Why Governments Target Civil Society and What Can Be Done in Response
Chief among the current challenges facing the global human rights community (and broader civil society) is a contagion growing in intensity and described best—if inelegantly—as the closing space around civil society. Drawing on a literature review and on discussions with activists from around the world, this report identifies five causal factors affecting closing space—in some cases hastening it, in other cases, helping to keep it at bay—that merit extensive, systematic inquiry. These various lines of inquiry provide a rich, new agenda that if addressed can help generate remedies to improve the conditions under which citizens organize in support of human rights.
What’s gone wrong with democracy?
Democracy was the most successful political idea of the 20th century. Why has it run into trouble, and what can be done to revive it? The protesters who have overturned the politics of Ukraine have many aspirations for their country. Their placards called for closer relations with the European Union (EU), an end to Russian intervention in Ukraine’s politics and the establishment of a clean government to replace the kleptocracy of President Viktor Yanukovych. But their fundamental demand is one that has motivated people over many decades to take a stand against corrupt, abusive and autocratic governments. They want a rules-based democracy. It is easy to understand why.
Why Governments Target Civil Society and What Can Be Done in Response
How, in today’s complex and uncertain times, can those of us working at the interface between governance and development sustain what the great twentieth century development economist, Albert Hirschman, called “a bias for hope”?
In two recent blog posts (click HERE and HERE), I took stock of the evidence as to the extent of governance improvement between 1998 and 2013 among 65 democratic countries (the large majority of which made their initial transition to democracy subsequent to 1990). The results left me feeling even more skeptical than when I wrote Working with the Grain as to the practical relevance of maximalist “good governance” agendas. We need an alternative approach.
To tease out an alternative, it is useful to begin with the classic three-part tripod for orchestrating change – clarifying the vision, developing a strategy for moving towards the realization of that vision, and delineating step-by-step processes for facilitating implementation. Using this lens, the classic 'good governance' discourse turns out to be all vision, empty of strategic content, and counterproductive vis-à-vis process.
Robyn Caplan, a fellow at the GovLab and a SC&I Fellow and PhD student at Rutgers University, reviews CGCS Director Monroe Price’s most recent publication Free Expression, Globalism, and the New Strategic Communication and recaps the GovLab’s related book event.
What effect does the Internet and globalization have on ‘freedom of expression?’ The emerging debate posits a new freedom and openness in communication and its capacity to transcend borders, against a growing power of states and other powerful entities to monitor and control information flows. This dichotomy is strong, but some argue there is a third effect on freedom of expression that is not being as strongly considered: The Internet and a new global communication regime has resulted in competing theories of free expression – held by different cultures and countries – to cross borders, clash, and transform discourse and debate. Changes in technologies and global communications has meant that freedom of expression and what this concept entails, has become both the battleground and the weapon used by states and other major players in the information age.
This is one of the subjects of Monroe Price’s latest book, Free Expression, Globalism, and the New Strategic Communication released by Cambridge University Press in December 2014. Last week, The GovLab at NYU and the Media, Culture and Communication program at NYU Steinhardt held an event to discuss the book with the author. The book is a successor to Prof. Price’s 2002 book, Media & Sovereignty, in which he discussed the effect of globalization on media practices, institutions and content.
In the development business, DFID is a research juggernaut (180 dedicated staff, £345m annual budget, according to the ad for a new boss for its Research and Evidence Division). So it’s good news that they are consulting researchers, NGOs, etc. tomorrow on their next round of funding for research on empowerment and accountability (E&A). Unfortunately, I can’t make it, but I had an interesting exchange with Oxfam’s Emily Brown, who will be there, on some of the ideas we think they should be looking at. Here’s a sample:
What do we need to know?
On E&A, we really need to nail down the thorny topic of measurement – how do you measure say, women’s empowerment, in a manner that satisfies the ‘gold standard’ demands of the results/value for money people? And just to complicate matters, shouldn’t a true measure of empowerment be determined by the people concerned in each given context, rather than outside funders? We’ve made some progress on such ‘hard to measure benefits’, but there’s still a long way to go.
I like entertaining my western friends with stories of growing up in the post-communist Kazakhstan limbo, when everything ended, but nothing had yet started. Stories of how my friends and I would collect old newspapers to trade for books and Moscow magazine subscriptions. And later on, selling empty milk bottles back for some cash to buy candy and chewing gum in the newly opened Chinese shops. The audience goes “oohh” and “ahh”, and oh do I feel like I’ve seen a lot and know what life is like!
I have to admit – attending the Fragility Conflict and Violence (FCV) Forum 2015 that took place at the World Bank HQ last week was an experience that changed my perspective on hardships of life in developing countries. There are developing countries and then there are fragile and conflict-affected countries.
As you may have noticed, I’ve been writing a series of 10 case studies of Oxfam’s work in promoting ‘active citizenship’, plus a synthesis paper. They cover everything from global campaigns to promoting women’s leadership to labour rights. They are now all finished and up on the website. Phew. Here’s the accompanying blog which summarizes the findings of the exercise (with links to all the papers). Huge thanks to everyone who commented on the draft studies when they appeared on the blog.
1. The right partners are indispensable
Whether programmes flourish or fail depends in large part on the role of partners. Usually this means local NGOs or civil society organizations, but sometimes also individuals, consultants or academics. Good partners bring an understanding of local context and culture (especially important when working with excluded minorities such as the tribal peoples of Chhattisgarh). They often have well-developed networks with those in positions of local power and will carry on working in the area long after the programme has moved on.
2. Start with the ‘power within’
Promoting active citizenship means building the power of citizens, starting with their ‘power within’ – their self confidence and assertiveness – especially in work on gender rights. In the case of We Can in South Asia or Community Discussion Classes in Nepal, building this ‘power within’ was almost an end in itself. Elsewhere, citizens went on to build ‘power with’ in the form of organizations that enabled poor and excluded individuals to find a strong collective voice with which to confront and influence those in power. This approach has led to some impressive progress in what are often the most unfavourable of circumstances (women’s rights in Pakistan, civilian protection in Eastern Congo).
Mike Edwards has just written a 3rd edition of his book ‘Civil Society’. It’s a 130 page primer, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy reading. I found some of the conceptual stuff on different understandings of civil society pretty hard going, but was repaid with some really interesting and innovative systems thinking, leading to what I think are some novel suggestions for how NGOs and donors should/shouldn’t try to support civil society in developing countries.
Edwards sets out some fairly arcane (to me anyway) debates, identifying three schools of thought that see CS as
- ‘Associational life’ that builds trust and social capital (de Toqueville, Robert Puttnam, etc)
- The Good Society: a good thing in itself
- A protagonist in the public sphere, incubating debates that will eventually turn into laws and policies (think tobacco campaigners, or women’s rights)
"'What to do' depends on what one understands civil society to be. Devotees of associational life will focus on filling in the gaps and disconnections in the civil society ecosystem, promoting volunteering and voluntary action, securing an “enabling environment” that privileges NGOs and other civic organizations through tax breaks, and protecting them from undue interference through laws and regulations that guarantee freedom of association" (pg. 108)
"Believers in the good society will focus on building positive interactions between institutions in government, the market and the voluntary sector around common goals such as poverty reduction, human rights and deep democracy" (pg. 108)
"Supporters of civil society as the public sphere will focus on promoting access to, and independence for, the structures of communication, extending the paths and meeting grounds that facilitate public deliberation and building the capacities that citizens require to engage with each other across their private boundaries" (pg. 108)
Unsurprisingly, Edwards advocates a synthesis of all three, but then he gets interesting.
These are some of the views and reports relevant to our readers that caught our attention this week.
Many in Emerging and Developing Nations Disconnected from Politics
In recent years, high-profile protest movements have erupted in several emerging and developing countries, roiling, and sometimes overturning, the political status quo in Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey, Ukraine, Brazil, Thailand and other nations. Millions have demonstrated, and activists have pioneered new forms of online engagement. However, a recent Pew Research Center survey finds that many people in these nations remain relatively disconnected from politics. Although most vote in elections, few take part in other forms of political participation.
Columbia Journalism Review
Two beliefs safely inhabit the canon of contemporary thinking about journalism. The first is that the internet is the most powerful force disrupting the news media. The second is that the internet and the communication and information tools it spawned, like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, are shifting power from governments to civil society and to individual bloggers, netizens, or “citizen journalists.” It is hard to disagree with these two beliefs. Yet they obscure evidence that governments are having as much success as the internet in disrupting independent media and determining the information that reaches society. Moreover, in many poor countries or in those with autocratic regimes, government actions are more important than the internet in defining how information is produced and consumed, and by whom.
Activists are under attack in India. Columns such as this one on how misguided activism has created a “mess (that) will take some time to be sorted out” are not uncommon in the popular press these days. Part of this is mainstream journalists trying to make sense of a field where the motivations and incentives of the primary actors is hard to fathom. It is far easier to paint everyone as disruptive and regressive.
I am not an activist myself. However, the space for constructive activism in India is one that I care about. I will therefore, attempt to present a contrarian argument, advocating for greater space for activism in India.
It is still fashionable to present growth and development as a dichotomy. This is at a time when income inequality qualifies as possibly the biggest threat to India’s future. An aspiring global super power, we have the unenviable burden of literally hiding our poor behind make-shift screens every time we organise an international event or an important dignitary visits us. Many of those who are left out of the growth story also simultaneously suffer from disadvantageous social status and lack basic capabilities, due to an inability to access quality education, healthcare and the like. The experience of the past seven decades has shown that neither the state not the market on their own can empower citizens to exercise “individual preferences” that will pull them out of the vicious cycle of poverty.
Ending extreme poverty is achievable, but the World Bank Group cannot do it alone. It needs strategic and meaningful collaboration with governments, the private sector, and civil society partners that have local expertise, experience, and connections.
The Bank Group currently engages with hundreds of civil society organizations (CSOs) every day in various stages and areas of its development activities. How is its engagement efforts perceived by civil society and other stakeholders? Is citizen/civil society engagement a vital ingredient for successful reforms? How can the institution engage more effectively?
Recent data from the annual World Bank Group Country Opinion Survey, with input from over 9,000 stakeholders around the world, shed light on these important questions.
As part of ongoing efforts to better understand the needs of global stakeholders and partners, the Bank Group undertook Country Opinion Surveys in 42 developing countries from July 2013 to June 2014 (as part of an annual program that conducts surveys with opinion leaders in all client countries every three years). 9,255 opinion leaders from government, bilateral/multilateral agencies, civil society, academia, media, and the private sector participated in the survey and shared their views regarding the Bank Group’s work and relationships on the ground.