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The real frontier in defence of civic space!

Saturday, September 19, 2015 - 14:06

It was an honour to represent ActionAid at the UN Panel discussion in New York to commemorate the International Day of Democracy (IDD) on September 15, 2015. 

Many may not know about the IDD - a fact that reflects both a crisis of the idea of democracy itself as well as urgency with which to re-affirm our belief in this universal aspiration that is lived and experienced differently across the world. 

The theme for the Panel was ‘Space for Civil Society’ and it could not have been timelier in the wake of unprecedented levels of shrinking civic and political space. The message by the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon ‘Civil Society is the oxygen of Democracy’ kicked off the discussion and was echoed in opening remarks by the Permanent Missions at the UN of Bhutan, Chile, Poland, Sierra Leone, and Sweden.  

All the dignitaries re-affirmed the importance of civil society with the representative from Sierra Leone testifying that while not always a comfortable relationship, his government had moved its position from suspicion to respect. He stressed that civic society space is an important measure for a country’s democratic progress.

Later in the day, reality set in as the discussion on shrinking space took centre stage in a panel. I was one of the two panellists and my remarks focussed on the scale of the problem, its causes, and possible solutions.

The scale of the problem

Firstly, shrinking civic and political space is a global problem - not just a crackdown on civil society in developing countries. From so-called stable democracies like Canada, the UK; emerging economic powers like India, Brazil, and South Africa; hybrid regimes like Uganda, Russia, and Guatemala to outright dictatorships like in Syria, the trend is the same. 

Secondly, evidence is that it is worsening and won’t just go away as some would like to believe. Thirdly, legislative barriers seem to be the dominant avenue for repression with more than 45% of the countries where civil society space is under threat passing or considering legislation that would make it difficult for civic groups to register, organise, and fundraise. 

Lastly, government’s use populist arguments and excuses like war on terror, protecting national values, sovereignty, and transparency problems within civic organisations as justifications for restrictive legislation.

The underlying causes 

The causes can be broadly categorised under four strands: first is that the declining civic space is part of a global democratic recession. The message by the UN Secretary General that civil society is the oxygen of democracy being spot on. Secondly is the rise of autocratic and hybrid regimes that hold elections but have no regard for the rule of law. 

Third is the rise to prominence and influence of civil society. Buoyed by the associational revolution in the mid-nineties, the mobilization capability of civil society and the youth in countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Burkina Faso, the intellectual power of global campaigners on issues such as global trade and climate change, civil society is no longer seen as an apolitical force and thus the need to  control it.  

Fourth is the increasing influence of corporates, which is shrinking the policy space of national governments. Civil society are then seen as development saboteurs when it stands against corporate land grabs or question the impact on the environment of extractive industries.  

Possible solutions

To figure out what works, we need to overcome two flaws in the response efforts: a) underestimating the problem or claiming that repression is inevitable; and b) tolerance of autocrats in a choice between two evils, as we see in Syria between Assad’s regime and the Islamic State or settling for bi-lateral commercial objectives as opposed to universal values.

I shared a number of strategic and tactical options in a paper I did for the panel, including: democratic revival as a means to re-assert our belief in human dignity, the need to fortify standards of civil society protection by bringing in regional governance bodies to bolster international efforts, and sharing survival tactics amongst civic groups. 

Important as they may be, the technocratic above and often externally induced response efforts on the market cannot take us all the way.

The real frontier of defence of civic space should be the thousands and millions of ordinary people that engage with civic groups and NGOs - many citizens unaware of any state intervention or protection in the face of disasters, land grabs, and other injustices turn to civil society. 

Civic groups and their membership should endear more with the people and get more socially embedded. For a locally rooted and globally connected organisation like ActionAid, the jury is out for us to harness our illustrious infrastructure in response to the unprecedented levels of shrinking space.

End on an optimistic note

The dialogue at the UN turned out very engaging and lively, depressing at some points, but perhaps my closing remarks that called upon everyone to believe in the human spirit to overcome the challenge of shrinking space through harnessing our collective imagination as global citizens to stand up against injustice gave hope.

’This is about power in people challenging people in power and history is on our side for no matter how long and frustrating this journey will be, citizens eventually prevail’, I concluded.