"Civic space? Oh yes, very important -- but actually we're just about to run a big campaign on food/water..."
This is the response I used to get from the CEOs of many large international NGOs when I talked to them about the need to protect the freedoms of civil society around the world. On occasion, I would also hear an undertone of not wanting to stick their necks out on politically sensitive issues that could impede their ability to operate 'on the ground' in some countries.
But things are beginning to change.
Recently, the leaders of ActionAid, Greenpeace and Oxfam -- three of the largest and highest profile NGOs -- in the world co-signed a joint pledge to work together, amongst other things, to protect civic space. The head of AWID, the feminist platform, and I also signed. Together, we recognize that the ability of people to mobilize, to criticize, to access their rights represents a fundamental, crucial, step towards tackling the power inequalities that continue to strangulate sustainable development efforts.
In many ways, global civil society has flourished in recent years. The UN is making unprecedented formal efforts to facilitate civil society participation in the post 2015 global development framework and there is widespread recognition of the vital role civil society will play in delivering this agenda. And, on the streets, ours is an era of mass protest. The Arab Spring has been followed by more recent struggles for economic justice and democratic rights in Bangladesh, Brazil, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Malaysia, Turkey and Venezuela, to name but a few.
But, in all regions of the world, as people mobilize to defend their rights, civic and political space is being curtailed by repressive action that defends the privileged few. Civic space is shrinking and we should be worried about it. In the last year alone, CIVICUS has monitored severe threats to civic freedoms in around half of the world's 193 countries. A raft of draconian laws designed to impede civil society activists and their organizations have been drawn up, in contravention of international human rights standards, in an array of locations. Laws that narrowly circumscribe permissible activities, limit media freedom, introduce prohibitively complex registration requirements, impede freedom of assembly and the right to protest peacefully; the list goes on. Justifications for such legislation range from a perceived need to protect national security to safeguarding religious and cultural values. And repressive legislation is being cloned from one country to another. A surge in copycat legislation preventing foreign funding has left many organizations with advocacy missions facing dissolution. Increasingly, we're seeing NGOs subject to bureaucratic harassment and raids on their offices; we're seeing the violent dispersal of citizen demonstrations and the illicit surveillance of activists.
And let us be clear, it is not only governments who are responsible for the suffocation of civil society in many parts of the world; the private sector too is increasingly encroaching upon many aspects of public life. Public-private partnerships and the privileging of big business in governance has seen great swathes of the public sphere hived off away from the scrutiny of citizens. Boasting turnovers far in excess of the GDP of many developing countries, the sheer size of today's transnational corporations enables them to shop around for the most lenient jurisdictions where they are least bound by regulatory regimes. Like the Arctic 30, land and environmental rights activists engaged in exposing collusion between these political and economic elites have found themselves increasingly under fire.
All of this matters because our efforts towards sustainable development, our efforts to end poverty and marginalization, to advance women's rights, to defend the environment, to protect human rights will all be thwarted unless we address the structural causes of inequality, the widening imbalance of power between the richest and the rest. Too many decisions, at global, national and local levels, are being shaped by the narrow interests of the 1 percent. We need to tackle civil society's power deficit.
Of course, this won't, and can't, be about civil society agreeing on all aspects of every message; it is about agreeing that we must fight for the messenger's fundamental right to speak out. Civic space should be a universal concern. Its curtailment impacts the operations of even the biggest INGOs. But, more than that, freedom of expression, the ability to express opinions, needs and wants, to criticize and hold leaders to account, to have access to free and fair media, all these things are crucial to the healthy and sustainable development of our societies.
For me, ultimately it comes down to all of us who believe in these ideals of civil society standing up for each other. Yet, much like Niemöller's famous poem, we risk standing by as sections of civil society are attacked. In today's world, they come for the gay rights activists, the hackers, the trade unionists, the whistle-blowers... and in many cases we in civil society stand by, convincing ourselves that our mandate is limited to our silo, our project, our logframe.
Achieving a more just and sustainable world is not a technical challenge; it is a political one. And only by working together in a global movement for a just and sustainable world can we generate the groundswell of pressure that will be necessary for change.
Dr Dhananjayan (Danny) Sriskandarajah is the Secretary-General of CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance. He tweets at @civicusSG.