Towards a multipolar civil society

A longer version of this article was first published in Sur Journal’s 20th issue here, produced by Conectas.

Almost everywhere we look—from economics to demography to air travel to innovation—the shift to the so-called “emerging” markets is palpable. But when it comes to the civil society landscape, the transformation is much less visible. While some high profile human rights organisations are decentralising (e.g., Amnesty International) or have relocated to the South (e.g., Action Aid International), the overall pace of transformation in civil society seems much slower than in other areas. Based on our experience at CIVICUS, we argue that the global human rights agenda would be strengthened significantly if southern civil society actors themselves do more to look beyond their national boundaries and become global citizens in today’s interconnected, multipolar world.

It is very difficult for CSOs in the South to shine on the international stage when their position at home remains tenuous.

'The first major impediment to this shift is the closing space in which many southern CSOs work. CIVICUS’ 2013 State of Civil Society Report highlights a trend of increasing restrictions on civil society, and it is very difficult for CSOs in the South to shine on the international stage when their position at home remains tenuous. For instance, Egyptian CSOs are subjected to close supervision by various government departments and security agencies often leading to self- censorship.  Bolivian NGOs and foundations are required to contribute to the economic and social development of the country taking into account national and sectoral guidelines. Algeria’s law on associations limits the scope of activities for civil society groups, indirectly preventing them from undertaking activities relating to human rights, democracy promotion and gender equality. Indonesia’s law on mass organisations prevents CSOs from propagating ideology that conflicts with “Pancasila”, the state philosophy. Nigeria’s anti-gay law potentially criminalises the entire community of progressive civil society groups and human rights defenders by making it illegal to support gay clubs and organisations. In Saudi Arabia’s extreme example, civil society groups don’t even have legal cover for their programmatic and fundraising activities through an associations law.

A second challenge relates to the inability of southern activists and CSOs to receive financial backing from local sources, often forcing them to look abroad for funding. This, in turn, often reduces their credibility locally or locks them into hierarchical relationships. Notably, the reliance on foreign funding also gives governments powerful leverage over groups that expose corruption and state complicity in human rights violations.

India’s Foreign Contributions law, for example, requires CSOs to get official clearance before they can receive international funds thus laying the ground to arbitrarily control the activities of groups critical of official policies. In Ethiopia, human rights advocacy groups have been severely decimated due to the restrictive charities and societies law. Russia’s government has gone so far as to require CSOs receiving funding from abroad to designate themselves as “foreign agents”, a derogatory term that undermines their credibility with the public.

Despite these challenges, there are two potential reasons for hope. The first is an expectation of sharp growth in local philanthropic bases in the global South due to an improvement in standards of living. A recent report by the Charities Aid Foundation argues that philanthropic giving by the expanding middle class in the global South holds great potential to transform societies, especially because the share of developing countries in global GDP will exceed that of the traditionally rich industrialised OECD countries by 2030 (after purchasing power parity adjustments). Another reason for optimism is that some funders, including official agencies and private foundations, are starting to recognise the need to fund southern CSOs directly, rather than through northern-based intermediaries.

A third key factor that inhibits southern CSOs is their lack of access to major intergovernmental institutions. On a practical level, discriminatory visa regimes and the high cost of travel and accommodation to these primarily northern locations are a major deterrent for southern CSOs. Despite being home to three-quarters of the world’s population, Africa and Asia only accounted for a quarter of UN-accredited NGOs.

Over time, well-resourced CSOs, often based in the global North, build up the cultural capital that gives them the access to policymakers and opinion-formers. Cultural capital elevates some sections of global civil society while purposefully or inadvertently discriminating against citizens from a particular geographic location or class, or simply those who cannot travel often enough to New York or Geneva to build relationships with key actors.

Flickr/UNAMID (Some rights reserved)

A local NGO delivers a workshop on Human Rights in Darfur. For many NGOs in the Global South with finite funding pools, meeting urgent local challenges takes overwhelming priority over international engagement.

Finally, the most disappointing factor of all is the fact that, for many CSOs in the South, the vastness of the challenges at home and in their immediate vicinity is the overwhelming priority—so much so that they find it hard to have the time or resources to engage on global issues. Additionally, resources from international donors to support initiatives on human rights and social justice are usually for in-country programmes, as opposed to influencing global debates and agendas.

For example, when the Ugandan government was in the process of passing the draconian anti-homosexuality law, we wanted to canvass African CSOs to speak up against this. We managed to get a respectable 25 signatories to our open letter to President Museveni, but it was clear that very few CSOs had the time or inclination to respond.

To address these obstacles, a good first step would be for southern CSOs to prioritise advocacy at international forums such as the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) for a better and more enabling legal and regulatory framework.

Second, we need to place greater emphasis through media and public awareness campaigns on the centrality of human rights and social justice so that attention can be focused on these areas by southern foundations and philanthropists who traditionally support initiatives related to poverty alleviation, education, health, etc., where results are more tangible. A number of southern countries, including emerging democracies like India, Brazil and South Africa, are in various stages of setting up development partnership agencies and financial institutions to support development. It is critical that southern CSOs are involved in focusing the agenda of these institutions towards the protection and promotion of human rights.

Third, southern CSOs need to make a concerted push towards becoming global citizens in today’s inter-connected world by developing programmes on regional and international governance. They need to equip themselves with the skills and experience required to negotiate select international arenas which have been the traditional preserve of international NGOs based in the North.

In another twenty years, when Sur International Journal on Human Rightspublishes its 40th edition and CIVICUS turns forty, let’s hope that civil society is as multipolar as the political economy is likely to be.