This year's 'State of Civil Society' report from CIVICUS reaches an important conclusion: even as fundamental freedoms and democratic values are being encroached upon, peaceful acts of resolute resistance by civil society give us reasons for hope.
The report encourages active citizens to join or start their own organizations, social movements and social enterprises to further rights based agendas and defend progress on human rights.
Each year, CIVICUS publishes the State of Civil Society Report, which chronicles major global developments and key trends impacting civil society. The report draws from interviews with civil society leaders at the forefront of social change from around the world and CIVICUS’ ongoing research initiatives. This year it reaches an important conclusion: even as fundamental freedoms and democratic values are being encroached upon, peaceful acts of resolute resistance by civil society give us reasons for hope.
Sobering data from the CIVICUS Monitor, a participatory platform measuring civic space, reveals serious systemic impediments on core civil society freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly in 109 countries and worrying attacks in many more. But many have found renewed purpose in the face of attacks on democratic values to challenge irresponsible exercise of power. In Romania, hundreds of thousands of people came forward to protest when the government tried to soft pedal on corruption. In El Salvador, after years of advocacy, a law was passed to end gold mining activities harming land, water and local communities. In South Korea, a new government borne from citizen action is seeking to forge a different kind of people-centered politics.
The report points out that everywhere we look, there are signs of citizens’ organizing and mobilizing in new and creative ways to defend democracy and fight for equality and social justice. Perhaps the most promising recent development has been the blow to gender inequality and patriarchy struck by the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, demanding an end to sexual harassment and discrimination.
Overall, the report highlights ten key trends impacting civil society. One of them is the undermining of democratic institutions in many parts of the world. Personal rule by political leaders remains a major challenge to the rule of law. Parliamentary and judicial independence is under threat from right-wing populism in countries as diverse as India, Hungary, Philippines, Russia and the US. In many parts of the world, from Bolivia to Uganda, long-time leaders are engaging in constitutional rewriting to extend their tenures.
Recent political shifts towards mean-spirited politics are causing the notion of national sovereignty to be both strongly reasserted, and simultaneously narrowed: it’s not the people who are being seen as sovereign, but presidents and ruling elites. Multilateral institutions are correspondingly being undermined as they struggle to end violent conflict and roll back climate change. The report also points out that as the UN’s funding base has declined, it has increasingly embraced the private sector, whose role appears to be hardwired in the 2030 Agenda.
Privileging the private sector to attract additional resources could make some of the Sustainable Development Goals harder to achieve, such as those on decent work (SDG 8), income inequality (SDG 10), reducing corruption (SDG 16) and encouraging responsible consumption and production (SDG 12). Such ambitions require radical and systemic change, something businesses that benefit from current models of governance are unlikely to embrace.
The report also highlights the spread of neoliberal economic policies as a worrying trend whereby core government functions are being offloaded onto favored corporations. This is creating avenues for cronyism and corruption on a grand scale. In many countries, social safety nets and services for excluded populations are being slashed while mega businesses are incentivized through minimal regulation and tax breaks, resulting in deeply unequal societies with obscene wealth amid searing poverty.
Despite the negative trends, there are reasons for hope. The 2018 Nobel Peace Prize recognized civil society organizing led by the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). A treaty on eliminating nuclear weapons was agreed in 2017 even amidst a crisis of multilateralism, which continues today.
Moreover, civil society activists have proven their mettle as the worst of humanity has come to the fore in recent situations around the world, such as the possible genocide of the Rohingya people in Myanmar and grave violations of the Geneva Conventions in Syria and Yemen. Individuals have placed themselves in the firing line, documenting and exposing rights abuses. When devastating earthquakes hit Mexico and hurricanes struck the Caribbean, it was civil society groups that mobilized as first responders to provide succor to affected populations.
The report includes several sets of recommendations, recognizing that global challenges cannot be tackled alone by organized civil society. Democratic governments are urged to model good practice by enabling spaces for discussion, dissent and dialogue at all levels and to also resist moves to weaken human rights standards at the multilateral level. Multilateral institutions are advised to reinforce the primacy of civil society participation in decision making and to find new ways to open up spaces for direct public involvement in their activities. Progressive businesses, independent media and academia are called upon in their own interest to use their influence to champion democratic norms and make common cause with civil society in defense of human rights and shared values, by forming new alliances, sharing platforms and developing and partnering in joint campaigns.
The report urges active citizens to connect with each other locally, nationally and internationally, encouraging them to speak out and mobilize in different ways, including by supporting social justice initiatives through volunteering and offering financial and in-kind contributions. It also encourages active citizens to join or start their own organizations, social movements and social enterprises to further rights based agendas and defend progress on human rights.
Ultimately, the reports finds in myriad examples of public mobilizations that resistance works. The opportunity lies in sustaining momentum, making connections and moving beyond specific moments of defiance to a shared vision of a world where change is possible.