Shaking the world, one act of kindness at a time

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After years of working with civil society organisations, Bea Sanz Corella recently joined NIRAS as its primary civil society expert and consultant. In this feature, she shares her experience working in international development and thoughts on the importance of coming together to build a world where kindness rules across sectors.

What if everyone treated kindness as a responsibility rather than a luxury? How different would our world be today?

The idea of kindness as a duty towards others has been a guiding beacon for Bea Sanz Corella, one she believes in so strongly that she has that very word permanently inked on her arm, a reminder of what is at the core of her development work.

Kindness is something she recalls as central to her upbringing. Her mother, one of Bea’s earliest models for kindness, deeply ingrained this value in her by living it in everything she did — whether at work or out for a walk, the warmth she emanated and showed colleagues and strangers made no difference, Bea says.

We are witnessing a worldwide democratic backsliding, and this is why it's so important that donors like the EU and others support civic actors.

Bea Sanz Corella

Immense generosity often accompanied this virtue, and Bea remembers how her mother had, without question, given money to those begging for alms. “I remember asking her, ‘Why would you do that? What if they go and buy alcohol?’” Bea recounts. “And she would reply, ‘You never know the struggles people are fighting. If they’re sitting here asking for help, it’s your responsibility to be kind to them.’”

Today, Bea shows the same kindness and generosity through her work in international development where she is focused on supporting civil society organisations (CSOs). Following the mantra of Mahatma Gandhi, she gives herself completely to the mission of shaking the world in a gentle way.

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Bea listens to constituents for an "ambitious" evaluation project in Nepal.

Leaning into each other: the heart of civil society

To Bea, gentleness and kindness are twin values, if not completely the same. The more she engages with CSOs, the more she finds herself convinced that both are in civil society's very DNA.

“Civil society is a group of people having a vision and believing in something that is higher than themselves, something bigger, something that speaks about the common good,” she says. “Wanting to do something that is kind for others.”

In essence, CSOs comprise civilians coming together to express a common need, advocating for services and actions government leaders are not prioritising, and then organising in resourceful ways. And digitalisation has only reinforced this trend. “I think we are witnessing the merging of a new form of civic actors,” Bea notes.

At the peak of the pandemic, the Philippines witnessed civil society in action when citizens across the country mobilised to put up community pantries. Various donors of food, produce, and essentials would go to these pantries — generally stationed along streets with goods free for anyone to take — in a concerted effort to provide for those in need.

“That's civil society. That's people deciding to do something. Setting up a stool, sharing food, doing something before the government even comes in,” she remarks.

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However, in the over 25 years of engaging with CSOs, Bea is only too familiar with how difficult these groups can have it, especially if their agenda fails to align with — or even runs counter to — that of their governments.

“Those organisations that do service delivery but try to do something else…that try to advocate for changes, they are being put in a very difficult position and even more so in many, many countries,” she says. “We are witnessing a worldwide democratic backsliding, and this is why it's so important that donors like the EU and others support civic actors.”

Without donors to back their causes, CSOs that are vocal and critical of governments are unlikely to receive state support. Support from other institutions then becomes critical for these advocates to make genuine progress.

Relying on donations is not the primary solution, though. A self-sustaining mechanism for growing funds is more important to the longevity of CSOs than relying purely on freely given funding. Without it, such groups will cease to exist, Bea argues.

Yet, even more pressing than financial stability is the need for another element, something that is at the heart of civil society.

“One voice or one organisation might not be able, by itself, to express something because they are too small and even speaking out could put the organisation and the persons behind in a very dangerous place in some contexts,” she says. In other words, they need to come together. “Alliances are fundamental.”

We need to be able to listen to their voices, and our role as experts, consultants is to translate that [for institutions to understand].

Bea Sanz Corella
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Alongside activists, changemakers, and donors, Bea talks about the civic space during the EU Indonesia Civil Society Forum in Jakarta.

Leading with kindness

In her spare time, Bea, who comes from Barcelona, manages a homegrown business with her husband in Indonesia. Aptly named ‘Kmana’, which loosely translates to where are you going, her artisan bag and apparel company are designed for travel and run with craft and sustainability in mind. Kmana’s designs are universal, and its prices ethical, ensuring no one in the production of the pieces is short-changed — especially not the makers.

The business speaks to Bea’s philosophy when it comes to consumption. Rather than racing to meet fleeting trends, she prefers to treat purchases as investments — fewer things made for the long haul. “At one point, someone is paying for that, and the problem with fast fashion is that those who are paying are those who are in the most vulnerable position,” Bea says. This logic affirms Bea’s style of leadership. Holistic and resistant to hierarchy, her approach to managing people is far from self-serving and leans towards showing empathy to everyone on the team.

Key to her leadership style are two other things as well: humour and active listening. “A sense of humour is fundamental,” she remarks. “Don’t take yourself too seriously.” She attributes this way of thinking to one of her literary idols, Maya Angelou, who had often spoken about the beauty of laughter and joy during her lifetime.

Humour aside, active listening paired with a non-hierarchical structure also paves the way for effective leadership, creating an environment where team members can fully express themselves, says Bea. “This is when the best comes out of them.” Never taking credit for work done on behalf of others is one of the things she has learned over the years as a civil society consultant. “We are there behind the scenes to make sure that those voices are heard.”

Bea recalls leading a team that assisted the EU in drafting its new policy for civil societies. Despite her being at the helm of the project, there was no ego driving her to accomplish such a monumental task. “This is not my policy. This is their policy,” she says. “We need to be able to listen to their voices, and our role as experts, consultants is to translate that [for institutions to understand].”

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Bea and her team at Kmana pose for a group shot.

Learning with purpose: why Bea chose to work with NIRAS

As someone who tends to manage multiple projects at once, this civil society expert’s workload would send anyone into a panic. But with her expertise and guiding principle of kindness, Bea has found a way.

“I learn to work in slots,” she says. “If I have two hours, it's two hours. Unless I have a deadline, I usually don't work eight hours [straight]. It's a different way of working.” For Bea, kindness towards the self, particularly at work, is part and parcel of sustainable living. She does not work herself to the bone unless needed and instead strives to work with purpose.

And what is Bea’s purpose? “It's just those moments of profound intimacy when you are no longer the consultant. You just sit and share,” she explains. As a way of explanation, she tells of an evaluation in Cambodia for a gender-based violence project where she was sitting among local women convening for an extensive discussion. It struck her that many of them were gazing intently at her nose. Conscious and curious, Bea asked if there was something they wanted to share. “We want to know what is it that you are eating that makes it grow,” one of the women said, laughter ensuing after the confession.

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In another project with NIRAS, she spearheaded a “big, ambitious thematic evaluation” of the EU's support for CSOs in Nepal. As she was interviewing constituents in the far West, one of the women grabbed her by the hand and suddenly, all that mattered was to dance.

As a civil society expert, Bea considers herself a connector, a storyteller, one who turns knowledge into action. It’s because of this inclination towards knowledge that she chose to work with NIRAS.

“What I really like about like NIRAS is that they are purpose-driven and want to invest in knowledge,” she says. “I think this is very important in our work. We need to learn all the time. You cannot stop learning.”

In development work where things are continuously shifting, Bea knows how urgent it is to keep up with what’s going on around the world. It is with this knowledge that she’s able to give so much of herself for others, whether giving entailed extensive discussions with civil society organisations, or simply making time to dance with the people she encounters on her journey.

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