The authors of this article are members of the Advisory Group of the Fair, Green and Global alliance. Through their work and that of their colleagues worldwide, they witness that the space for civil society is fast shrinking. In this article, they take a close look at the different causes for this worrying trend. They argue that a structural and proactive approach is urgently needed to safeguard the vital role that civil activism plays in creating socially just, inclusive, and environmentally sustainable societies.
By Astrid Puentes, Godwin Uyi Ojo and Mónica Lopez Baltodano
Civil activists of the 21st century have made great strides, locally and globally, towards creating a more equitable and sustainable world. However, the space for civil society is fast shrinking and its countervailing power is increasingly under threat. To defend vested interests, those who speak out against the status quo are being silenced. This happens in many countries in the global South. But not only there. In rich and ‘democratic’ countries too, civil activism is increasingly side-lined.
Our work and that of our many colleagues worldwide is increasingly challenged by all kinds of systemic actions that limit individual and collective rights. The purpose of such actions is to reduce citizens’ capacity to engage politically, enjoy access to justice and exercise free choice, and organise themselves to demand accountability from governments, corporates and other powerful actors.
We argue that countering this widespread and extremely worrying trend, needs a structural and proactive approach. Last-resort diplomatic responses to extreme cases of repression – e.g. the murder of civil activists and human rights defenders – are important, but certainly not enough.
In what ways does the shrinking space for civil society manifest itself? There is the blatant use of repression and violence against dissenting voices, ranging from constant surveillance, smear campaigns and sexual harassment to unlawful detention without charge, malicious prosecution and murder. We witness three more manifestations of restrictions on civil activists, that may be less visible but powerful enough in their own right. First, a negative framing of civil society organisations and attacks on their legitimacy; second, legal limitations to freedom of association and access to funding; and third, counterproductive forces within civil society itself.
Whose side are you on?
The War on Terror declared after the 9/11 attacks has changed the face of international relations. It is also used by governments – on all continents – as a justification to question and curtail the work and legitimacy of civil organisations, which are increasingly under surveillance. This has fuelled suspicion and mistrust between civil society and governments, which at times extends to distrust from the general population. We experience this increasing distrust also where it concerns our advocacy work for sustainable development. In the South Asian region, NGOs are losing space for dialogue and criticising government policies. When NGOs oppose the Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) between their countries and Europe or the US, they are portrayed as being opposed to the general, public interest. This public interest is defined solely as national economic growth. In Latin America too, NGOs and CSOs have to act carefully to not alienate the general public. Defending the rule of law and human rights, for instance in response to large development or infrastructure projects, is easily interpreted as opposing the public interest.
Governments cleverly build on these sentiments to discredit civil activism. And many take it one step further. The increasingly ‘intimate’ relationships between (usually multinational) capital markets and governments have the effect of suppressing civil liberties and rights. This is especially the case with transparency and accountability for natural resource management, labour and community rights, online privacy, arbitrage that circumvents the national legal system, and fiscal discipline. Even the ‘leftist’ governments in Latin America, welcomed by many civil society activists as progressive forces for change, maintain close ties with transnational corporations.
This reality, and the curtailing effect it has on the legitimacy of civil activism, is further compounded by the now pervasive ‘aid and trade’ agenda. The private sector is increasingly seen as the actor that is best positioned to bring development. More and more, public ‘development’ funds are diverted from civic actors to the private sector, including the growing collection of ‘private sector NGOs’. Meanwhile, we witness the birth of another new offspring: Government Owned (or controlled) Non-Governmental Organisations (GONGOs).
The actions of governments against civil activists, are not limited to negative framing. In many countries, laws regarding civil society are being reviewed and amended, or replaced by outright repressive legislation. This legislation is designed to limit the scope of their operations, curtail their sources of funding and their ability to connect to citizens. In some cases, it implies a push back of the democratic space that was successfully seized in the past decades.
Examples are plenty. In Uganda, the Public Order Management Act (2013) and the NGO Act (2016) both narrow the legal space for civil societies and pose a real threat to the freedom of association. In Zimbabwe, the Public Order and Security Act (POSA) was enacted to the same effect. In Ethiopia, NGOs are no longer allowed to advocate for public policy change. The list of countries where similar laws are enacted is too long to mention. The governments in Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela, despite their revolutionary and at times progressive discourse, have all enacted regressive policies against the liberty of expression and the right of assembly. In all these countries, civil organisations, journalists and social leaders who dared to criticise the government, have ended up criminalised and in jail, or had their organisations closed down.
Restrictive legislation for CSOs is not only a ‘Southern’ trend. In Russia, NGOs conducting advocacy are assigned the status of Foreign Agent organisation – leaving little to the imagination as to what that implies. Early in 2016, a heated debate was fought out in the United Kingdom, after the Cabinet Office proposed an edict that all organisations receiving public funds would be banned from lobbying for changes to national laws. Academic researchers negotiated an exemption from the ban, which was primarily designed to prevent charities using public money to lobby for changes in public policy. NGOs in the United Kingdom that receive public funding are not allowed to take a stance towards EU policy.
Bye-bye money, bye-bye influence
There are also legal measures specifically designed to hamper financial access, liquidity and credit-worthiness of citizen and human rights organisations. In Mozambique, forex withdrawal by NGOs is being restricted. In Nigeria, the Bill that regulates the funding of CSOs is primarily aimed at weakening their foreign donor support and thus reducing their influence and power. In Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, organisations that receive funding from abroad are centrally registered. Another alarming example comes from Australia, where many environmental NGOs have seen their tax-deductibility status taken away from them. This has also badly affected the Environmental Defenders Offices around the country, which act as key watchdogs against environmental breaches by big businesses. An Australian mining lobby group asked the government for the funding cuts to the EDOs.
The story is not complete without taking a close look at our own role. Are civil activists themselves also to blame for losing some of their impact? Unfortunately, the answer is ‘yes’. First, civil society is becoming increasingly ‘corporatised’. As we are leaning more and more towards meetings, workshops and boardroom advocacy, we are losing our connection to people’s daily struggles and grassroots social mobilisation. This situation is not helped by the fact that many CSOs are struggling to survive, given the big cut-backs on funding. Moreover, existing funding is increasingly earmarked for less confrontational activities (e.g. not for litigation) and more of it goes to large organisations based in the North that fulfil the elaborate bureaucratic funding requirements.
Secondly, cowed to submission by repressive regimes, CSOs practice self-censorship. We even witness more and more cases of co-optation: many civil society leaders have crossed the floor to join governments, choosing to act against the interest of their former colleagues.
Thirdly, there are misunderstandings, lack of trust, or even open conflicts within civil society that debilitate the effectiveness of all participants. Misunderstandings exist between international and national CSOs, between development-oriented and pro-democracy organisations, and between institutionalised NGOs and social movements on the ground. This unfortunate situation – partly caused by a severe competition for funding and agendas –makes consensus building difficult, creates suspicion, and in worst cases means that people who share a vision end up working at cross purposes.
Walking the road together
In our view, the road for action should, much more than is currently the case, address the structural causes that reduce the space for civic actors. First, civil society actors and communities must be guaranteed access to decision-making processes that affect their lives and livelihoods. When their rights are violated, for instance caused by large-scale infrastructural investments, they must have access to grievance mechanisms. This requires setting up judicially binding mechanisms to protect human rights, and to demand accountability from governments and agencies when they fail or refuse to respect people’s rights – whether at home or by funding overseas ‘development’ projects.
We call on governments to support not only UN Treaties, but also regional institutions such as the Inter-American System for Human Rights (IASHR) and the UN Special Rapporteurs on Human Rights, which play a key role in signaling and denouncing human rights violations.
We also call on governments and embassies to actively monitor civic space in their regions, especially where those that speak out risk their security and that of their families. Governments must recognise the important role of civil society as countervailing power by providing funding and ensuring engagement and dialogue at all levels, including through regular conversations with activists themselves.
We should join forces and together gainsay the rising discourse that questions the legitimacy of civil activism. We need to defend loud and clear our conviction that promoting human rights, participation, and the rule of law is a vital part of working towards equitable and sustainable development for all.
The article was co-written with Lieke Ruijmschoot (Both ENDS) and Ellen Lammers (WiW – Global Research & Reporting).
About Fair, Green and Global Alliance
The Fair, Green and Global Alliance consists of six Dutch CSOs and their 300+ partner organisations worldwide, working towards socially just, inclusive, and environmentally sustainable societies. They focus on improvements in corporate conduct, trade and investment, and financial and tax policies. Ensuring an enabling environment, or civic space, is a fundamental step in the alliance’s strategy and seen as a precondition for its work. The authors of this article are members of the Advisory Group of the alliance.