State of Civil Society: Creating an Enabling Environment for Civil Society

governance rights donors ICTs CSO strengthening
Tuesday, 30 April, 2013 - 08:41

As in recent years, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, through its State of Civil Society report, continues to highlight the challenges faced by CSOs in carrying out their work

We live in an age of great economic, political, societal and environmental uncertainty. It is against this backdrop that CIVICUS’ 2013 State of Civil Society report focuses on the forces that shape and influence the conditions for civil society. This is because without conditions that enable civil society, civil society will never be able to make our greatest possible contribution to helping to solve pressing and entrenched issues that affect people’s lives.

Our report casts the net wide and takes an expansive view of civil society, celebrating its diversity. We see civil society as complex, dynamic and fluid. Our contributors include trade unionists, environmentalists, lawyers, donors, researchers, academics, activists, politicians and journalists. Our full report contains almost 50 contributions from the CIVICUS alliance, which together offer over 350 pages of fresh insight. In the report, civil society actors from Africa, Asia, the Americas, Europe and the Pacific reflect upon the issues, trends and events of importance to them. They also offer examples of innovative tactics to improve the conditions for civil society in their regions and areas of work.

The majority of our contributors told us that they operate in less than ideal conditions. Some of our contributors report that they are experiencing hostile political forces, decreasing funding bases and regressive laws. This adds urgency to the need for civil society collectively to define, defend and strengthen our enabling environment. There are also opportunities to capitalise on the momentum gained from recent recognition of the importance of the enabling environment in international processes on development effectiveness, and by the European Union and the United Nations Human Rights Council.

While we need to build a multi-stakeholder consensus on the value of the enabling environment, we must not allow definitions of civil society or our enabling conditions to be set by government regulations and external agencies. Any such definition is unlikely to correspond with our own collective knowledge of the dynamic, changing shape of civil society, and is likely to limit us. Further, owning and offering our own definitions is vital to our autonomy, which must be reasserted as a central principle of civil society. Similarly, we need to reassert and live out the values of civil society as a distinct sphere. These values include honesty and self-criticism. Our autonomy also implies that we need to develop our research capacities and generate our own data and, where possible, to free ourselves from current funding models.

Our analysis tells us that there is a need to aim higher and seek more than a set of minimal standards that permit civil society to function. CIVICUS has long recognised that the political and legal space for civil society is a crucial influence on civil society’s ability to be effective. However, we also need to look at other influences, including those that are socio-economic and socio-cultural in nature, and to be more ambitious in seeking conditions that actively support civil society to make the most of our potential and achieve best impact.

To realise a more enabling environment for civil society, we suggest that action on the following influences should be prioritised:

  • The legal and regulatory environment: the state’s laws, regulations and policies on civil society should make it easy for civil society groups to form, operate free from interference, express their views, communicate, convene, cooperate and seek resources. Laws should promote and protect people’s rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association;
  • The political and governmental environment: governments and politicians should recognise civil society as a legitimate social and political actor and provide systematic opportunities for state and civil society institutions to work together. The state should take active measures to ensure the protection of civil society people from attacks in the pursuit of their work from state and non-state sources;
  • Public attitudes, trust, tolerance and participation: the public should support the notion that civil society is a legitimate social actor; there should be extensive trust in civil society bodies and other public agencies and offices; there should be tolerance of people and groups who have different viewpoints and identities; and it should be easy for people to participate in civil society;
  • Corruption: there should be no tolerance of corruption among state officials, political actors, people in business and civil society personnel;
  • Communications and technology: there should be reliable, cheap and widespread access to communications platforms and technologies, and civil society personnel should have numerous opportunities to put their views across; and
  • Resources: civil society groups should be able to access resources from a range of sustainable sources, including domestically, and to define their own activities, rather than have these defined by funding opportunities.

 There are two key areas where civil society can take steps to maximise opportunities to make the civil society environment more enabling:

  • Legitimacy, transparency and accountability: civil society groups should make efforts to be transparent and accountable to their stakeholders, to derive their legitimacy from endorsement by their stakeholders, and to demonstrate their impact more; and
  • Connections between society organisations (CSOs): there should be multiple connections and collaborations between different civil society groups and individuals, and collaborative platforms and coalitions at different levels, so that civil society groups can share intelligence, pool resources and maximise strengths and opportunities. 

In our approach to defining, building and demanding an enabling environment for civil society, while anchoring our work in universal human rights standards, we must respect local nuance, knowledge and assets. This suggests a need to be strategic in interventions: to ensure that the broad principles advanced above are capable of responding to local specifics, changing dynamics and emerging civil society forms. There is a related need to work across the diversity of civil society, and to look for and make use of opportunities and strategic tipping points that exist in different contexts.

Levers for change and alliances exist at several levels, including at the regional and global levels. There is a corresponding need to make the environment for civil society more enabling at the multilateral level. At the moment it is not, and this means that civil society cannot co-own multilateral initiatives. Even though civil society has been given some space at the table in the process to set post-2015 development goals, access is insufficient, and will not necessarily translate into impact.

There are two key, civil society-led strategies we suggest to take the work forward. Coalitions that blend the strengths of different civil society forms at different levels and in different places have a particular role to play in making the environment for all of civil society more enabling. When human rights activists are being persecuted, we need service delivery CSOs to see common cause. When minority voices are being suppressed, national platforms need to speak. We know the value of international solidarity for civil society groups and activists working in difficult conditions because we hear this from our members, partners and supporters first-hand. We have to defend each other and collaborate to expand our space.

Alongside coalition building, we have to identify, document and share good practice, and use this learning to define, argue for and set new standards and norms. As progress is made, we need to keep raising standards higher.

The State of Civil Society report aims to contribute to this process.

For the synthesis report and the full report, refer to http://socs.civicus.org.

For more about CIVICUS: Alliance for Citizens Participation, refer to www.civicus.org.

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