Breaking Out of the System Trap: Civil Society Organizations
It did not take a long time of skimming Michael Narberhaus’ article “Breaking Out of the Systems Trap”: Civil Society Organizations” before I felt that he had a “big picture” view that I have rarely seen, and that I am much in agreement with. I am writing this response to the “Breaking Out…” article to identify points of agreement, and to offer some resources to the Smart CSOs Lab (a “solutions” initiative, featured at the end of the “Breaking Out…” article).
Excerpts from the “Breaking Out…” article (emphasizing the need for new strategies)
Here are six excerpts from the article, which illustrate “big picture” insight, and emphasize the need to develop “new ways to tackle the systemic and cultural root causes“, and “strategies to navigate system complexity”.
“But despite the many CSO victories, we are facing an unprecedented environmental and social crisis. Increasingly, civil society leaders are questioning the efficacy of current strategies and are searching for new ways to tackle the systemic and cultural root causes of global environmental and social crises.”
“The dominant paradigm of free markets and economic growth constrains the actions of governments, businesses, individuals, and other social actors, limiting the development of effective responses to the environmental and social crises we all confront.”
“Second, much CSO work focuses on national and international advocacy, within a business-as-usual political context that prevents far-reaching societal change. The failure of the Copenhagen summit on climate change in 2009 and the lack of progress at the Rio+20 Earth summit have demonstrated that rational scientific arguments will not be enough to move the global political system to take strong action.”
“This specialization undermines connections across issues and effective collaborations across organizations. A prominent example of this has been the disconnect between human rights organizations that do not take the existence of ecological limits into account in their demands and, from the other direction, environmental organizations that pursue policies that do not take equity and human rights issues sufficiently into account.”
“Since neither traditional issue-by-issue approaches nor linear cause-effect analysis are adequate, deeper systemic change in our culture and the economy is needed in order to tackle interconnected sustainability issues. It is therefore essential for success that CSOs start using the variety of systems-thinking tools available to examine overarching structures and develop strategies to navigate system complexity.”
This “Breaking Out of the Systems Trap…” article ends with advocacy for “The Smart CSOs Lab” (at http://www.smart-csos.org/ ).
“The initiative supports CSO leaders and change agents in developing cohesive strategies for CSO campaigns and projects. It is developing and testing capacity-building programs that support staff in enacting these new strategies.”
Resources Which May Be Useful to the Smart CSOs Lab
Because I am in agreement with the need for new strategies, and because I would like to encourage people who are seeking out tipping point strategies (like the people at Smart CSOs Lab), I would like to offer some resources to the people at the Smart CSOs Lab. I believe much of the work I have done in building The Interfaith Peacebuilding and Community Revitalization (IPCR) Initiative (at www.ipcri.net ) recognizes similar “big picture” challenges (Ex: see the last page of the "Community Visioning Initiatives or General Elections?" document, at "IPCR Outreach 2012" webpage). I also believe that The IPCR Initiative emphasizes strategies for “growing into” a new paradigm, rather than developing a blueprint for a new paradigm, and then trying to build consensus for it—and that the "growing into" strategy may turn out to be a key tipping point strategy for the “Great Transition”.
Here are excerpts from three key IPCR documents, which I hope will be enough to illustrate that there are IPCR resources which can be helpful to the people at the Smart CSOs Lab.
From “A Brief Introduction to the IPCR Initiative” (1 page)
(accessible from the webpage for “IPCR Outreach 2012” at http://www.ipcri.net/IPCR-Outreach-2012.html )
The beliefs that there is a critical need for an exponential increase in compassion for our fellow human beings—and that at no other time in history has there been more potential for such an increase—have urged and inspired The Interfaith Peacebuilding and Community Revitalization (IPCR) Initiative (www.ipcri.net ) to explore how such potential might be realized. This exploration has identified a set of critical challenges which require problem solving on a scale most of us have never known before (see “IPCR Critical Challenges Assessment 2011-2012: Summary Report” on the IPCR homepage), and a “constellations of initiatives” approach to resolving the critical challenges identified (detailed in the “Summary Report” Appendix). The IPCR Initiative advocates for a combination of preliminary surveys to 150 local leaders, time-intensive Community Visioning Initiatives supported by many “Community Teaching and Learning Centers” (offering workshops suggested by the preliminary surveys), and “sister community” relationships as a way of creating local community specific and regional specific “constellations of initiatives”.
From “Community Visioning Initiatives or General Elections?” (9 pages) (accessible from the webpage for “IPCR Outreach 2012” at http://www.ipcri.net/IPCR-Outreach-2012.html )
One special value of the IPCR “constellations of initiatives” approach is that it encourages an “organic” approach to problem solving, peacebuilding and community revitalization: i.e. the process begins from wherever the community is, and proceeds to whatever emerges from Community Visioning Initiatives as the solution pathways preferred by the residents of each particular community. There is no need for consensus on a blueprint for a model community to carry out a Community Visioning Initiative. The idea of the Community Visioning Initiative is to maximize citizen participation in identifying challenges, and in solution-oriented activity—and to (thus) grow the project “organically”.
A continued emphasis on the basic themes of a Community Visioning Initiative—maximizing citizen participation in identifying challenges, and in solution-oriented activity—will, even in a matter of a few years, bring communities back into alignment with the realities of the times… and it will do so at a pace which is workable for those particular local residents, it will add valuable knowledge and skill sets relating to problem solving as a team, and it will give local residents many more opportunities to encourage and support each other in the everyday circumstances of community life.
In addition, when local community specific narratives are “grown organically” by the processes described above, such narratives are much more likely to be aware of, and responsive to, local specific needs and challenges, much more likely to maximize citizen participation and create solution-oriented momentum, and much more likely to inspire commitments of time, energy, and financial support.
There can be much very useful public discourse on how to create effective local Community Visioning Initiatives, of the kind which can succeed in turning polarizing circumstances into collaborative efforts (and thus make best use of the knowledge and skills each one of us has), and which can create, develop, and accelerate a full array of solution-oriented activity.
From “ A Four Page Summary of The IPCR Initiative”
(accessible from the IPCR Initiative homepage, at www.ipcri.net )
We must be honest with ourselves about what is going on: people who are not sufficiently informed about critical issues are everywhere, and they are investing their time, energy, and money—voting—all the time… and yet…an exponential increase in compassion for our fellow human beings is not, currently, widely recognized as an essential and critical element of truly comprehensive response to the challenges of our times. (One of the most persistent ironies in life is that with so many opportunities to provide real assistance to fellow human beings—and with the potential for such assistance to result in happiness “to those who extend help as well as to those who receive it”—there are still many, many people in this world who cannot find a “way to earn a living” providing such assistance.) This writer believes that there are many serious challenges before us now, and that we will need to invest our time, energy, and money very wisely to overcome these challenges. How can we do it? We must help each other.
Though this may seem like a long response to the “Breaking Out of the Systems Trap…” article, we live in a complex world, and there are many challenges ahead which will require problem solving on a scale most of us have never known before. The kind of problem solving which will work best has yet to be discovered. Many experiments will be needed. Initiatives like “The Smart CSOs Lab” should be encouraged, as we will need many people to identify strategies for campaigns and projects, and many people to test capacity building programs, before we can have some insight into what is creating solution-oriented momentum. There are no easy solutions. However, there are many ways to find, to fine-tune, and to implement the kind of strategies which will help us manage a transition from dysfunctional systems which are very complex to functioning systems which are much less complex. And there are many ways people at the local community level can contribute to such a transition...[Yes, it is true that most of the critical challenges ahead are very complex, and thus it will be best if people making decisions at the local community level sift through some of the evidence. But their motive for sifting through some of the evidence need not be understood as part of studying for a Ph.D on the subject, or as part of deciding how to “vote” for a particular candidate in elections. From this writer’s point of view, it would be best if their motive was so they can make informed decisions regarding how they invest their time, energy, and money in the everyday circumstances of their daily lives.]
The best strategies for such a transition will inspire a high level of citizen participation at the local community level, turn polarizing circumstances into collaborative efforts (and thus make best use of the knowledge and skills each one of us has), and give local residents many more opportunities to encourage and support each other in the everyday circumstances of community life. A key tipping point will be the level of trust the new problem solving systems inspire… and as long as citizens at the local community level can have a high level of trust in the new problem solving systems they are contributing to, it will be a vast improvement over the problem solving systems we have now.
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