Is there a global crackdown on civil society organization and if so, how should we respond?

July 18, 2012 20 By admin

I’ve got a nasty feeling that we could be heading towards a strategic train wreck on the role of civil society in development. Let me Netsanet Bilayexplain. Increasingly (and not just among NGOs), development is understood in terms of politics, power, and struggles to redistribute the latter. That has produced a shift in resources towards advocacy and influencing, as a complement to more direct programming and humanitarian work, and in the best cases, a fusion of the two.

That’s great (indeed it is the central argument of my book, From Poverty to Power), but it is predicated (in our case at least) on support for ‘active citizenship’ at local, national and international level. Yet a recent discussion with Netsanet Demissie Belay (right), the Policy and Research Director of CIVICUS, the international citizen action network, highlighted just how threatened ‘civil society space’ has become, particularly for the more political influencing work. I could do with some help in thinking through the implications of this.

First a summary of Netsanet’s presentation, based on a synthesis of various analysis and research carried out by CIVICUS including Bridging the Gaps and State of Civil Society 2011 (reviewed here), which draw in turn on the work of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, which rigorously documents legislative processes around the world, and has just published the excellent ‘Defending Civil Society‘ report. Conclusion? Civil society organizations (CSOs) worldwide face an increasingly sophisticated and varied range of restrictive measures. These include (examples are from CIVICUS and ICNL):

Old fashioned repression: in the words of Russia’s Vladimir Putin: ‘March without permission and you will be hit on the head with batons. That’s all there is to it.’

Restrictions on international funding (pretty essential in the poorest countries): Under Bangladesh law the Oxfam office can’t bring a penny into the country without government sign-off on what partners we fund, what we/they use it for and where it is spent. Government is looking at reducing regulation slightly (for example, dropping the requirement that we notify them of every foreign-funded trip our staff make and why they are making it) but not the overall premise.

Civicus slideFunding restrictions particularly target advocacy work: in Ethiopia, advocacy organizations are not allowed to use foreign funding; Equatorial Guinea restricts NGOs from promoting, monitoring or engaging in any human rights activities.

Deterrent red tape: Uganda’s draft Public Order Management Bill 2011 includes a requirement to inform the police seven days in advance of holding public meetings

Vague and blanket regulatory powers for the state. In Tanzania, an international NGO must “refrain from doing any act which is likely to cause misunderstanding”. In Turkmenistan, having a goal that is ‘impossible to achieve’ is grounds for dissolution (wonder how that works for faith organizations, let alone Oxfam’s mission of ‘building a future free from the injustice of poverty’ ….)

Barriers to registration: In Turkmenistan (again) national-level associations can only be established with a minimum of 500 members; in Russia (again) a gay rights organization was denied registration on the grounds that its work “undermines the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Russian Federation in view of the reduction of the population.”

The most recent addition is a crackdown on communications technology, epitomized by Ethiopia’s recent move to restrict the use of Skype and other forms of VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) communications and the 18 year jail sentence handed down last week to blogger Eskinder Nega.

And in case you thought this was just a southern phenomenon, CIVICUS points to some pretty draconian legislation in Switzerland (up to $110,000 penalties for unauthorized demonstrations) and Canada (prior notice of any demonstration of more than 50 people).

The first question this prompts is ‘why now?’According to Doug Rutzen, who runs the ICNL, it’s actually been going on for a while – “between 2005 and 2010, over 50 countries considered or enacted restrictive measures constraining civil society.  The drivers of this crackdown include the Bush Administration’s “democracy promotion” agenda combined with the decline of US soft power after the Iraq war and the human rights abuses at Abu Ghraib; the patina of political legitimacy provided by Putin and others; the sharing of “worst practices” by governments; both legitimate concerns over development effectiveness and even the unintentional support for constraints arising from the concept of “host country” ownership; and the “war on terror” paradigm, which was used to constrain civil society in the US and globally.”

To some extent, CSOs are also victims of their own success – the ‘colour revolutions’ in the countries of the former Soviet Union in the last decade, or the Arab Spring events of this one, both alerted governments to the threats posed by an active civil society. In addition, there may be a perception of impunity – governments like Ethiopia and Rwanda remain donor darlings despite their draconian attitude to any kind of opposition, because they deliver on growth and poverty reduction. That must send some kind of message. On similar lines, there is an increasingly widespread perception among developing country elites that the ‘western model’, both economic and political, is losing out to other development models, such as that of China, that entail a much more constricted role for civil society.

Finally, there is also the tricky question of whether some of the ‘crackdown’ is actually legitimate government oversight, both because of Belarusslow progress on transparency and accountability by CSOs and NGOs, but also because of the use of ‘soft force projection’ by the US and others to achieve foreign policy goals by selectively supporting protest movements.

The next question is ‘why are the INGOs so quiet?’ We shout about everything from land grabs to arms treaties, but often stay quiet when it comes to the ability of our preferred partners to go about their business (Netsanet himself was jailed for over two years in Ethiopia for his work as national coordinator of the Global Call to Action against Poverty (GCAP)). Some evidence-free guesses as to why that might be the case:

Fear of ejection from the countries in question (well-grounded fears too, in many cases)

Fears over the safety of staff (but our partners often run much greater risks)

Professionalization – maybe staff in country have come to see their role as more project administration than ‘speaking truth to power’?

Does campaigning for CSOs seem too much about process and the right to have meetings, and so too remote from the lives of poor people (and a tough sell as a campaign issue)?

Have we at some level bought into the ‘economistic’ understanding of development that sees growth as more important than human rights, portraying Rwanda’s Paul Kagame in Rwanda and Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia (both hostile to civil society space) as the heroes of African development?

There are some formal international processes we could plug into. The UN has Special Rapporteurs on ‘the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression’ (Frank Larue) and (since 2010) ‘the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association’ (Maina Kiai). Under the auspices of the Community of Democracies, a group of concerned governments has established a Working Group on “Enabling and Protecting Civil Society” to monitor and respond to developments concerning civil society legislation around the world. Also, 14 governments have jointly pledged financial support for the “Lifeline: Embattled NGO Assistance Fund” to help civil society activists confronting crackdowns.

So should the development community be doing more, and if so, what? Working at multilateral government, lobbying our home governments to make it a foreign policy priority, defending CSOs (and/or supporting those who defend them) on the ground? What is most effective in different situations? I’d be interested in your thoughts.