Foresight for better futures, GFAR blog

Why future-smart ICSOs are needed

09_responsive-300x225by Robin Bourgeois, GFAR Senior Advisor, Foresight and Development Policies

There is a wide recognition today that international civil society organisations (ICSOs) are currently facing challenges that might as well mean their disappearance[1]. This would not be necessarily bad news if that disappearance meant that ICSOs had been successful in “working their way out of business”, having solved the issues which justified their creation. But this would be bad news if it resulted from a lack of anticipation about the constantly evolving environment under which they operate, and the constantly evolving nature of the issues they deal with. It would be bad if ICSOs have to walk out of business because they fail to understand how their business evolves.

This constant evolution of environment and issues can be characterised by a combination of trends and disruptions leading to increasingly uncertain futures. ICSOs are aware of this and have started to act. Indeed, the relationships ICSOs need to establish with the future are specific to their essence. Firstly because freedom, power and will, all characterise some of the core values of ICSOs. This is exactly what the future is about, as French futurist Hughues de Jouvenel once wrote: The future is a domain of freedom, a domain of power, a domain of will(FR). There is thus a natural bound between ICSOs and foresight.

Secondly, in development aid, ICSOs only have the capacity to consider the long-term. Traditional actors – governments and donors – nowadays rarely care about the long-term. Most governments are more concerned with immediate public opinion and media ratings, re-election, and political survival, and act reactively. Donors want immediate results and physical evidence of achievement with short-term investment. New actors – foundations, social networks, corporate companies – are alike looking at immediate needs, and results from investments. For all, the existence of a crisis triggers action, prevention of crises does not.

What makes ICSOs different? They care, they are concerned by a specific issue and dedicate all their time, effort and resources to deal with it. Considering the long-term, being future-smart, is a natural posture. And being future-smart for an ICSO means being able to explore and anticipate mid- to long-term transformations and use that knowledge to move from reactivity (the reasons why they were created) to pre-activity, and then pro-activity.

Thus what foresight can bring to ICSOs is as follows:

  1. Identify trends and disruptions that could transform their environment and how;
  2. Adapt to those they can’t influence (being pre-active);
  3. Influence those they can towards desirable futures (being externally pro-active);
  4. Re-think accordingly their own organisational model (evolve from a pragmatic business model to a value-based action model; re-think flexibility and global versus local);
  5. Demonstrate how alternative futures, based on alternative worldviews, can be made to happen, and future-proof existing policies and actions.

Yet, this could be jeopardised by three things:

  1. Doing it alone (only among ICSOs), while the future is shaped by all;
  2. Keeping it at the highest executive level, while by value of ICSOs and by nature of foresight, it is an inclusive process of co-elaboration;
  3. Focusing only on your domain while the real world is systemic, fuzzy and complex.

Maybe the most important value of foresight for an ICSO is to use it to create trust. Trust given to a broker of the future, through a transparent, inclusive, shared, systemic and rigorous process. Trust because beyond the technical issues it will engage all in transformation based on values, where foresight is part of a governance innovation process.

Such a process is what some farmers organisations have engaged in, through the Global Forum on Agricultural Research (GFAR). Recently at the third Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development (GCARD3), they initiated an “Alliance for the re-appropriation of the rural futures by local people”, in collaboration with regional fora of agricultural research, all based on trust.

They are ready for it, are you ready for it?


This blog is the third in a series by Disrupt & Innovate on Scanning the Horizon – based on a project of the same name facilitated by the International Civil Society Centre, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation.

To view the original blog post by Robin Bourgeois, GFAR Senior Advisor, Foresight and Development Policies, published on 6 September, 2016 by Disrupt & Innovate, click here


[1] See for example:

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