A growing number of governments and populist politicians are seeking to delegitimise the actions of civil society organisations (CSOs) by either demonising them as elite “special interest” groups, or accusing them of “losing touch” with the people they aim to serve.
In relation to the two core elements of populism, in contexts around the world, CSOs are frequent targets of the populists’ anti-elitist rhetoric. Populists have skilfully exploited the professionalisation of civil society/ non-governmental organisations and their reliance on foreign funding to vilify these groups as illegitimate elites working against the interests or welfare of the “real people” they claim to represent, and/or the nation’s sovereignty. Indeed, CSOs can pose significant threats to populist agendas, as they frequently champion the inclusion and rights of the marginalised or minority groups that the populists are defining as the illegitimate “others” robbing opportunities from these “real people”.
Given that populists claim to be the sole voices of the people’s will, the independent voices of CSOs, coupled with their messages of social inclusion and diversity, are also highly unwelcome to populist anti-pluralist agendas. In a number of countries, invoking “the people’s” or national interests are used to justify political moves — typically implemented via legislative and administrative measures — to heavily restrict the operation and funding of CSOs. Organisations that challenge or question populists in power, or use fact-based research to highlight sensitive issues or inconvenient truths that do not conform to their binary “us versus them” social, economic or environmental narratives, are usually the biggest targets.
CSOs pose challenges to the following additional features of populist agendas:
Seeking to promote debate as a means of testing government policies and distilling the best ideas for social change.
Producing and publicising countervailing data and evidence that can challenge or expose populist disinformation campaigns, data manipulation tactics and unethical or corrupt behaviour.
This evidence can be particularly inconvenient to populist agendas when revealing that the supposed crises, breakdowns or threats they are promoting have been misrepresented or overblown for political aims.
Populist leaders also aim to delegitimise the role of CSOs as intermediaries for the public — especially politically, socially, and economically marginalised populations — as populists claim that only they can under – stand and act on “the people’s” behalf. It is therefore imperative for CSOs to develop and strengthen a broad base of citizen support.
Traditionally, CSOs have typically demonstrated accountability through highly technical processes of regulatory compliance and donor reporting, which are often not suitable for convincing skeptical politicians and ordinary citizens of their importance and legitimacy. Moreover, such processes can give the impression that CSOs are primarily serving the interests of their well-resourced donors and funders.