If the 1990s saw the NGO become the privileged outlet for development aid and cooperation, the 2000s saw them become more “professionalized” and also outspoken advocates, then the 2010s are surely the time when southern governments have decided to rein them in. In the last six years, 50 governments have issued new restrictions against NGOs.
Countries like Ethiopia, Uganda, Cambodia and Zambia have seen the introduction of restrictive legislation against civil society; others have seen the closing down of space for protest via anti-terror laws; and others like Nicaragua and DR Congo have experienced an increase in the detention of civil society activists. Restrictions like these seriously limit the work that southern advocates can engage in legally and without significant risk to themselves and their organisations.
The participation of civil society in developing and monitoring government policies is an essential part of a healthy democracy. As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at the High-level Meeting of the Community of Democracies earlier this month,
“Progress in the 21st century depends on the ability of individuals to coalesce around shared goals, and harness the power of their convictions. But when governments crack down on the right of citizens to work together, as they have throughout history, societies fall into stagnation and decay.”
Mrs Clinton referred to the “steel vice” which many governments are using to “crush” civil society, mentioning Iran, Egypt, Zimbabwe and China among others. To counteract this trend, she called for an independent mechanism for monitoring repressive measures against civil society and urged the UN Human Rights Council and other regional bodies to do more to protect civil society. She also highlighted the need for more coordinated diplomatic pressure and a mechanism for rapid response to protect freedom of association.
In addition to these high-level solutions proposed by Mrs Clinton, perhaps we should be looking for a more holistic approach by asking ourselves what factors have contributed to this hostile environment. In recent years, civil society has held an unprecedented level of power and influence with regard to government policies and processes; and international donors have increasingly directed resources to civil society and away from government. This has contributed to the politicisation of civil society which has, in turn, very likely strengthened the perception that strong civil society presents a threat to government. In the context of mistrust (and perhaps genuine misconduct), what can we do to create enabling environments for civil society? And what should we be asking our own governments to do to support this?
All good food for thought…