5 Priorities for Civil Society in 2016

As the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos kicks off, all sorts of people will be making all sorts of predictions about the future. So I thought I would have a go as well. Here are five big things that civil society needs to pay attention to in 2016.

Fighting inequality and exclusion This week Oxfam published its latest analysis, showing that just 62 filthy rich people own as much wealth as the poorest half of the world put together. Strangely, despite this extreme accumulation getting worse, the WEF's own The Global Risks Report 2016 does not feature income disparity this year in the way that it was highlighted at previous Davos forums. This is not to belittle the big risks highlighted in 2016- notably the failure to adapt to climate change and large-scale forced migration - but to remind ourselves - as Oxfam has so brilliantly done this week - that fighting the excesses of global capitalism has to be a top priority for progressive civil society.

In September 2015, as global leaders gathered in New York to launch the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), they pledged to 'leave no-one behind'. What we do around this agenda this year - how we mobilise to tackle the inequality that threatens to cripple our efforts to achieve sustainable development - will set the tone for our actions over the next 14 years. If we're to leave no-one behind, one of civil society's most pressing challenges must be to give voice to the voiceless.

Reforming humanitarian assistance Today, at a time when the world's richest have never been richer, more people than ever before - around 125 million people - are in need of humanitarian assistance. As I discovered in preparing the report of the United Nations High Level Panel on humanitarian financing it is a stain on our collective conscience that in a world that generates US$78 trillion each year we cannot generate a few billion to save lives and preserve the dignity of those affected by displacement, disease and disaster.

In May this year, the United Nations will host the World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) in Istanbul. This will be the fourth in a series of major international efforts - in Addis, New York and then Paris - to secure agreement around how to resource the public goods that will be crucial for sustainable development. The WHS will be the first of its kind and the last major summit for the current UN Secretary-General. It is an important opportunity to rethink how we finance humanitarian interventions. We're spending more money than ever before, in fact 12 times more than we were 15 years ago, yet so too is the need for humanitarian aid growing exponentially. The funding gap is now estimated at around US$ 15 billion. Never have our efforts been greater, nor more insufficient.

Resisting the normalisation of restrictions As my colleagues at CIVICUS have documented there have been serious threats to civic space in around 100 countries in recent years. And 2016 hasn't started well. In a worrying echo of recent developments in Hungary, Poland's ruling nationalist Law and Justice Party has pushed through legislation to place public media and the judiciary under government control.

In Israel, a new bill, touted by its supporters as the 'Transparency Bill', seeks to place rigorous new disclosure demands on any Israeli non-profit organisation that receives more than 50% of its funding from 'Foreign Political Entities', in other words from foreign governments, the EU or UN. Following an escalating global trend, the bill casts Israeli CSOs as disloyal 'foreign agents', demanding that their public communications state the source of their funding and calling for their employees to wear distinctive tags. There is still time for this bill to be amended and we must support our Israeli colleagues in their efforts to do so.

So too, must we join forces to influence the imminent revision of the Financial Action Taskforce (FATF) guidelines. An intergovernmental body set up to combat money laundering and terrorist financing, at the national level the recommendations of the FATF have influenced the adoption of sometimes disproportionately restrictive laws. The need to combat international financing of terrorist organisations has become the most popular justification for legislation to control the foreign funding of CSOs. In some countries, such legislation has come to threaten the viability of many elements of civil society, including peaceful citizen mobilisation. Our own recent efforts to get a relatively small sum of money to a group working on gender issues in Sudan were thwarted by US government guidelines stating that such a grant could be used in support of state sponsored terrorism.

We must pile pressure onto governments to ensure that the new FATF guidelines will not stifle the legitimate activities of civil society. In particular, we must dispute the assumption that the non-profit sector, by comparison to the private sector, is particularly vulnerable to abuse of funds. There is simply no evidence to support this claim. This year, we must work to ensure that restrictions to civic freedoms and violations of civic space do not become the new normal.

Protecting online space The Internet is another area of contested civic space in which restrictions are becoming ever more commonplace. As the Internet has opened up new opportunities for civic activism, expression and mobilisation, so states have sought to regulate, control and in some cases censor it, subjecting cyber activism to deepening threats.

So too are web companies at the epicenter of this struggle for net neutrality. In 2012, Pakistani civil society successfully lobbied a number of large tech firms not to respond to a government tender to construct an Internet firewall, leading to the procurement effort being abandoned. We must continue this struggle, calling upon internet service providers to reject publicly any calls by states to take down, filter or censor content that results from the exercise of legitimate, peaceful online expression by civil society activists. We must encourage the business community to stand with us in denouncing companies that choose to profit from the sale of products and services designed to help governments attack or spy illegally on civil society activists and organisations. Civic space online represents an increasingly important - and, therefore, increasingly contested - arena for civil society action; we must do all we can to protect its freedoms. Reforming the selection process for the new UN Secretary-General This one may seem relatively unimportant compared to the challenges I've already outlined. After all, the Secretary-General is just one individual. But it's not about the person, it's about the process.

The Security Council and permanent members of the UN (P5) have already agreed to some reform of the selection process. For the first time, they have asked for formal, public nominations for the post from all member states. I can't help feeling that if we're able to open up the process still further, it will be a huge win for transparency and accountability. It will be an important step in our efforts to dismantle the notion that the UN belongs, not to all people, but to a few influential states. And it will auger well for opening up other oblique areas of international governance, lessening the democratic deficit fuelled by this remote level of executive decision-making.

We see inspiring examples of participatory governance all over the world; so why not in the UN system? The new Secretary-General will be appointed by 193 governments, but, if they serve them and them alone, failing to employ new technologies and tools to engage citizen voice and to mobilise citizen action, then what a waste it will be.

Dr Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah is the Secretary-General of CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance. He Tweets at @civicusSG.