Therefore, organizing non-profit action at regional level seems to be most effective and efficient, compared to global action, on all counts. It makes meetings easier and less expensive (e.g. cuts on tavel and translation costs). It also sets the stage for action at a more manageable level. The global aspects of the activities (if need be) would be achieved by an appropriate coordination between regional TNPOs and global TNPOs.
b.         Organizational Structure: The structure of the TNPO is a strategic choice that must take into consideration the level of advancement and/or formation of the association’s identity. There could be several organizational forms: (i) coordination meetings or conferences, that help gather, over time, the potential members and strart creating a definition of goals, action strategies and group identity; (ii) an unincorporated association serving the functions of coordination for the discharging of one or more activities decided by the emerging TNPO and/or eventually preparing for its incorporation; (iii) an incorporated organization acting for the coordination of activities as well as for the implementation of specific projects and actions. The most careful (and successful) approach will be to move sequentially from the less structured/organized form to the more structured one. Attention will be given to the most favorable legal and regulatory environment in which such organization will be established as well as cost effectiveness (e.g. centrally located forum facilitating travel). The most important criteria being that it may enjoy to the fullest extent possible, freedom of association, speech and action. Also, great attention will be given as well to the drafting of the most appropriate by-laws that will establish good democratic governance, transparency and accountability for the TNPO.
c.         Membership: a good selection of members is key to the success of any organization. At transnational level, there is a relative relative lack of information about existing local organizations/individuals, their effectiveness and legitimacy within the context of their own societies. The selection of the TNPO members (particularly at the inception of a movement) must therefore be done carefully, taking into consideration the “legitimacy”, representativity, effectiveness, and credibility of the member organizations and/or person, while avoiding to the greatest possible extent, all ego and personality problems. Organizing first a series of meetings or conferences can help in making the most appropriate selection of potential members as well as developing a “group identity” and friendships that can be very useful for the success of any joint future action. The driving core-group of founders must feel collective ownership of the establishment process. The later adhesion of new members must be open, flexible as well as carefully and appropriately set, with a clear, transparent and fair adhesion process that also favors openness and interaction with other TNPOs. In many instances, prticulary in advocacy oriented activities, it is feared that some TNPOs turn into closed clubs, particularly due to the heightened ego-related problems at transnational level, generated by the race to “prestige” and access to sources of “power” and funds. The same comments equally apply to membership of governing bodies and TNPO executive offices.
d.         Multi-National Representation: The countries and/or regions (including the North/South balance) that are concerned by the action of any given TNPO must be equitably represented, both at the level of general membership and at the level of executive bodies and offices. Where a change in balance becomes necessary or useful, corrective measures should be considered and introduced.
e.         Effective Communication and Interaction Between Members: this is essential to make the coordinated action of the TNPO members more effective and efficient. In both national and transnational contexts, the best context for such effective interaction are physical meetings. However, their frequency at transnational level is limited in proportion to the financial resources to be invested in travel. This is why every opportunity for transnational meeting must be seized, even if covered by more than one funder. TNPOs might also use cheaper alternatives to meetings, such as conference calls and e-mail correspondence and discussion groups. However, the same quality of dynamics cannot be achieved by telephone and e-mails alone. A technical question could be asked here: would Internet chat meetings or video-conferencing, that are afforded by the development of technology, be a viable alternative?
 
3.         How to Engage into a Successful Transnational Interaction?
The success of action at the level of Transnational Civil Society will be very much contingent upon a successful engagement of the process of interaction with other entities, particularly other TNPOs, funders, governements and inter-governemental organizations. The “political profile” of such entities and organizations must be carefully weighted in light of the strategies of the concerned TNPOs. Depending on their goals and strategies, there would be “good” allies and “bad” allies.
a.         Interaction Between TNPOs: alliances, mutual assistance and the coordination of projects are essential ingredients for success. Newly established international or regional TPNOs can usefully benefit from the experience and assistance of other well established TNPOs, e.g. to add effectiveness and legitimacy to their action, gain insight into potential members and share information and know-how. Indeed, joining forces, in whatsoever shape and form can serve the motives discussed earlier about why getting involved at transnational level. However, the “culture of cooperation” still needs to be promoted and reinforced at transnational level, as more TNPOs tend to act rather in a spirit competition. In the cases where the lack of cooperation and coordination is caused by ignorance, one can improve on the knowledge of the existing various actors of the TCS as well as on the existing communication channels between them.
b.         Interaction with Governments: If the goal of the TNPO is advocacy, then governements are their primary targets. As is often the case, the intervention of TNPOs in domestic issues in a given country will be faced with criticisms of foreign interference in domestic affairs (e.g. human rights issues). Many lessons need to be drawn on how best to handle this type of criticsm. For instance, the intervention of regional TNPOs seems to be more accepted, or at least easier to defend and promote (e.g. south/south advocacy, rather than north/south).
c.         Interaction with Inter-governmental oranizations: If the goal of the TNPO is advocacy on international/regional issues, it will have to face existing organizations that have different or opposing agendas and goals. Most particularly, it will have to deal with inter-governmental organizations, whether as foes or as allies. In this context as well, almost the same dynamics of advocacy at local/domestic level can be found transposed at transnational level.
d.         Interaction with Funders: the latter can be other TNPOs, governmental agencies or inter-governmental organizations; therefore, the same comments made above would equally apply to funders in terms of interaction dynamics. However, it must be pointed out to special issues that can arise because of the differing strategies and policies which each donors and TNPOs may have. For instance, donors seem to me more focused on relatively “short-term investments” such as conferences, whose proceedings can provide a quick result to show in reports. For as important and useful as these conferences may be, one should not lose focus on local action. Meetings at transnational level should better be concerned with the planning and follow-up of locally implemented action, or even internationally if such action can have local impact. Some degree of coordination among funders must be therefore undertaken in order to assist the long-term efforts of TNPOs; this effort becomes as important as the coordination of action between the latter. Also, TNPOs need to establish an open and responsive dialogue with funders, in order to efficently match the needs of TNPOs with the resources of funders and in order to lead them into adopting strategies and policies that are conducive to the establishment of a sustainable transnational action.
 
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III.       Critical challenges that transnational civil society practitioners are currently facing which may be addressed by future scholarship and research:
1.         List, analyze and critically discuss the definitions of civil society and transnational civil society that are adopted by the various authors, research centers, funders and intergovernmental organizations. This assumes that each of the latter entities may have a definition that serves its own bias or policy.
2.         Publish case studies of successes and failures of TNPOs in order to better learn from these experiences. Some successes may be used as models.
3.         Analyze the dynamics and factors that are specific to transnational activities and organizations, and devise ways, processes and models that may improve on the efficiency and effectiveness of the TCS processes and TNPO organizational structures.
4.         Recognize and study the impact of the lack or weak freedom of association on the development of civil society (both domestic and transnational).
5.         Develop minimal standards for the freedom of association that should be internationally recognized and effectively protected, and that would later become appropriately enshrined in an international treaty.
 
IV.       Types of “toolkits” and activities that are or might be useful to transnational civil society practitioners and activists:
1.         Develop a guide for the establishment of TNPOs, with a list of recommendations and ideas (e.g. how to? what not to?).
2.         Publish a synoptical presentation of the legal frameworks of NGOs around the world.
3.         Develop and publish model TNPO statutes and By-laws, in addition to programs for training in drafting and adapting them to particular needs and contexts.
4.         Publish an address book of TNPOs, funders, organizations and other contacts that are active at the transnational level, with entries arranged by types of activities and geographic scope.
5.         Multiply international forae and opportunities for coordination and cooperation. Publish the dates of existing or planned meetings.
 


[1] Lawyer; President of the Lebanese “Association for the Defense of Rights and Freedoms”; Coordinator of the “Arab Initiative for the Freedom of Association”.



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