I’ve been struggling to make sense of the changing landscape for civil society organizations, North and South, and could do with your help. Here are some initial thoughts, but please send in your own, plus useful references:
One door opens, another shuts
There are contradictory and ambiguous trends for civil society at national and global levels. On the plus side:
· Growing size, strength and sophistication at national level and globally of CSOs of all shapes, sizes and coalitions. (For an example, see previous post on the Global Campaign for Education)
· Recognition from other actors (international institutions, aid donors, TNCs) of the importance of CSOs as partners and stakeholders
But on the negative side, according to a new report by Civicus, the crackdown in countries such as Ethiopia, Zambia and India has accelerated in 2009-10, affecting some 90 countries,:
“What began as a knee jerk reaction to a horrific event in 2001 (9/11), assumed a life of its own by the end of the decade. The world is presently witnessing a cascade of laws and regulatory measures to restrict the rights of citizens to freely express their views, associate and assemble. Peaceful demonstrators, activists, journalists, human rights defenders and ordinary citizens are increasingly facing motivated prosecution, harassment, physical abuse and threats to their lives for challenging well-entrenched power structures. The proffered justifications range from counter-terrorism to national security, cultural relativism to national sovereignty and government ownership of development processes as opposed to democratic ownership.”
The rise of the BRICS has had similarly ambiguous impacts, giving greater global prominence to civil society-led change in countries such as India and Brazil, and challenging the Washington Consensus previously opposed by so many CSOs, but also providing alternative, no-strings-attached sources of investment and diplomatic support that have made it easier for anti-democratic governments to ignore Western pressures to democratize.
In the North, the shift to the right in Europe and the US has had ambiguous results. Cutbacks have encouraged governments such as the UK to highlight the role of the ‘Big Society’, including (at least rhetorically) a central role for CSOs. But this role is frequently restricted to service delivery, rather than advocacy – there may be a larger share of a dwindling aid budget available to CSOs, but it is likely to have a political price tag. Aid volumes are likely to stagnate or even fall, if history is any guide, leaving development NGOs with a choice between a defensive ‘stick to your promises’ campaign, a push for innovative forms of financing (eg Robin Hood Tax, tax havens), a rebalancing towards quality of aid rather than quantity, or a shift in focus towards domestic resource mobilization (commodity royalties, domestic tax reform).
So how does the zeitgeist feel to you?