Southern Voice: showing leadership in turbulent times

30 June 2024
SERIES OTT Conference – Think tanks and their communities

In the current state of global polycrisis and the crisis in global leadership, the world feels more uncertain than ever. There’s widespread discontent as people are questioning the status quo and yearning for fresh perspectives. 

We need leaders who can navigate an increasingly complex world and explain solutions clearly. 

From climate change to social unrest, complex challenges demand innovative solutions from global leaders and the think tank sector. 

At Southern Voice, a network of 70 Global South think tanks, we believe that crisis can be a catalyst for change and that strong leadership is essential to navigating these turbulent times. It is also an exceptionally good period for new voices to emerge and take the lead. 

At the OTT Conference 2024 in Barcelona, we explored what we’re doing as think tanks to address the global leadership crisis. 

In preparation for this, I was asked to reflect on the role of Southern Voice, how it has shown leadership over the years and what it needs to do to stay ahead of the curve. 

Here are some of my reflections.

Our guiding principles

Our mission at Southern Voice is to realign power, particularly in the development space. We support our members by facilitating research projects, policy outreach initiatives and speaking engagements. We feed their input into high-level global processes and discourses. 

Think tanks working alone have limited reach. But together we form a powerful force capable of influencing global policy discussions. This is being recognised by more and more organisations. 

When I started at Southern Voice six years ago, the network had 51 members. Today, we have 70 members representing over 35 countries. The numbers speak for themselves. But add to that that these think tanks produce quality research, and you have a formidable basis for policy influence. Take the Think Tank 20 (T20) process, that addresses G20 challenges, for example. Two of our members are leading on this: IPEA in Brazil this year and SAIIA in South Africa next year

A big part of Southern Voice’s mission is elevating the perspectives of Global South research in the development dialogue. At its inception in 2013, this vision was ahead of its time, even in the Global South. 

This led me to discern three core values that have come up again and again in our work throughout the years:

  • Courage: We challenge the status quo and offer fresh perspectives, particularly those from the Global South.
  • Adaptability: We’re adept at navigating constant challenges and uncertainty. We know how to adjust and keep moving forward.
  • Collaboration: We work together to be stronger and have a more significant impact.

These characteristics, coupled with the changing times and the need for new and innovative leadership models, have led to the success of our network. 

Leading the way

Southern Voice was founded on the idea of addressing the knowledge asymmetry and participation deficit that often plague Global South research in development discussions. We challenged the notion that southern research is only locally relevant, and we championed diversity, equity, and inclusion long before it became popular across the sector. 

At the time, all this was new in both the Global North and the Global South: a new dialogue had started. In a way, this conversation even challenged our own assumptions. 

Our member think tanks are no strangers to polycrises and permacrises. This constant state of challenge fosters a remarkable capacity for adaptability, flexibility, and resilience – practical and admirable qualities. However, it can also lead to chronic stress and a sense of constant vigilance. 

This is why community is so crucial in the Global South – you can’t always rely on the government as, sometimes, they may even be part of the problem. Working together makes you stronger and more impactful. Collaboration is key.

Southern Voice fosters precisely that. Collaboration within the network and with external partners is pivotal to our work. The more our network grows, the more we can collaborate, pushing local research onto the international stage and advocating for a more balanced world. 

As a network, we have a greater chance of influencing debates in multilateral organisations, showcasing the vast knowledge and solutions the Global South has to offer.

Here are two examples of our current work that exemplify this kind of collaboration:

Global South Climate Change Agenda 

We are leading the development of the first Global-South-driven climate change common agenda. 

The climate challenges faced by the Global South are distinct from those in the Global North, and this agenda will ensure that southern needs and priorities are heard and addressed.

Shaping the Post-2030 Agenda 

Rather than waiting passively, we are shaping the conversation about what will come after the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

The future

As our journey continues, it will be inevitable and necessary to pause occasionally for self-reflection.  

Venturing into academic and policy spaces that challenge our assumptions (starting with the term “Global South”, what it means and if it even exists) might be scary, but this will be required.  We’re committed to building a crisis-proof organisation – one that maintains its reputation and credibility while reaching out to those who doubt us. 

Ultimately, our mission remains the same, but our leadership style will have to adapt with the changing times. Guiding questions for that might be, for example, how do we cater to the needs and interests of 70 think tanks, while still maintaining a common agenda? How do we safeguard ourselves from following Global North trends that offer funding and rather steer the agenda on topics relevant to the Global South? Which alliances do we enter and to what purpose? And also, how do we adapt our research and outreach for increased impact? All these things require constant revision and staying up to date with the development conversations.

We will strive to stay ahead of the curve, avoiding complacency and ensuring strategic growth that prioritises quality over quantity. And we will continue reaching out to new partners for fresh thinking and collaboration. 

Gabriela Keseberg Dávalos is the Director of Global Public Affairs of Southern Voice, a network of 70 think tanks from the Global South.