Civil society plays an integral part in all democracies, especially in building and strengthening democracy. First, what is civil society? Resounding sociologist Larry Diamond, defines civil society as a complex and interconnected network that entails a “range of organized groups/institutions independent of the state.” These groups have respect for the law, for the rights of other groups, and for the rights of individuals. Other conditions must be met to be part of civil society. In a democracy, they are voluntary, self-generating and self-reliant establishments like non-governmental organizations (NGOs), think tanks, and independent mass media.
Civil society groups are primarily responsible for acting as an information relay system for both governments and citizens, holding governments accountable while simultaneously advocating for justifiable policies in favor of the public. However, in recent years, coupled with the rise of internal country conflict, governments have been actively repressing civil society through a multitude of ways, with the intent of reducing their legitimacy and effectiveness. Between 2014 and 2016, over sixty countries restricted citizens’ freedom of assembly and civil society’s ability to receive funding. But, why?
Worldwide, governments are “closing space” for civil society–a term for environments where restrictions hinder the ability of civil society and political actors to assemble and operate. Social movements and civil society organizations often become subject to intimidation, defamation, and criminalization in the event they address hot topics or release information about corrupt government matters. In response to President Pierre Nkurunziza’s announcement of his third term in 2015, independent civil society groups and media in Burundi were relentlessly attacked, and their members killed, jailed, and threatened due to activists who were perceived as being critical of the government. Such violence has dissolved and silenced numerous civil groups, leaving them filled with fear of retaliation by authorities, all while the government escapes accountability.
More subtly, governments are notorious for manipulating laws that interfere with the right to freedom of association and expression, designing them to restrict the creation and administration of civil society organizations. These bullying techniques prevent NGOs from carrying out crucial work. Amnesty Official reported that in 2019, almost forty pieces of legislation were enacted all around the world to silence and prevent assembly without reason. These laws implemented treacherous registration processes for organizations. Many of which monitored their work, restricted their sources to foreign funding and, in extreme cases, shutting them down if they did not comply with the unreasonable requirements imposed on the organizations. In 2018, Pakistan’s Ministry of Interior rejected 18 international NGO registration applications, and dismissed their subsequent appeals for unknown reasons.
Furthermore, civil society groups have found themselves dependent on corporate funding, which gives these hegemonic corporations the power to skew and influence the authentic nature of NGOs in their favor. This is considered “dependency syndrome” in which civil society organizations are too dependent on external resources, like funding, which brings along great restrictions and thereby, distrust, harassment, and intimidation. As a result, NGOs experience constituency deficits as they find themselves tending more to the corporations and not to the intended population in need. Their independence is undermined and their ability to engage in fruitful internal decision making is hampered. This lessens their accountability to communities and causes a ripple effect as constituents begin to perceive civil society groups as corrupt and illegitimate.
Governments also use technology to restrict political space and undermine NGOs credibility in both international and domestic arenas. Smear campaigns are implemented against civil society groups to deter the reputation of such causes due to the fear that increased transparency would reveal ill-gotten gains of corrupt government officials. In other words, it is a method of premeditated damage control in anticipation of exposure. In February of 2022, journalists and activists in Hungary found themselves being smeared in the media just two months ago. A leading pro-government newspaper agency, in connection with Hungary’s government, was responsible for poisoning political and public debate by twisting information about the journalists and taking them out of context to discredit their voices and demonize their efforts.
The ability for numerous governments, especially democratic ones, to vilify civil society and their efforts should offend all who value basic human rights and the concept of open, democratic societies. Without an active civil society empowered to hold a government accountable, political and social developments will be unsustainable. So, what can be done to reopen civic space in light of active government repression? The USAID provides a three-pronged approach to support civil societies and respond to closing space–prevention, adaptation, and continued support. Prevention entails identifying where risks and opportunities lie to better detect and prevent future nefarious government efforts. Adaptation is necessary under changing conditions to also find ways around government restrictions, like seeking assistance programs and/or reincorporating the agency as a for-profit enterprise until governments re-establish the rights of groups. Lastly, continued persistent support is required in the face of ongoing repression, especially within constituents and substantial political figures. Diplomatic pressures must be applied and leveraged during such politically tense times to ensure civil societies flourish in highly challenging environments. However, is this approach enough to save such an integral part of democracy? Concrete action is needed, bad.
First of all, I want to compliment you. The post is well researched and sound. You achieved to guide the reader through the topic in a smooth flow without missing important aspects out. As imprecise the term “civil society” is, you have described it precisely.
The paragraph about the dependency syndrome, NGOs face the risk of get roped into interest conflicts as soon as they become an institutionalized player. However, NGOs have to be responsible for themselves. In my opinion, if an NGO falls victim to power games it is a mistake of the management. An ideal NGO should be transparent. If the conduct of transparency is implemented accurately and is not subject of negotiations I doubt that problems of corruption or extortion will arise. Of course, there are loads of cases in which the conduct of transparency is not implemented in the desired way or not at all.
I am aware that the management of an NGO has to face difficult decisions. I can imagine that they often have to make concessions to corrupt governments in order to be present in their range of influence.
If I may question if civil society groups always act in the favor of the people. To my way of thinking, this has not to be the case. On the contrary! I think civic movements sometimes need to represent a minority in opinion.
As an example, I cite the climate strike movement in Switzerland (https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/thousands-demonstrate-in-bern-for-climate-action/47050338). Over almost a year they occupied public space and protested to make the upcoming climate crisis heard. When it came to the referendum on the CO2 law (https://www.loc.gov/item/global-legal-monitor/2021-06-25/switzerland-co2-act-amendment-rejected-by-voters/), the climate protectors suffered a tight defeat. Means, the majority of the Swiss voters did not accept intensified conservation efforts. But I wouldn’t say the climate strike movement did not reach all of their goals or that they weren’t successful. They carried an issue to the institutionalized political arena which had not enjoyed much attention before. Hence, also well-organized minorities can cause change, even if they oppose the majority. And who knows what the majority’s opinion of tomorrow will be?
Extremely well-written and thought-provoking piece, Jenae. You make a great argument, civil society is almost the backbone of a democracy. It is a forum for discussion, and benefits the community in an impactful way. It’s sad that the truth is so often distorted to benefit the elites at the expense of the needy. NGOs, which provide all sorts of assistance to people, are often the target of repression and vilification. Of course, not all NGOs are flawless, as you mention in your blog post, as they get wrapped up in the “dependency syndrome,” having to appeal to the interests of corporate donors. They definitely deserve criticism, but it is important to differentiate criticism from flat-out refusal to work with them. You mentioned Pakistan’s rejection of a number of NGOs. Surely, not every one of these organizations is corrupt and not interested in the needs of the people. Then again, it does not matter, because the bottom line is autocrats do not like their authority undermined. When an organization gets in the way, it only makes sense to the autocrat to repress it. After all, it is much easier than working with them to form a compromise.
I loved the fact that you included ways to effectively respond to civil society repression. I did not know it was possible for NGOs to temporarily become for-profit to evade restrictions. International pressure is also key. The international community can turn up the heat on regimes that limit civil society. There’s no guarantee for effectiveness, but it is a tool nonetheless. It can get depressing seeing all the attacks on free press and civil society organizations, but the efficacy of social movements is heartening. Although they don’t always achieve their exact goals, they can raise awareness for issues which I think is so important.
Jenae, great job highlighting the importance of civil society in a healthy and functioning participatory democracy. They make it easier for the public to get information about how their government is operating and help them make informed decisions when it comes to voting. However, an important aspect of how NGOs (or any organization for that matter) run is funding. Money is necessary for operation. This means that as you said, NGOs “find themselves tending more to the corporations and not to the intended population in need” because that is the constituency that provides their resources. For this reason, I disagree with what Dominic says. While a certain amount of blame can be placed on the management, especially when it comes to corruption and extortion, neither of the two are the main issue. NGOs get their money from a combination of places. These include donations from the general public, from governments, from international organizations and from philanthropists. It is difficult for most NGOs to survive on small donations from the general public alone. Most NGOs cannot afford to invest money on fundraising campaigns by sending people into the streets, buying advertising space or using call centers to collect donations over the phone and Government funding can become a problem if politicians have direct control over which NGOs can receive donations. It is possible that government funding be given out by an independent body, but in some countries, this is not the case. This is dangerous because they may feel that they are not free to criticize the government when it’s necessary. The problem is that NGOs can be financially coerced into supporting the causes of its wealthy backers in order to stay in the game to hopefully do something to help the less privileged groups that are typically the intended targets.