It was very easy to leave Johannesburg after CIVICUS’s International Civil Society Week (19-25 November) feeling buoyed up by the possibilities of citizen action and people’s power. After all, we were there to celebrate 20 years of freedom in South Africa, arguably the greatest display of people’s power in history. And celebrate we did: the great Graça Machel opened the conference reminding us that we – as civil society – have the power to outsmart dictators and undemocratic governments, and the wonderful Hugh Masekela sang us out three days later with more energy than I can muster at half his age.
However, any conference is also about the nitty gritty – sharing experience and expertise, picking through strategy and challenging assumptions and preconceptions. It is why these spaces are so precious and too easy to take for granted. Here you glimpse common purpose – so often forgotten in our own internal politics – between organizations in the Global North and the Global South, between the activist and the international funder.
It is also a space to acknowledge the challenges we face and – sadly – these feel more acute than ever. Across the globe civic space is shrinking and it is shrinking fast.
As I write, the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill is being debated in the UK House of Commons. If passed without amendment, it will place significant restrictions on civil society challenging government decisions through the courts. This is not an isolated case nor is it the most egregious. At International Civil Society Week, we heard from many activists on the criminalization of civil society in their country, including the inspiring Maryam al-Khawaja on her activism and detention in Bahrain. However, it was the dark shadows of those who were not able to attend that were the real markers of this worsening trend.
As an international funder, I am acutely aware of the threat from restrictions on foreign funding for human rights. In sub-Saharan Africa, where the Baring Foundation funds, numerous governments are considering restrictions similar to those imposed in Ethiopia in 2009. We know our colleagues working on the ground face enormous challenges, regardless of these restrictions. Further restriction on funding is potentially catastrophic.
For civil society, this is and should be a matter of alarm. However, International Civil Society Week also gave me a positive take on this closing civic space. I was reminded of what civil society in 2014 really looks like: bigger, more diverse, more skilled and growing in more countries than ever before. It incorporates bloggers in Tunisia, activists in Soweto and lawyers in London. The trend to crush people’s power is, in part, a reaction to its very effectiveness. We are an increasingly painful thorn in the side of dictators and undemocratic governments (and, I should say, democratic ones too).
As I boarded a plane in London, a judge in Botswana was ordering the government to register the LGBTI group LEGABIBO as an NGO. One step further towards full equality in a country that sees homophobia on a daily basis. At least until I tackle my overflowing inbox at the Baring Foundation, I will continue to feel buoyed up by the possibilities of citizen action and people’s power.
David Sampson is deputy director of the Baring Foundation.