Civil society space provides the oxygen for citizens to participate and meaningfully hold their governments and the private sector to account – and ensure that decisions are made in the interest of the majority and not the few. Without it, citizens have limited space to dissent and challenge the elites.Winnie Byanyima, CEO of UNAID
I joined 150 leaders from across the globe at International Civil Society Centre’s (ICSC) recent Global Perspectives conference in Addis Ababa. A major theme was the threats civil society faces around the world.
Campaigning by civil society organisations (CSOs) is central to democracy. These organisations amplify the voices of those who are marginalised and hold the powerful to account. The not-for-profit sector has been the driving force behind many of our great social reforms, both in the UK and overseas.
At the conference, we came together to explore what we can do to withstand these pressures and what new approaches we can take to help civil society thrive globally.
Civic space is closing around the world
Last year, nearly six in ten countries were seriously restricting people’s fundamental freedoms (Civicus Monitor). At the conference, we heard specific examples of offices being raided, staff being imprisoned, more use of SLAPs (strategic lawsuits against participation) and CSO staff being arrested.
It was humbling to meet people personally affected by censorship and crackdowns on journalism, campaigning and protesting. It also enlivened my drive to be bold in protecting civil society space across the world.
The rise of populism (on both sides of the political divide) is exacerbating the risk to civil society voice. Populism tends to mobilise people based on fear or hatred, often with misleading facts or ideas, and portrays CSOs as “the elite”. The tribalisation of truth – when we only believe what we hear from the people we support or agree with, based on allegiance not facts – can leave CSOs feeling disempowered, struggling to respond when the values of genuine debate, science, evidence and inclusion are so obviously compromised.
Refreshing our approach
In Addis, we explored how we can respond to the populist context, maintain our voice and continue to make progress on social and environmental justice.
The ICSC’s new report identifies seven strategies that harness digital tools to respond to the populist threat on CSOs. These include building citizens’ skills to combat fake news, inclusive communications in divided contexts, and building trust through new concepts of accountability.
The positive narratives strategy was particularly powerful for me. Populist narratives are often negative, focusing on what divides us. We know we should provide alternatives stories that are hopeful and positive, but this often isn’t the case.
When I worked at Forum for the Future, we worked hard to show solutions and positive ways forward on climate and environmental degradation, but still lapsed into saying how bad things will get when global warming gets beyond 2 degrees. This often leaves people feeling helpless.
The same is true for poverty and inequality. There is a risk that we still spend more time telling people about the problems of poverty, malnutrition and inequality rather than the solutions we provide, or what we are achieving.
Thomas Coombes from Hope-based Communications highlighted that CSOs are good at saying what we are against, but aren’t inspiring people enough. He advocates a new vocabulary of solutions and shared values. Amnesty International has seen success in reframing human rights as the glue that binds us together in our shared humanity, rather than highlighting abuses.
Another strategy is strengthening civil society and resilience networks, based on Civicus’s “Resilient Roots” initiative. This approach counters the idea that populists are the voice of the people.
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Organisations are coming together to test ways to make CSOs more accountable to their primary constituents. These CSOs want to ensure they really are the voice of the marginalised and have the legitimacy to hold power to account.
Protecting civil society in the UK
The UK has been a beacon of civil society rights and campaigning, so it is sad to see that the UK is now one of 12 European countries in which civic space is rated as “narrowed”.
CSOs are reluctant to campaign and join public debate, due to changes in the non-party campaigning rules (aka the Lobbying Act), the introduction of anti-advocacy clauses and changes to the Charity Commission’s guidance.
This week, Bond and 17 other CSOs called on all political parties to respect civil society’s voice and ensure CSOs have the ability to campaign, protest and hold governments to account.
As a sector, we have contributed to policy and legislative changes that have saved and improved lives. Going forward, we need to combine our anger and resistance with innovation and hope.
There is hope: in Ethiopia itself, the new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, is easing restrictions and reforming oppressive laws. But there is no space for complacency. We must work together to protect our space, use new technology creatively and show solidarity with those under threat everywhere.