The Opportunity

7th May 2020 by Wolfgang Jamann

This article, by our Executive Director, is part of a collection of think-pieces by civil society leaders called “The Future of Civil Society Organisations” co-ordinated by International Council of Voluntary Agencies and the International Civil Society Centre, with a foreword by their respective Executive Directors. The writings focus on current challenges and opportunities brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. They are conversation starters over the transformations we want to see in society, and the humanitarian, social justice and environmental sector.

The Future of Civil Society Organisations (PDF)

 

In his book ‘The Great Leveller‘, the historian Walter Scheidel analyses how inequality in societies around the world has continuously, since the stone ages, worsened. His compelling piece describes the only three scenarios which have reduced inequalities significantly: wars, natural catastrophes and pandemics.

Scheidel is cautious in saying that a historical analysis does not predict the future. And frankly, reading his book in 2019 did not inspire hope and confidence for a concerned reader.

In April 2020, six weeks into the Corona pandemic, this feels different. While we’re still grappling with the painful comprehension and immediate management of the situation, our thoughts around a desired future start moving into the foreground. Doing away with inequalities, eliminating the gap between haves and have-nots and creating perspectives for people with lesser opportunities, is definitely part of that desired future.

Inequality is just one of the global injustices we want to overcome. Each of us, irrespective of organisational mandates, could name half a dozen threats to global justice – from ruthless wars to a broken food system, from the doom of climate change to political oppression. Over the past years, it has been painful, slow, sometimes seemingly hopeless to move forward on such big themes. And now? Is there a sudden opportunity to overcome these and heal the broken systems?

Well, certainly not by magic nor quickly. But the current crisis has shown previously unimaginable actions and reactions, and might as well be a watershed unfreezing of what we think is possible and not. Do we dare to articulate, with a stronger voice and determination, the transformations we want to see in the global societies?

Futurists and foresighters are currently looking at weak and strong signals on the post-Coronavirus situation. The most unlikely scenario will be ‘business as before’, once a solution – vaccine or treatment – is found. The biggest questions appear around so-called ‘systems changes’. Is the globalist, capitalist, financial and political system good enough in times of increasing global challenges? Where will our societies drift – back into nationalist and inward-looking behaviours, or forward towards global solidarity, interconnected actions and multilateral governance? And how will the current experience affect our dealing with ‘the other’ large global crisis around climate change?

Highly relevant to these future systems will be the role of organised civil society, whether it is aid, social discourse, political decision-making or framing the narratives that hold our societies together. We should not let others define the future of the values and systems that matter for civil society around the world.

Civil society’s most significant contribution to overcoming this crisis will be working in collaboration, focusing on solidarity and empathy. The humanistic values that bind us, and the societies we work in, demand that we are forward-looking and strategic in our actions, irrespective of the high operational pressures out there. Putting people, unorganised and organised civil society at the centre of post-Coronavirus planning is the task we need to unite behind and show collective leadership.

But we need more. To start with, the vision of a just and healthy planet, as articulated in the Sustainable Development Goals need refreshing. Following on from that, all major political and societal decisions need to be guided by that vision, by the ambition for a just society and clean environment.  

Here are some ideas. What if:

– People in the service sector, the formal and informal gig economy, are paid a living wage;

– Mass mobility is drastically reduced in lieu of ecologically sustainable ways to meet and communicate;

– Taxation is directed towards a stronger common good, and tax avoidance loop-holes closed and tax evasion penalties are enforced with lasting consequence;

– Reformed multilateral crisis mechanisms effectively ceasing wars and sanctioning crimes against humanity;

– Production and consumption patterns support local economies, protect the environment and foster healthy diets;

– Inclusion of the ‘bottom billion’ in digitalisation, job creation and public health care becomes a priority for development ambitions;

– Human rights principles and civic freedom move back into the centre of societal values discussions?

The list can be expanded. We need the courage and the determination not to waste this crisis. Only then, can we bring people together as a society that shows solidarity and cohesiveness in the current crisis and goes beyond the fragmentations and antagonisms that have characterised the past years. 

Wolfgang Jamann

Executive Director

International Civil Society Centre

Dr. Wolfgang Jamann is Executive Director of the International Civil Society Centre. Until January 2018 he was Secretary General and CEO of CARE International (Geneva). Before that he led NGO Deutsche Welthungerhilfe and the Alliance 2015, a partnership of 7 European aid organisations. From 2004-2009 he was CEO & Board member of CARE Deutschland-Luxemburg and President of the CARE Foundation. Previously, he worked for World Vision International as a regional representative in East Africa (Kenya) & Head of Humanitarian Assistance at WV Germany. After his Ph.D. dissertation in 1990 he started his career in development work at the German Foundation for International Development, later for the UNDP in Zambia. As a researcher and academic, he has published books and articles on East & Southeast Asia contributing to international studies on complex humanitarian emergencies and conflict management.

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Communications Manager

International Civil Society Centre

Report: The Fight Back Against Rising Repression in On

1st May 2018 by Andrew Firman

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.

Andrew Firman

Editor in Chief

CIVICUS