The Nobel committee were decisive in highlighting the remarkable contribution that civil society can make to peace and sustainable development. The winners of the Nobel Peace Prize — the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, a coalition of Tunisian unionists, employers, lawyers and human rights activists — were pivotal in helping their country's transition to democracy for the third time in the last five years.
This recognition, however, comes at a time when the mounting pressure on such visionary individuals and cutting-edge organizations is curtailing their ability to flourish.
Critically, in the name of “development,” we are witnessing many governments attempting to suppress dissenting voices within their local civil society by enacting a range of restrictions on the freedom of assembly, expression and association. Increasingly, the ability of CSOs to register, operate and/or access funds is declining rapidly.
These trends, to a greater or lesser extent, are seen in a range of countries both North and South, in a roll call that includes the United Kingdom, India, Cambodia, Honduras, Russia and many others. According to CIVICUS, serious threats to civic freedoms occurred in 96 countries in 2014. In too many places, the donor community is staying conspicuously silent when such restrictions are being put in place. As Thomas Carothers from Carnegie puts it, “governments responding to the problem are always less motivated and less engaged than those creating the problem.” In other cases governments are directly threatening the ability of CSOs to operate by enacting misplaced counterterrorism legislation, which — by seeking to “dry out the swamp” — makes it quasi impossible to operate in countries where there are listed terrorist organizations.
A number of donor governments today are also busy cutting funding to development aid in general, and to civil society in particular. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, core funding given to donor-country based and international NGOs has decreased by 8 percent between 2008 and 2013. Moreover, The Carnegie Endowment reports that 50 countries have placed restrictions on overseas funding for nongovernmental organizations and confirms that major philanthropies are scaling back funding as a result.
Others are converting core funding into project funding, due to an alleged lack of evidence of impact — the sort of impact that can be monitored through simplistic impact chains and log frames. Yet social change, including the strengthening of local civil society, is unfortunately a more complex, chaotic and long-term process. A vibrant civil society takes a long time to build but a shorter time to destroy. Supporting fledgling or existing civil society organizations is a long term investment, with high risk and high returns.
To sum up, civil society is slowly becoming a global public good, which is increasingly being taken for granted. Although some governments are actively trying to crack down on civil society, the majority of the donor community still very much counts on its NGOs — and more specifically takes them for granted. Indeed, depending on the flavour of the month and the issue of the day, civil society is asked to play multiple roles by duty bearers, including as a watchdog, a partner, a service deliverer, a provider of technical assistance or funder.
No will, little investment
The truth is that too many governments philanthropies and the private sector only support CSOs when and where it suits their specific time-bound objectives or political vision. As a result of this growing utilitarian and NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) approach to civil society, too few of them are willing to invest in its protecting its existence, even in the face of increasing attacks from the likes who want to quash dissent at any cost.
Up to now, INGOs like Oxfam have been able to play a crucial role in strengthening local civil society by giving them core funding — and a fighting chance. Oxfam takes pride in the fact that we have funded a number of Nobel Peace Prize winners in the past 40 years. As part of the “Women on the Frontline” project, an initiative aiming to create a women's leadership in the labor movement across all regions, Oxfam has been working with the Women Commission of the UGTT — one of the members of the Tunisia Quartet.
Of course, especially in light of foreign funding restrictions, there is always more INGOs need to do to strengthen the financial independence of local civil society organizations. However it is also clear that we cannot win this fight alone. In fact, if the behavior of many donor governments and philanthropies doesn’t change, it might become increasingly difficult to find potential Nobel Peace Prize winners of the likes of the National Dialogue Quartet.
Such evolution might suit authoritative governments very well, but will severely hurt sustainable development and peace prospects. If citizens are no longer free to exercise their freedom of expression, organization and assembly, and cannot push for government and private sector accountability, how do we ever expect the newly adopted SDGs and the upcoming climate change deal to be more than “declarationist nominalism that assuages our consciences?”
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