A Leap of Faith: Personal reflections on the Bond conference 2016




Excitement woke me early this week on 29th February. Leap Day, offering the promise of opportunity, and extra chance to do things differently.   And I was on my way to the Bond conference, full of expectations of the promise of learning, being inspired and challenged with insights into the future of the global community.

My challenge started unexpectedly at Green Park underground station with a glimpse of a world without solidarity.

It wasn’t that I had to wait twenty minutes, and for five trains before I could squeeze into a packed carriage, it wasn’t that sense of stifling claustrophobia, or the panic I felt as my coat got caught in the doors of one train as it pulled off. It wasn’t even the stress that I felt teetering at the front of the crush on the edge of the platform, with my nose millimetres from the next train hurtling in and visions of being crowded onto the tracks.

What really shocked me was the sense of being completely alone and isolated, despite being tightly packed crowd. Standing on the platform as the long minutes dragged by until the next packaged train screamed in, I looked around hoping for a sense of camaraderie from my fellow travellers. Just a small smile of exasperation from my neighbour, even a barely perceptible exchange of glance would have communicated that we were not each on our own on that shared platform – but there was absolutely nothing coming back.

So what has this got to do with the Bond conference?

The stark absence of common humanity, the chilling lack of acknowledgement of common distress, that I felt briefly on a cold February morning, is one that some wake to each and every day without fail, all around the world.  But isn’t this what global civil society is all about?   Isn’t this what international NGOs should be all about? A countering force against the sense that any person is alone in their distress, that we are a giant mass of individuals each blindly shoving ourselves forward, and at the same time pushing others over the edge.

The Bond 2016 conference is desperately important in the face of massive changes and pressures to the global common good. And we heard plenty about those challenges over the two days of the conference. We heard about shrinking civic and political space around the world, about declining trust in NGOs, and about how southern NGOs receive just 1% of ODA, while much larger International NGOs get twelve times as much.

Yet, despite this, the conference generated a real sense of hope. My five top headline take-aways:

  1. “Indivisibility, universality and leaving no one behind: that is really radical” – this is how Jessica Horn of the Africa Women’s Development Fund described the SDGs. The SDGs have the potential to be a powerful lever for change, but they are what we make of them. The onus is on leadership in the civil society sector to ensure that they are radical, and that leadership will not necessarily come from the top and the biggest.
  1. Charity is out dated. In her keynote speech on Leap Day morning, Aya Chebbi from the Africa Youth Movement challenged the conference to recognise that the language of beneficiaries and aid is rapidly becoming redundant as a driver for change, as transformation and mobilisation driven from civil society takes centre stage: “We are not the subject of development, we are the drivers of development… we don’t work with beneficiaries, but with our friends, colleagues and communities”.
  1. A strong Civil Society of the future does not necessarily need INGOs. Imagining four diverse and contrasting near-future global scenarios in a climate constrained world led a room full of people to recognise that, whatever our future, the common features will be an globalised civil society that plays a role in networking and amplifying diverse voices, ceding power to social movements, and being ready to challenge as well as engage with global players of all kinds. What is the role of INGOs in that? It is up to us to determine that, there really are no guarantees that INGOs in their current forms will “survive” the next 15 years.
  1. Donors to fund People in the Lead. And in relation to funding, common themes coming from donors at the conference were about a shift away from the north-south paradigm, towards a recognition that poverty is global, and donor policies will reflect synergies between UK and international themes; a desire for more direct connection, direct funding of southern NGOs, funding work of rather than for people.
  1. Collaboration beyond the sector is our future. Sam Worthington, from InterAction, painted a picture of a future where the top 18 major players in development are private sector companies, where technology is the driver for transformative change, where social enterprise replaces charity, and where the role of NGOs is as intermediaries between government, the private sector, philanthropists and universities.   This picture of the future for the UK NGO sector is a description of how it is in the US now, and as Sam optimistically said, in this future: “the reality is that the US sector has never been stronger”.

My Leap Day did not start well. But I ended the Conference full of excitement about the power of humanity, optimism for the future of the sector and inspired by the potential of a collective vision, which completely banished the ghosts I had encountered on the Green Park platform.

Again from Sam Worthington:

“Stand shoulder to shoulder with CSOs around the world, partner in new ways. You are part of something bigger”.