Danny Sriskandarajah

11 August, 2015

Two Observations about Civic Space

Civil society under threat. Credit: Zubair Sayed - CIVICUS

If you are visiting Disrupt&Innovate, I assume you are (like me) interested in how to ensure that civil society remains a powerful force for good. You are also probably worried about the growing threats to civil society actors across the world. Indeed, you are probably from and/or work in one of the 96 countries where there were serious threats to civic freedoms in 2014. In fact, you are almost certainly from one of these countries because 67 years after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 6 out of 7 people live in a country where these civic rights are under threat.

Assuming the above, I wanted to share two emerging observations from having been in numerous conversations about what to do to resist attacks on civic space.

The first is that civic space cannot be ‘saved’; it has to be fought for, constantly. In many discussions, I sense there is a presumption that civic space is a static thing that needs to be protected or defended. Instead, I think of civic space as being constantly contested, and rightly so. My reasoning is that there is no such thing as a civic space utopia. If there were such a place – where civic freedoms and conditions for civil society were perfect – it would be dystopic to the extent that citizens would be complacent and start to take things for granted. Instead, for me, the value of citizen action is as much about the journey – the claiming of rights, contesting of social injustice, challenging of power – as it is about the ends being sought.

My second, related observation, is that contestations over civic space are increasingly about how democracy itself works, and therefore about power.

In most cases, attacks by the state on civil society, whether they be through stealth regulation or public intimidation, involve negotiating what are the acceptable limits that can be placed on the ability of people to organise and mobilise. So, for example, while many of us complain about the growing number of restrictions on foreign funding for civil society organisations (CSOs), most of the governments enacting these rules are by and large getting away with it because most in their domestic polity do think it is acceptable for a sovereign government to protect itself from foreign interference (or just do not get worked up by the issue).

Take a look at how states justify their interference in civil society and you will see that they are in essence about the nature of democracy:

  • “we need to prevent political opposition from using CSOs as fronts instead of contesting party politics”;
  • “we cannot be held to account by a small number of professionalised CSOs with vested interests when our ultimate accountability is to those who elected us”; or
  • “we have a plan for the development of our nation and (unpatriotic) critics in civil society are undermining our ability to deliver prosperity/security/cohesion”.

India, which Burkhard Gnärig wrote about in his blog, is a good contemporary case in point. Its vibrant civil society outfits with their long history of civic mobilisation are being labelled by vested interests as impediments to the nationalist discourse. As Pradeep Patra and Amitabh Behar argue in the latest CIVICUS State of Civil Society Report, “the more that Indian civil society has ventured into the political sphere to address issues of democratic and governance deficits, the more it has found itself being pushed to the edges by governments.”

If you agree with these two observations, we are left with some important implications for those of us working to support civil society. At the very least we need to invest more time and effort to nurture active citizens and ensure CSOs are deeply rooted in the communities they claim to serve, and not just focused on things like ensuring a good regulatory environment for CSOs to operate.

Instead of supporting experts in London and New York to study threats to civic space and come up with recommendations, we should be empowering and enabling local actors to fight their own fight. And perhaps most importantly, we as CSOs need to engage more in the political sphere to win hearts and minds amongst the wider polity on our issues. CIVICUS’ early experience with the Global Day of Citizen Action suggests that when we start talking about our rights to speak out, organize and take action, we can indeed engage large numbers of people who might otherwise find discussions about civic space abstract or who indeed had hitherto thought these debates were not about them.

As I say though these are two emerging observations and I would welcome feedback via this blog or to me directly.

Find Danny @civicussg on Twitter and Facebook.

If you’re a senior leader at an international or national CSO please join us at the Global Perspectives Forum November 4-6 in Bangkok. CIVICUS and the International Civil Society Centre will be co-hosting a workshop and a panel on shrinking civic space. 

Feature photo: Zubair Sayed

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