In the face of rising restrictions and brazen attacks on fundamental freedoms, citizens across the globe are responding with resolute resistance, in creative, and powerful ways.
This is the main takeaway of CIVICUS’ 2018 State of Civil Society Report. Findings from the report identified 10 key trends. Notable among these is a spurring of peaceful resistance by active citizens and civil society against unjust actions. The report points out that almost everywhere we look, we see signs of citizens organising and mobilising in new and creative ways to defend civic freedoms, fight for social justice and equality, and push back on populism. This trend is most exemplified in the spotlight that has been shone on patriarchy, sexual harassment, gender and power imbalances, thanks to the #MeToo and Times Up movements.
The report references several positive examples to illustrate fight back against restrictions and regressive policies. These include citizen action to persuade the government in El Salvador to pass a law banning gold mining practices that harm the land, water and communities. In Romania, hundreds of thousands took to the streets to resist government plans to soft-pedal on corruption, and in South Korea, mass protest action led to the impeachment and jailing of a corrupt president.
This review of civil society highlights how when the worst of humanity came to the fore in places like Myanmar, Syria and Yemen, civil society showed its best by voluntarily placing themselves in the firing line to expose human rights abuses.
The other trends explored in the report relate to the different ways in which civil society and democratic space is being squeezed.
There have been increasing instances of personal rule and the politics of patronage eclipsing the rule of law and undermining democratic institutions in many countries. Among these are examples of Bolivia and Uganda, where leaders sought to illegitimately amend national constitutions to stay in power to extend their tenures. China’s president Xi Jinping followed suit by potentially making himself president for life. The report also points to instances where hard-line presidents have engineered courts in their favour, such as in Venezuela where judges were jailed for opposing the president and proxies were appointed to skew court decisions.
Another noted trend is the rise of polarising politics and unjust economic systems dividing societies and reducing the international community’s ability to address key global challenges such as violent conflict, inequality and climate change. The report finds that identity-based politics are trumping issue-based politics through neo-fascist ideologies that encourage xenophobia and narrow notions of nationalism in several countries including Hungary, India, Israel, the Philippines, Turkey, Uganda and the US.
Attacks on the independent media and online freedom are other key highlights. Several high-profile journalists reporting on corrupt activities of political and economic leaders or covering public protests are being attacked in brazen ways. Examples include the car bomb killing of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana, who exposed high-level corruption in Malta.
The promise of the internet and social is being compromised with illicit surveillance becoming more commonplace. Many in civil society are being targeted by false propaganda is spread by rogue states and extreme right-wing elements. At times of contestation, such as elections or national protests, governments, such as those in Cameroon, Iran and Togo during 2017 shut down the internet or access to social media tools to restrict communication. The report finds that online platforms have become battlegrounds in which regressive voices are seeking to shape opinion with misinformation and myths, including through trolls imploding progressive conversations.
Another worrying phenomenon is the rise of ‘uncivil’ society – socially conservative forces claiming civil society space, increasingly emboldened by populist and repressive politics. These groups – which include think tanks that advance nationalist and xenophobic ideas and protest movements against LGBTI, refugee, migrant and women’s rights – are seeking to weaken the impact of civil society that advances progressive positions. An example, the report notes, is Poland, where state funding schemes have been reworked to enable greater support for uncivil society.
The report makes a number of key recommendations for active citizens, democratic governments, multilateral institutions, the private sector, media and academia. Democratic governments are encouraged to model the deepening of democratic practice by enabling spaces for discussion, dissent and dialogue at all levels and to resist moves to weaken human rights standards at the multilateral level. Active citizens are urged to connect locally, nationally and internationally on social justice causes and mobilise in different ways, including through volunteering.
Another key recommendation is that multilateral institutions should reinforce the primacy of civil society participation in decision-making and find new ways to open up spaces for public participation in their activities, while the private sector, media and academia are encouraged to make common cause with civil society in the defence of human rights by forming new alliances, sharing platforms and partnering in joint campaigns.
Would you rather lead us into famine response in South Sudan, or into the jungle of digitalisation? This hypothetical question to international civil society leaders (CEOs and Chairs) was looming over last week’s annual retreat organised by the Centre, and the active attendance confirmed their courage and curiosity to engage in uncovering what this megatrend means, not just for civil society organisations, but also to their top brass.
Getting an understanding of what digitalisation means for our sector is always a good starting point. In most recent surveys, the high level of importance of digitalisation for our work is coupled with an extremely low readiness to understand and embrace this development.
You get, however, very quickly that this is not something that one can ‘compartmentalise’, or delegate down to the Chief Information Officer or the Head of IT. Every aspect of our work, from fundraising and communications to better participation in program decisions, and finding new solutions to problems of poverty, marginalisation and environmental issues, can ideally benefit from digital tools, and requires a basic understanding at the level of decision makers.
At the same time, the threats and challenges are growing exponentially. Data privacy and protection are particularly important, as we are experiencing restrictions on civic space, and the instrumentalisation of big and small data for commercial and political purposes. The dangers of a new ‘digital divide’ are real: Economic and social inequalities can be exacerbated if access to the internet, to digital tools and knowledge, are not provided to the bottom billion. In fact, big digital companies are looking for the ‘next billion’ clients in a mostly unregulated environment, and the civil society sector should be front line in making sure this ambition helps to connect the most marginalised (and protect them from becoming mere customers or data providers). And all of our intervention programs should include systematic use and build digital capacities and knowledge with the people we serve.
Putting people at the centre of digital strategies became the overriding theme in our discussions. Rather than chasing new technologies as part of the latest hype cycle, we need to put our mission first, discover what people need and can use, and determine our engagement in digital technology accordingly. The excitement about new solutions (on participation, communication, technology) vs. the fear of data misuse, inequality of access, and things getting out of hand are the extreme sides of our spectrum of engagement. Connecting opportunities and challenges of digitalisation back to our mission will have to be the overriding ambition of any strategic involvement.
In particular, the digital cultures of ICSOs need to be strengthened – including deeper understanding, analysis, and comfort on usage. This will then help us engage more systematically in the main areas of action – strategy, organisational processes, communication and fundraising, and technology and data. Above all, the ambition of ‘digital for good’ and ‘do no harm’ should guide us, as we strive to make a difference to the most marginalised and oppressed, and maintain legitimacy, effectiveness and impact in the future.
This Q&A blog first appeared on Dóchas – The Irish Association of Non-Governmental Development Organisations’ website. It appeared as part of a series of blogs published in the lead up to their conference, Changing the Narrative: Building Support for Global Development – which will take place on Thursday 3 May in the Croke Park Conference Centre.
Some public opinion polls suggest that there is a significant lack of public trust in NGOs. What is the number one thing NGOs should be doing to regain public trust?
Trust is the bridge that links what we preach with what we practice. The larger the distance between our words and deeds, the more fragile the bridge of trust that connects both is. The recent scandals about sexual misconduct in some of the largest and most trusted organisations in our sector is a telling example of how the discrepancy between our statements and actions dramatically erodes trust. “The number one thing” civil society organisations (CSOs) should do to regain and preserve trust is to narrow the gap between what we preach and what we practice to an absolute minimum. In cleaning up the mess of the recent scandal, it is not sufficient to create some new structures, policies and working groups. We need a fundamental transformation of our sector’s male dominated culture, career paths and leadership.
One example of the gap between what we say and what we do on “gender justice” is the discrepancy between the number of women in our workforce compared to our leadership. In many organisations, two thirds of the staff are women while two thirds of the leaders are men. Practically all CSOs produce impressive statements on gender justice and women’s rights but very few have a share of female leaders that reflects the share of women in their staff. Such obvious gaps erode the public trust in our sector – and rightly so. We need to stop making grand pronouncements while lagging behind in implementing them, especially in our own organisations first.
Is the populist narrative of “charity begins at home” gaining ground in Europe? What should we be doing to counter it?
Populism very much thrives on citizens’ loss of trust in elected governments and their institutions, the media and – as discussed above – the civil society sector. The more the democratic and pluralistic parts of society can rebuild trust among the public at large, the less populists will succeed. For all too long, many CSOs have ignored challenges at home focusing exclusively on the ones abroad. As so many developing countries are prospering, the focus rightly turns back to unresolved issues in Europe.
However, while populists understandably demand “charity”, our sector should focus on empowerment of poor and marginalised people and offer rights based programmes rather than alms. In a world, in which our most challenging problems are global, everybody needs to contribute to resolving them. Only those who undertake the painful and costly transformation at home have the right to demand fundamental change from others.
Should we be trying to build a global social movement around the Sustainable Development Goals? If so, what needs to happen to mobilise the public?
Yes we should, both as a means to re-gain lost trust and to fight intolerance, populism and authoritarian government. Many citizens around the world are deeply worried about climate change, environmental destruction, persistent poverty and growing inequality. They dream of a peaceful, just and sustainable future for themselves, their children and grandchildren. If our sector can reconnect to these dreams and offer a platform for all to pursue their dreams together, we will no longer have to worry about lack of trust or populist stupidity – and we would take a major step closer to resolving the global challenges humanity faces.
The Dóchas Conference 2018 – Changing the Narrative: Building Support for Global Development – will take place on 3 May, from 10.30am – 5.30pm, in the Croke Park Conference Centre. Speakers include Ruairí De Búrca, Director General, Irish Aid; Heba Aly, Director, IRIN; Dr Danny Sriskandarajah, Secretary General and CEO, CIVICUS; Judith Greenwood, Executive Director of CHS Alliance; and Rafeef Ziadah, Lecturer, Comparative Politics of the Middle East, SOAS University of London, spoken word artist and human rights activist. Our MC for the day will be journalist and broadcaster Dil Wickremasinghe.