Michael Edwards (academic)

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Michael Aubrey "Mike" Edwards (born Liverpool, England, 1957) is a writer and activist who has worked in various positions in foundations, think-tanks and international development institutions and who has written widely on civil society, philanthropy and social transformation. He has been a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos in New York and has worked in senior management positions for Oxfam (as Regional Director for Southern Africa), Voluntary Service Overseas (as Head of Development Education), Save the Children (as Director of Research, Evaluation and Advocacy), the World Bank (as a Senior Civil Society Specialist) and the Ford Foundation (as director of its Governance and Civil Society Program). He also co-founded the Seasons Fund for Social Transformation[1] which made grants to organizations that link their work for social justice with spiritual principles and contemplative practices before it closed in 2010. His writings examine the global role of civil society and its institutions, the purpose and impact of philanthropy and the not-for-profit sector, the role of business in solving social problems, and the links between personal and social transformation.[2][3][4]

NGOs and civil society[edit]

After completing his undergraduate education at Oxford University and his PhD in geography at University College London (UCL), Edwards left academia to join the NGO sector. He first came to prominence in the 1980s during his work with Oxfam when he criticized the “Irrelevance of Development Studies” in an article that sparked many years of debate about the extractive nature of social science research, a theme that he has continued to pursue ever since.[5] In the 1990s he and David Hulme from the University of Manchester turned their attention to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and hosted a series of influential conferences on scaling-up their impact, strengthening their performance and accountability, assessing the costs and benefits of closer ties between NGOs, governments and international donor agencies, and exploring how NGOs could adapt to globalization and the increasing diversity of the “North” and the “South.” More recently he has been critical of trends in the NGO sector towards growth and bureaucracy, which he argues may dilute their commitment to radical social change. These views are summarized in a piece entitled "What's to be done with Oxfam?" which appeared on openDemocracy in 2016.

In the 2000s Edwards began to write about civil society more broadly than NGOs, and published an influential introductory text called “Civil Society” which was updated in 2009 and again in 2014 to take account of changing developments in the field.[6] By disaggregating the concept of civil society into theories of associational life, the good society and the public sphere and then analyzing the links that exist between them, Edwards’ work has helped to clarify the confusion that has surrounded these ideas. His conceptual framework has been used by many others including The Carnegie Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society in the UK and Ireland and the Oxford Handbook of Civil Society that was published in 2011.

Philanthropy and the role of business in society[edit]

In 1997 Edwards left the NGO sector to join the World Bank, and then moved to the Ford Foundation in 1999 where for nine years he directed the Governance and Civil Society Program. Just before leaving the Foundation in 2008 he wrote a controversial pamphlet for Demos and the Young Foundation called “Just Another Emperor: The Myths and Realities of Philanthrocapitalism,” which challenged the trend to introduce business thinking into philanthropy and the not-for-profit sector, later expanded into a book called Small Change: Why Business Won’t Save the World. Since then Edwards has continued to oppose this trend in his writing, arguing that "business should become more like civil society, not the other way around."[7]

Edwards has also pushed back against closer ties between philanthropic foundations and the corporate sector, arguing that they need to be separate in order for foundations to retain their independence. He criticized the decision of Ford Foundation president Darren Walker to accept a paid position on the board of Pepsico Inc in a series of articles published in 2016. More broadly his work shows why even high and rising levels of philanthropy have failed to have any measurable effect on inequality and injustice at a national scale.

Personal change and social transformation[edit]

The final theme in Edwards’ work is the need to connect personal with social transformation, taking up ideas that were developed by Gandhi in India (“we must be the change we want to see in the world”) and by Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement ("building the beloved community” through “the love that does justice”). Writing with colleagues such as Gita Sen[8] and Stephen G. Post, Edwards is a member of an emerging movement for social and spiritual change called “spiritual activism.”

In recognition of this work, Edwards received the Gandhi, King, Ikeda Award from Morehouse College in 2011 at a ceremony held at the Coady International Institute in Canada.[9]

In 2013 Edwards launched a new section of the web-magazine openDemocracy called "Transformation" "to tell the stories of those who are exploring boundary-breaking solutions in politics, economics and social activism by bringing personal and social change together into one integrated process."[10] He introduced this project in an article that explores the relationships between love and social justice in the modern world,[11] followed up in a series of essays on mysticism and social change, religion and progressive politics, the need for harmony amid increasing polarization, and the "virtues of a many-sided life."

Key works[edit]

  • Edwards, Michael with David Hulme (1992): Making a Difference: NGOs and Development in a Changing World.
  • Edwards, Michael with David Hulme (1995): Beyond the Magic Bullet: NGO Performance and Accountability in the post Cold-War World.
  • Edwards, Michael with David Hulme (1997): NGOs, States and Donors: Too Close for Comfort?
  • Edwards, Michael (1999, 2004): Future Positive: International Co-operation in the 21st Century.
  • Edwards, Michael with John Gaventa (2000): Global Citizen Action.[12]
  • Edwards, Michael (2001) NGO Rights and Responsibilities: a New Deal for Global Governance.
  • Edwards, Michael with Alan Fowler (2002): The Earthscan Reader on NGO Management.
  • Edwards, Michael (2004, 2nd edition 2009, 3rd edition 2014): Civil Society. Cambridge: Polity.[13]
  • Edwards, Michael with Stephen Post (2007): The Love That Does Justice: Spiritual Activism in Dialogue With Social Science (PDF)
  • Edwards, Michael (2008): Just Another Emperor? The Myths and Realities of Philanthrocapitalism.
  • Edwards, Michael (2010): Small Change: Why Business Won’t Save the World.
  • Edwards, Michael (2011): The Oxford Handbook of Civil Society.


  1. ^ Seasons Fund for Social Transformation (Internet Archive)
  2. ^ ["Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2010-02-04. Retrieved 2010-05-11. Cite uses deprecated parameter |deadurl= (help)CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  3. ^ http://www.bwpi.manchester.ac.uk/aboutus/staff/mikeedwards-profile.html Edwards' biography] at the Brooks World Poverty Institute
  4. ^ "Changes at Bank NGO Unit", The Bretton Woods Project
  5. ^ Third World Quarterly 1989; 11: 116-35
  6. ^ Michael Edwards: Civil Society – the 3rd edition is out at last! June 3, 2014
  7. ^ Edwards, M. (2010) Small Change: Why business won't save the world. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.
  8. ^ Michael Edwards & Gita Sen NGOs, Social Change and the Transformation of Human Relationships: A 21st-Century Civic Agenda. Third World Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 4, NGO Futures: Beyond Aid (Aug., 2000), pp. 605-616 (PDF)
  9. ^ http://www.coady.stfx.ca/coady/media/111003/
  10. ^ openDemocracy: Transformation
  11. ^ Michael Edwards: Welcome to Transformation. In: openDemocracy. 1 July 2013
  12. ^ Pacheco-Vega, R. (2003). "Book Review: Michael Edwards and John Gaventa (eds.), Global Citizen Action, Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder, Colorado, 2000, 328 pp., $19.95 (paperback)". VOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations. 14 (2): 246. doi:10.1023/A:1023912413996.
  13. ^ Jariego, Maya I. (2004). Book Review. In: Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations. Volume 15, Issue 4, pp. 405-407.