In the last year, civil society workers have been repressed in Belarus and Russia for opposing the war on Ukraine, physically attacked in Afghanistan for supporting the right to education for girls, and judicially persecuted in Italy for rescuing migrants from drowning at sea. These are just some concerning developments highlighted in the 12th CIVICUS State of Civil Society Report. The findings hold particular relevance for the philanthropic community as oftentimes civil society groups especially those at the frontlines of resistance and transformative change face the dual challenges of disenabling environments and limited interest from funders due to the risks involved.
Unsurprisingly, the 2023 State of Civil Society report underscores the failure of global governance institutions to stop conflicts and foster transition from military rule in places as diverse as Mali and Myanmar. It points to the challenges in holding powerful states such as China and Russia to account for committing crimes against humanity.
The report captures the current great global wave of protests, with mobilisations triggered by economic pain on account of rising food and fuel prices from Argentina to Indonesia and from Ghana to Kazakhstan. Worryingly, this comes at a time when the right to peaceful protest is coming under assault even in longstanding democracies. The United Kingdom passed legislation in 2022 to impede public protest and acts of civil disobedience by climate and environmental activists. Iran’s extreme authoritarian regime imprisoned and tortured thousands of people for demanding gender equality and basic freedoms.
This year’s analysis also laments the erosion of democracy in many parts of the world, including through the rise of populist authoritarianism. In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele has eroded democratic institutions by concentrating power and trampling on rights in the guise of combatting gang violence. In Tunisia, President Kais Saied has attacked the independence of the judiciary and misused law enforcement machinery to hound critics.
One of the forces undermining democracy is disinformation, which is skewing public discourse and fuelling hate in several countries including India, Israel, and the United States. It played a huge role in elections in Brazil, the Philippines, and South Korea, among others. Rather than tackling disinformation, the tech industry is often complicit in promoting it through algorithms that feed compulsive behaviour and reinforce prejudices.
On a positive note, the report highlights improvements in women’s sexual and reproductive rights in Colombia and Mexico, spurred by civil society actions. It also points to victories for marriage equality following extensive advocacy in Chile and Switzerland. The role played by civil society groups including youth movements in pushing for climate action is profiled, with global impacts including the breakthrough agreement to create a global climate fund at the COP27 meeting in Egypt to compensate global south countries for the loss and damage caused by climate change.
The report concludes that civil society is reinventing itself to adapt to a changing world. Notably, a significant amount of civil society’s radical energy is coming from outside the NGO universe, from small, informal grassroots groups, often formed and led by women, young people, and Indigenous people, showing admirable resilience. New types of civil society formations are emerging that organise horizontally, adopt participatory approaches, and cultivate distributed leadership. These often tend to rely on voluntary engagement, offering a test to conventional civil society resourcing models. While some questions remain about their sustainability, new forms of civil society will continue to spring up, transcending traditional societal fault lines, including of class, ethnicity, race, and faith.
The report highlights several areas of action relevant for the philanthropic community:
- To address retaliation against civil society organisations and activists, there is an urgent need for a campaign to win recognition of the vital roles played by civil society in conflict and crisis response.
- Greater emphasis is needed from funders to protect the freedom of peaceful assembly as the right to protest is coming under attack around the globe.
- Global governance failures point to a greater need to invest resources in strengthening multilateralism through greater public participation and scrutiny of international institutions.
- Investments in strengthening civil society’s role in the run-up to elections such as voter education, scrutiny of the integrity of voting systems and promotion of civil debate could help improve conditions for democracy.
- Greater support is needed for civil society to engage on anti-disinformation strategies, including fact-checking, enhancement of media literacy and, crucially, advocacy for higher regulatory standards for social media companies, consistent with respect for freedom of expression.
- To create fairer societies civil society’s capacities to challenge economic policies that promote inequality and reliance on fossil fuels need to be supported along with advocacy on progressive taxation, social protection floors, universal basic incomes, union recognition, just energy transition and business regulation.
- Along with ensuring the reach of resources directly to communities and grassroots groups, investments are also needed in transnational civil society solidarity networks to enable the rapid deployment of support when regressive changes take place or when rights come under attack.
Mandeep S. Tiwana is chief programmes officer and representative to the UN headquarters at global civil society alliance, CIVICUS.