Finally, after several years of denial by many in our sector there is a burgeoning recognition that indeed this is a time of major changes where the parameters of the past are being questioned, where global challenges have emerged that are key to our survival – whether originating in climate change or in global economic disruptions – and where the significance of these changes must be addressed to realise a sustainable future.
Major global and national issues have also emerged that challenge civil society both as organisations and as individual citizens. Urgent issues are often being ignored, or not given the priority they deserve by national and global decision-makers. Issues such as climate change and the consequent shocks in the forms of climate related emergencies, falling agricultural production in some areas, flooding, storms and other weather related crises are often subject to official denial by policy-makers. Meanwhile, greater inequality (in both rich and poor countries) is also discounted in the agendas of discussions on our future. This is despite clear consequences of inequality, which at one level can lead to increased political instability and violence, and at the other end to entrenching poverty.
There is a need for a renewed debate over the roles and priorities of civil society in many parts of the world, which should reassess relationships with both the State and civil society membership and constituencies alike.
Despite the urgency to advance a new more sustainable agenda, civil society organisations (CSOs) face many attempts to inhibit citizens’ voices and the roles for civil society in confronting the issues of the day, from the global to the local. The challenge therefore for civil society is to re-orientate its own priorities and rediscover its own key roles as a distinct actor for change, rather than get side-tracked or co-opted into being used as a bolster of various government policies. Civil society must re-adapt to address the global challenges facing all peoples on the planet.
It is important to realise that rapid growth in many countries has had positive effects for many social and economic groups. Where the state has been able to invest in social development, the result has been reduced mortality and morbidity, an improving education system and better jobs for people. And not all economic growth is destined to lead to greater inequalities. As the example of Brazil has shown, it is possible to move from being one of the most unequal societies towards making consistent improvements in the distribution of new wealth to marginalised groups.
Meanwhile new forms of civil society are emerging, alongside new movements, and in some countries, there are increasing interest in ‘second generation’ issues. The Civil society at a Crossroads international research programme highlighted movements arising from students’ protests (Chile), abortion campaigning (Uruguay), campaigns for lesbian and gay partnerships (Argentina), and commuter movements (Indonesia). These movements illustrate the importance of social groups making broad alliances in favour of generic issues significant to society. For example, the anti-corruption movement in India can be seen to have been successful precisely because it cut across traditional divisive lines of caste, class, ethnicity and religion. People across these lines realised that corruption affects everyone in society, from the poorest peasant who cannot access a government employment scheme, to a middle class family expected to pay a bribe to get their daughter into college, to the large company where corruption adds unacceptable costs to their transactions. These examples demonstrate the growth of significant civil society actions moving from the global to the micro, and from transnational campaigns to local action around local issues.
The polarisation of societies as a consequence of poor governance, increasing inequality, recession, and the abuse of power, both by both companies and politicians is leading to a greater awareness that CSOs and citizen action are required to counteract these trends. Such movements are not just characteristic of developing countries: the democratic deficit in developed democracies is also leading to new forms of action from civil society groups, including active protests, such as Occupy, and mass protests through electronic media, such as those led by Avaaz, among others.
In some societies there is a reaction against the constraints on national protests and action, in which people have focused more on local level action, as is the case with Greece, where protest has moved from high profile public actions to the formation of popular-based local councils. But in other contexts, including Bahrain, Egypt and Syria, despite very active movements, citizens are finding their voices overruled by powerful elites. This suppression of legitimate civil society voices leads to further conflict and insecurity. Governments in such countries are failing to understand that negotiation and compromise, rather than continued repression, might produce better longer-term solutions.
While civil society may be healthy in many parts of the world, the tendency of governments to suppress it continues. A challenge for increasing numbers of CSOs, which cuts across countries and thematic issues, is the practice by some governments to block foreign funding for human rights groups and other CSOs, notably recently in Ethiopia and Russia. The issue here is not only how to support such organisations, but how to call the bluff of these governments by showing that there is sufficient domestic support for human rights by mobilising local resources to replace foreign funding, however difficult this may be in poor countries. Doing so would send a real signal of support for human rights work.
…There is clearly an urgent need for a debate on the continued weakening of the UN system, which is also overly dependent on aid-related agendas, rather than its core business of global governance.
One of the main crossroads being faced by many CSOs, and especially NGOs, is the shrinking, sometimes to the point of withdrawal, of aid by donors, both government and CSOs, from many countries. The attainment by developing countries that traditionally receive aid of official middle income status obliges some donors to cut their assistance, as by law they are meant to only support development programmes in low income countries. Organisations that were dependent on external funding are now faced with the tensions and challenges of identifying new forms of resourcing for their work. Although growth can produce some positive results for people, a change of a country’s status may mean that it is a good time to reconsider whether the types of work CSOs have been undertaking for many years in these countries are as necessary and appropriate as they once were. The issue is therefore not just a question of resources, but also one that may challenge the very roles of organisations that were set up and driven by a specific externally-funded aid agenda.