Burkhard Gnärig

2 January, 2018

When the Going Gets Tough…

One year ago I reviewed the political environment in which civil society had to act and drew some conclusions for the year 2017. I expressed my expectation that “we will not succumb to Brexit and Trump” and demanded: “We urgently need to come together in a powerful global movement to defend tolerance against the intolerant, pluralism and the rule of law against authoritarianism, and our future as a global community against chauvinism and xenophobia.” What has happened in this respect over the past twelve months?

Oppressing citizens’ freedoms has become mainstream

As I write these lines the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Hussein, announces that he will not seek a second term in office due to the “appalling” climate for human rights advocacy. From our own work on citizens’ rights, we know exactly what he means: during the past year several activists who worked with us and signed the Civic Charter were imprisoned, and many citizens and their organisations suffered from increased oppression and persecution. To name just one example: ActionAid Uganda, with a very impressive history of concrete achievements in the country, suffers from a range of oppressive measures by the government including their offices being raided by the police and their bank accounts frozen.

The ethic of solidarity is being replaced by the “survival of the fittest”

The US Senate has just approved a tax reform that will significantly lower the tax for companies and rich individuals. In simple terms, this means: the rich will get even richer while the poor have to expect even less support from a government with empty coffers. Lower taxes will strengthen US companies in competition with companies from countries with higher tax rates. These countries may now be forced to take similar steps to level the playing field – with similar effects on poor people. As the world faces unique levels of income inequality the rich seem to become even greedier and the poor even more marginalised and exploited. Examples can be found in a wide range of very different contexts: increasing numbers of citizens in rich countries do not want to share their wealth with refugees fleeing from war and poverty; the richest region of Spain, Catalonia, no longer wants to share their wealth with the poorer parts of the country; the governing elite in Myanmar conducts pogroms among the marginalised Rohingya; etc.

Nationalism is on the rise while global challenges increase

More frequent and powerful hurricanes, more damaging forest fires, more floods in some parts and more droughts in others: climate change is picking up speed while our response continues to be inadequate. Little rocket man and big madman threaten each other with all-out war as the world stands by helplessly watching. The EU, OECD, UN, are all suffering from a loss of authority and resources. At a time of when the main challenges to humanity are global we seem to be falling back into a world of ruthless nationalism. As a post-war German, I grew up in a world which seemed to have learned from the disasters caused by aggressive nationalism. Now it looks as if we have forgotten the painful lessons two world wars provided.

Organised civil society is mostly failing to respond

Sadly, all these developments have not led to any major effort of organised civil society to respond. We haven’t seen the “powerful global movement” I hoped for one year ago, and we are far from seeing one anytime soon. On the contrary, as the pressure increases, all too many of us try to adapt to rather than resist the new populist and nationalist world. Trying to raise funds for our fight for civic rights has been a telling experience. At a time when we need to uphold global solidarity against the onslaught of aggressive nationalism, many donors have shifted their attention to the national level. For instance, for the past two years, we have brought together activists from different countries to enable them to share their experiences and learn from each other how best to defend civic rights. To date, we haven’t secured any resources yet to conduct such a crucial meeting once again in 2018. While authoritarian governments are very effectively learning from each other how best to curtail their citizens’ freedoms, our sector doesn’t have any common strategy on how to organise our fight at the global level. Besides the foundations and governments, we asked 30 of the largest international civil society organisations to support our fight for civic freedoms – and their own rights to operate: to date without any tangible response.

… the tough get going

What does all of this mean for the year ahead of us? Let’s be honest: life for civic activists will get tougher, rather than easier. At these times of increasing pressure, the difference between committed activists and those who happen to pursue a career in the civil society sector will become much clearer; and the difference between mission-driven organisations and those that aim to maximise their income will become obvious. I recently spoke to an African activist who fights at the frontline defending civic rights. When I told him about our difficulties to secure funding he said: “It doesn’t matter. What is right needs to be done anyway.” People like him uphold the credibility and legitimacy of civil society.

I thought of him, and the many admirable activists who risk their lives to defend our freedoms, when I took my personal New Years’ resolution: I will stay in the fight for civic rights, no matter whether there is money to support this or not. And I took another resolution for 2018 and beyond: in the future, I will only work with people who are truly and personally committed. On this basis, I look forward to an exciting year 2018. I wish you all a wonderful year at the end of which you will feel proud of what you have done and what you have achieved.

Leave a comment