Some of the leading lights in business and politics will be heading out to Switzerland for the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos later this month, to discus some of they key challenges facing the world in the coming years. Though there will be a lot of discussion about the role that civil society must play and representation from a number of CSOs, I am increasingly concerned that in framing such discourse, we forget what civil society is actually for.
A vibrant and diverse civil society should be populated by strong independent organisations championing causes that will often divide opinion and cause controversy. In doing so they strengthen democracy. Civil society organisations (CSOs) are not just a vehicle for delivering the goals set by leaders, or even for helping to define those goals. A vibrant civil society sector should be a goal in itself.
The theme for this years forum is The New Global Context. In an age of “increasing complexity, fragility and uncertainty”, it is of no surprise that “security” concerns will feature heavily – the word is used 22 times in the events programme. Mass communication technologies have enabled information to spread between previously isolated extremists. The internet allows public dissent to spread like wildfire, resulting in unexpected mass protests from the UK to Turkey and even revolution, as seen in the Arab Spring.
For many, CSOs represent an essential tool for dealing with the terrible consequences of such insecurity – both in terms of the humanitarian response and the process of reconciliation. Others will point to CSOs as a means of preventing the kind of barbarism seen in Paris earlier this month, by engaging the hard to reach and vulnerable within society and challenging extremism at its source. Clearly, all of the above are indeed crucial roles that CSOs play and frankly the world would be a better place if they had more resources at their disposal. However, in seeing the primary benefit of CSOs as the deliverers of services and programmes, we are completely misunderstanding their true value to the world.
One of the more positive topics that is likely to feature heavily in conversations at Davos is the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – the successor regime to the Millennium Development Goals which expire this year. The programme of events at Davos is peppered with references to “sustainable development” and no lesser figures than Bill and Melinda Gates will host a session on the SDGs. A great deal of effort has been made to ensure that CSOs have been able to engage in the process of developing the 17 new goals and 169 targets that will hopefully drive forward a rights based improvement in the living standard and wellbeing of everyone. But whilst civil society has played a part in shaping the goals, and is seen as an important partner in delivering them, I fear that CSOs have been overlooked in the development of the SDGs in one crucial way; the right for people to support CSOs and for those organisations to pursue their cause legally, independent of interference from the state, is not a goal in and of itself, and I believe it should be.
If we look at the events of recent years it seems clear to me that much of what the SDGs hope to achieve will be impossible unless the rights of CSOs to engage in advocacy are enshrined in the final document. Goal 16 for instance, “Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”, cannot be delivered without a reversal of the recent global trend for governments to undermine the independence of CSOs through rhetoric, intimidation and regressive legislation and regulatory practices. Clamping down on CSOs in this way may well seem logical and even justifiable at first glance for governments who are trying to improve security within their country, but is wholly illiberal and counterproductive in practice.
To take an extreme example, we need only look at Egypt. Successive regimes have sought to stabilise their country by subduing civil society dissent. No country can prosper without a stable government and Hosni Mubarak’s government felt that civil society posed a serious threat to its fragile sovereignty. A toxic environment for civil society advocacy in which the government was unwilling to accept criticism prevailed. For example, in 2005 the Egyptian Association Against Torture was prohibited from starting a campaign to pressure the government to eliminate torture in police stations, on the grounds that this was deemed to be ‘political activity’. This strategy didn’t work, and when a new government formed under Mohamed Morsi following the 2011 protests in Tahrir Square, his advisors clearly felt that they must learn from Mubarak’s mistakes … by cracking down on civil society freedom even more. In February 2013 legislation was passed to designate all funds received from foreign donors as “public funds”. The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) claimed this was an attempt by the government to “nationalize civil society and turn it into a quasi-governmental apparatus”. When Morsi’s government fell amidst more protests, Adly’s Mansour’s interim Presidency merely doubled down, and new constraints have been proposed to restrict access to funding for CSOs.
This example should be instructive, not just for those who believe that civil society should be strong, but also for those who think that governments should be stable and that security and the rule of law should be guaranteed for citizens. When governments seek to quell the disquiet emanating from civil society, they are largely making a false assumption. That assumption – that civil society creates or fuels unrest – confuses cause and effect so fundamentally that it leads to a dangerous “out of sight, out of mind” fallacy in decision making. In reality, CSOs and their campaigning are extremely effective at enabling the marginalised and the disenfranchised to have their views heard. Unless they are allowed to do this the pressure of discontent can build within society and can, without warning, explode onto the streets.
Sadly, there is no sign that the lesson of Egypt is being learned. Instead, a tidal wave of regressive policies around the globe are undermining the right of CSOs to engage in advocacy. Enabling an Independent Not-for-profit Sector, a Charities Aid Foundation publication highlights examples of governments in emerging economies such as Azerbaijan, Ecuador, Indonesia and Algeria which have introduced legislation directly limiting political advocacy or actions which compromise the interests of the state. Rich world nations such as the UK and Canada have tasked regulators with imposing increased scrutiny over and above existing laws on civil society advocacy.
In addition, the trend for governments to seek to isolate civil society from international donors and advocacy networks is continuing to gain momentum. Governments in Russia, Kenya, Nigeria, Azerbaijan and Venezuela to name but a few have recently made it more difficult for CSOs to access foreign funds. In an era of increasing globalisation of cross border economic activity in other sectors, it is neither fair or sustainable isolate CSOs from international cooperation.
This regressive trend has not gone unnoticed at the highest levels of international governance. Addressing the United Nations Human Rights Council on May, 30, 2013 Maina Kiai, Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association highlighted “increased control and undue restrictions” on funding, particularly foreign funding and barriers to freedom of assembly as “the most significant [issues] of his mandate”. And in September 2013 US President Barack Obama launched the Stand for Civil Society initiative, which committed to “opposing undue restrictions on civil society and fundamental freedoms” and to leading “by example to promote laws, policies, and practices that expand the space for civil society to operate in accordance with international law.” Such appeals seem, unfortunately, to have fallen on deaf ears.
Some of the blame belongs to CSOs themselves. Too often, in the face of criticism or cuts to government funding we defend the sector by talking about the services it provides for people and communities rather than the role it provides in a healthy democracy. CSOs have adapted to an increasingly competitive global market by professionalising and seeking to differentiate themselves from their competitors. For the most part that can only be a good thing but not if it is at the expense of collective solidarity. Some charities may perform a function, within the law, that many of us think pointless, or even actively counterproductive for society, but as a sector, and a people, we ought to defend their right to advocate their position.
We have too easily allowed the word “political” to become a pejorative term when it is applied to CSOs and their crucial advocacy work. Conflating political advocacy with partisan, party political campaigning robs us of the most crucial role that civil society plays. Had we have silenced the unpopular causes supported by civil society in the past such as universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery, or the provision of basic welfare services for the poor, the world would be a very different and much darker place. In an era where many democracies are seeing a lack of democratic engagement it seems perverse to suggest that CSOs should be less political. Giving your time and money to support a legal cause is an intrinsically political act. It should be encouraged. If the grim start to 2015 has taught us anything, it is that as perilous as defending our freedom to disagree can be, it is less dangerous than sacrificing it.