Global civil society is under more pressure than ever before, partly down to the increase in populism and extremism, according to this year’s State of Civil Society Report by CIVICUS.
CIVICUS, which is an international alliance dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world, publishes a report each year looking at trends affecting civil society around the world. This year it said that the diminishing civic space could be characterised as a "global emergency".
Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, Secretary General, wrote in the foreword that: ”The last year has been deeply unsettling for most of us in progressive civil society.”
He said that “almost everything we stand for is under threat” and that: “Rising populism and extremism are fuelling falling levels of public trust in civil society and providing convenient cover for attacks on civic space.”
He said “it has become increasingly easy to portray progressive civil society as being against national interests, public security and traditional values”.
He added that it is important for civil society to establish “legitimacy” within local communities and “to go beyond ‘accounts-ability’ to meaningful forms of accountability to the communities we claim to be serving”.
He said that the focus for this year’s report is the relationship between civil society and the private sector because “with almost three quarters of the 100 biggest economies in the world now corporate entities and not nation states, we in civil society cannot ignore the role of big business”.
The report found that 106 countries have seen serious constraints in civic space, including half the United Nations members. It says this should be considered a “global emergency” as it leads to civil society being “repressed” by means of legislation, closures, harassment and violence.
Civil society needs to understand political shifts
The report notes that there has been an increase in populism and said that civil society needs to respond to people’s sense of insecurity.
“Rather than critiquing the structure of economic globalisation, citizens are being encouraged to unravel existing political institutions and blame minorities and excluded groups,” it said.
“The challenge for civil society is that when it tries to argue back, it risks being associated with conventional, elite and failed governance: part of the problem rather than the solution. Civil society’s defence of human rights can place it at odds with public opinion that supports attacks on the rights of others.”
Civil society and the private sector
The report said that by improving relationships with the private sector, which often has access to networks that civil society can be excluded from, charities can have more impact.
“Strategic partnership with the private sector is a means through which civil society can not only help deliver shared projects, but also encourage businesses to defend civic space and influence them to advance civil society goals” it said.
It said there should be a “nuanced” approach and said there should be research to understand the motivations of business leaders.
It also identified a number of difficulties such as corporate engagement being “too often driven by concerns of marketing and advertising” and competition between different sectors for resource.
It made ten recommendations for the private sector:
- Adopt, as a minimum starting point, a ‘first do no harm’ principle towards civil society and human rights.
- Go beyond the ‘first do no harm’ principle wherever possible
- Respect international norms, conventions and human rights instruments, including new ones as they develop, and take active steps to demonstrate compliance with these
- Work with civil society to improve transparency and undertake due diligence along supply chains,
- Commit to upholding the spirit and social justice focus of Agenda 2030 and the Paris Agreement, and civil society and the private sector working with civil society to deliver on these,
- Dialogue with civil society on the viability and impacts of actions that entail the private sector taking on roles traditionally played by civil society,
- Commit to improving partnerships with civil society, including partnering with a wider range of civil society on a greater variety of issues, respecting their independence and moving beyond using CSOs merely as contracted service providers.
- Identify corporate philanthropy and social responsibility as key business priorities while taking take care to delink corporate social responsibility and philanthropic activities from advertising and marketing budgets, and involve civil society in the making of philanthropic funding decisions.
- Network with other companies to develop the capacity and willingness of the private sector
- Work with civil society to distil, document and share learning, in a spirit of honesty and transparency, from partnership experiences, drawing lessons both from successes and failures.
It also made ten recommendations for civil society:
- Develop, communicate, adhere to and continually refresh partnership principles for engagement with the private sector.
- Be honest about and openly debate our own challenges as civil society that may prevent us from engaging more effectively with the private sector, including challenges rooted in attitudes, perceptions, connections and capacities.
- Engage with the private sector wherever possible to make the business case for open civic space.
- Be prepared to recognise and reward exemplary business practice as well as expose and condemn poor practice.
- Mix insider and outsider strategies that combine engagement in private sector dialogue with the right to protest and organise externally. As part of this, develop our own, civil society-owned alternatives to elite business forums.
- Engage directly with citizens, including by working to sensitise and mobilise citizens to scrutinise and exert accountability over the private sector, through public campaigns and consumer action.
- Support and engage with moves to strengthen international law towards the private sector, and in particular the proposed treaty on transnational corporations and human rights, and advocate for the domestication of international norms through progressive national legislation.
- Work to connect across civil society in its widest sense, including by building new connections between human rights and sustainable development-oriented CSOs, trade unions, social movements, social enterprises, socially responsible companies and industry associations, and connections between the global and local, and the global south and global north. As part of this, show solidarity with and provide protection for civil society activists who are threatened when they work on private sector issues.
- Document and be honest about our learning from our engagements with the private sector, including documenting our mistakes as well as our success stories.
- Make progress on achieving fundamental change in upholding human rights and environmental norms, combating economic inequality and challenging exclusion, rather than the gaining of resources, the key benchmarks by which our engagement with the private sector is judged.