People power, transformation and existential crisis: the state of global civil society:

April 24, 2012 1 By admin

Civicus, a global network of civil society organizations, recently published a pilot ‘State of Civil Society’ report, which it hopes to repeat SoCScoverat regular intervals. Some excerpts:

“2011 marked a critical juncture for civil society. Authoritarian regimes buckled under the weight of citizen pressure, and prevailing political and economic orders faced unprecedented opposition from people power movements in a great wave of protests across many countries. The opening of new arenas and avenues for civic participation and mobilisation in turn provoked significant state backlash against activists and CSOs, with a heavier focus on restricting internet usage. Foreign investments by emerging powers, particularly China, impacted on civil society space in donor recipient countries, but this was not matched by a rise in advocacy by CSOs based in emerging powers to press for more progressive foreign policies by their governments.

On the global stage, civil society continued to experience limited access to key multilateral forums and despite the rise of a cluster of economic and political powers, states tended to use the year’s key global meetings to advance national interests. Many CSOs are facing existential crises, which includes problems caused by a deteriorating funding environment. New and broad-based coalitions between diverse civil society formations are needed to best capitalise on what is currently a generational opportunity to demand transformational political, social and economic change.”

civicus-logo-finalThe report draws heavily on Civicus’ Civil Society Index project, covering some 30 countries, and identifies five key themes across civil society in 2011: civil society response to emergency and crisis; protest, activism and participation; the space for civil society; the resourcing of civil society; and civil society’s role in the multilateral arena.Each theme has a dedicated section in the report.

On the regulatory environment, which is worrying a lot of Oxfam country offices and partners, it says:

“In 2011, several regressive laws were instituted or proposed that negatively impactedon the operating environment for civil society. A number of countries targeted the foreign fundingof CSOs, e.g. Ecuador, Egypt, Ethiopia, Israel and Kyrgyzstan.

Many governments imposed measures restricting the ability of individuals to exercise their freedoms of assembly, association and expression, including in Belarus, Malaysia, Uganda and several countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Also many governments proposed or enacted legislation affecting the formation, registration and general lifecycle of CSOs, such as in Algeria, Cambodia and Iran. Following intensive campaigning from domestic and international civil society, plans were shelved or delayed to introduce restrictive civil society laws in Cambodia, Iran and Israel. However, the threat of legislation remains a potent weapon for governments to subdue civil society voices. More positive reforms were introduced in Montenegro, Rwanda, Tunisia and the Kurdistan region in Iraq.”

The report then provides several pages of analysis of each of the 30 countries in the Civil Society Index. The report is a great idea – just as Pakistan CSO protestwe and many other development organizations are recognizing and stressing the crucial importance of civil society organizations and ‘active citizenship’ in development, there is an alarmingly generalized effort by governments to restrict their ability to operate – it’s a regular topic of conversation in any field trip. So overall, the idea of a periodic ‘state of civil society’ report is an excellent one, but I think it would work better as a more forensic and arms’ length survey of trends and challenges, a bit more like Amnesty’s annual report on human rights around the world. As it currently stands, there is a bit too much editorialising ‘civil society organizations/governments need to do X, Y, Z’ and not enough hard data and legal analysis. But it will be interesting to see how it evolves.