Leaders of the saner pack

December 3, 1999

Closer links between academia and non-governmental organisations will benefit both, Brenda Gourley says

In those democracies where often a less than impressive proportion of citizens actually vote, non-governmental organisations are the most visible and active players in civil society.

In undemocratic regimes, NGOs have played a significant role in drawing attention to human rights abuses and bringing relief to the oppressed. For example, in South Africa before 1994, there were thousands of NGOs administering to the victims of apartheid and working for democratic ideals.

The phenomenon of globalisation has pushed the role of NGOs to the fore. It is said that the nation state is too small to handle the big political and social issues and too big to handle the small ones. Hence the increasing importance of NGOs.

Universities direct their efforts, by and large, at educating people to focus their energies and skills on the corporate, first-world or professional sector. This is necessary and desirable in order to produce doctors, lawyers, accountants, engineers and the other professionals society needs.

But what about producing people educated specifically to provide leadership and service in the NGO sector? This is complicated by the fact, noted by Gordon Draper, change management consultant for the Commonwealth Secretariat, that university academics are not necessarily the best candidates for the job of imparting skills better acquired through experiential learning.

It may be that universities themselves have a good deal to learn from the NGO sector.

The University of Natal was asked to organise symposia on relevant themes before last month's Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in South Africa. It held a seminar on NGOs, based on a conference that had just taken place that highlighted their role in the pursuit of peace, social justice and development.

At the seminar, NGO representatives and academics heard the sector's needs and looked at the process of co-designing courses to meet those needs.

A clear message was that there is a crying need for new kinds of curricula. Even the donor agencies that support the sector proclaimed their organisations ready to accept education and training as part of project proposals. The importance of training is evidenced by the fact that all United Nations departments are designating a liaison officer for NGOs and that training programmes for staff will henceforth include a component dedicated to cooperation with civil society.

Most experienced NGO representatives understand that very little can be achieved by individuals or groups working on their own. Many countries, even the most sophisticated, have the form but not the substance of democracy. NGOs see networks and partnerships with government and/or other bodies as adding value.

The ingredients of good partnerships are identifiable and can be fostered or negotiated upfront. Good communication skills are essential to productive partnerships. An understanding of the system and context in which one is working is important and not always obvious.

Policy studies are important if we are to break the divide between "those who know and those who do not". Management skills - in particular change management and basic financial skills - must also be in place. Citizenship education should operate across higher education, and issues of governance do not belong only in the education of students destined for this sector.

Leadership skills can be learnt, fostered and honed. One delegate remarked that what she found interesting was that the "soft" skills of yesterday had become the "hard" desirable skills of today.

Information management and the ability to access and research issues on the internet is also regarded as essential, especially when one realises the power to which this medium has been put.

One fine example is the Nobel prize-winning International Campaign to Ban Landmines. A thousand NGOs in 60 countries were linked together by email. The campaign helped turn a growing awareness by ordinary people into a worldwide movement - a sort of globalised democracy - and it made governments acknowledge that the cost of landmines far outweighed the need to use them.

Another important reason for academia to form strong links with NGOs is the growing recognition of experiential learning. "Service learning" is becoming an important way in which students learn essential skills and attitudes. Some partnerships will happen naturally because no organisation in today's world has boundaries that are not permeable and highly porous.

In a sense, globalisation is the ultimate network: flexibility, innovation, learning and "working with" are distinguishable features. Would that all universities displayed such characteristics.

As the private sector muscles in on the terrain of higher education, we in the traditional universities are forced to enlarge our view of what we may regard as potential customers. Many of us look to countries thousands of miles away to boost our student numbers. This is laudable, but a very large number of customers are also to be found right on our own doorsteps - and servicing their needs is not only helpful to your bottom line, it is serving the goals of civil society.

Universities like to think that they are the nurseries of the future leadership of their societies. If they are not receptive to NGOs' needs and potential resources, what leaders they do produce will find themselves in a sector of diminishing importance in achieving a more stronger, saner and more just society.

Brenda Gourley is vice-chancellor at the University of Natal.

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