We are 60 diverse young people from all continents of the world who met in Rustler’s Valley, South Africa from November 16 to 19, 2014 to discuss the state of civil society around the world and consider our role as young people within it. We do not claim to speak for all youth, or for the diverse views from within our own countries, but rather we seek to lend our voices to the on-going debate about the role of civil society in the social, political and economic transformation of the world. We also want to respond to and further develop the conversation begun by the Open Letter for Activists as young people engaged at grassroots, national and international levels.
Increasingly, the face of civil society around the world is a young one. Yet, we recognize much may be learned from other generations; their struggles, histories and lessons. Although we will face many of the challenges of the future, we believe that with intergenerational partnerships and a shared responsibility, we can transform civil society and therefore global society.
Current strategies to address restrictions on civil society space are failing. To create the necessary space at the national level, we should develop radical tactics to mobilize non traditional civil society groups, create platforms for international solidarity, and develop safe spaces where we can come together in a conducive environment to address these issues.
After much reflection, we collectively arrived at four primary topics of concern to those present: race, gender and sexual orientation; democratization of our own organisations and power structures; reform of relationships between civil society and donor organisations; and the divide between grassroots movements and civil society organisations (CSOs).
Eliminating discrimination: Race, gender and sexual orientation
As youth, we witness and experience the on-going reality of discrimination in civil society based on race, gender, and sexual orientation. We call on all sectors, especially media, governmental, non-governmental, and religious organizations, and the private sector to acknowledge and combat discriminatory practices. Civil society should lead the way by respecting diversity and completely eliminating all forms of discrimination from our own environments.
Democratization of CSOs and power structures
As youth, we acknowledge that current political, social and economic systems and organizational structures favour the few, not the many. We emphasize our duty to democratise:
- Public dialogue through the use of inclusive and accessible language to broaden participation and break down the hierarchy among civil society and the communities we seek to serve.
- Structures of power that prevent us from collaborating across issues and themes to establish civil society-wide avenues of influence and the elevation of our collective voice.
- Access to intergovernmental and civil society processes for local and grassroots social movements.
- Relationships between large civil society organizations and grassroots movements through the adoption of and respect for higher ethical standards.
Additionally, we should establish new methods of ensuring transparency, through the development of:
- Conflict of interest indices;
- Organization-wide gender parity measures;
- Reporting on executive salaries and board fees;
- Cooperation indices, and;
- Mechanisms that ensure the full integration of all stakeholders into decision-making processes, including volunteers.
Rethinking relationships between civil society and donor organisations
As youth, the driving force of our work is our own vision, passion and values. To better serve those with whom we work, we must question the current relationships between donors and recipients. We pledge to:
- Acknowledge the need to be financially autonomous through self-sustainability.
- Mobilize unions through membership fees as a way of engaging our own constituencies to ensure their ownership and responsibility in our work.
- Create alternative and innovative solutions to generate funds for our work.
- Encourage donors to explore avenues of promoting collaboration between and with civil society organizations.
As youth, we see the increasing danger in becoming more accountable to funding sources than the communities we purport to serve. We recognize the need to first hold ourselves to account, and then:
- Increase accountability of the international community to its by commitments and constituents
- Develop the advocacy skills of community members to more effectively claim their rights
Relationship between Grassroots and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs)
The increasing importance of grassroots actors, both formal and informal, is undeniable in today’s world. Gone are the days where NGOs may claim to represent the “voices” of communities. Our communities can and do speak for themselves and stand on their own work. They invert power structures through community-driven development and building people-power globally. We believe in the following tenants:
- Access. NGOs should work to access, identify and develop leaders and existing solutions within communities. Serving as enablers, we can support accessibility to and sharing of the core resources needed to foster greater impact.
- Sustainability. NGOs should promote capacity-building and community ownership to both catalyse the emergence of new grassroots groups and ensure existing groups continue their work self-sufficiently and sustainably. Instead of providing ready-made solutions, the focus should be on connecting likeminded leaders in decentralized networks of information sharing.
- Measuring success. NGOs should work with communities to develop new, community-supported, ways of measuring and interpreting success around the values of sustainable change and community ownership.
- Reimagining the playing field. NGOs should work to reorient all funding systems to align with these tenants and the under acknowledged needs of grassroots organizations.
As young people fighting for social justice, we make these criticisms and suggestions with the hope that they will contribute to a reimagining of the role, vision and methods of civil society. We recommit our lives to the struggle against inequality, poverty, environmental degradation and all injustices in whatever shape they assume.
We perceive the vision of our letter as an invitation to all—including young people and those in decision-making positions—to take immediate action to transform civil society. Let this letter stand not only as our message to civil society, but also as a broader commitment to move forward with confidence and purpose towards a just, sustainable and peaceful world.