State of Civil Society 2013 – Are Governments limiting the effectiveness of civil society?

Report outlines a ‘litany of threats to civil society’

Finance | Niki May Young | 29 Apr 2013

The effectiveness of civil society organisations internationally is increasingly being hindered by legal restrictions, funding cuts and technological blocks according to the latest State of Civil Society report.

The 2013 report, published by Civicus, outlines a significant departure from the optimism of its 2012 predecessor, with the organization’s Secretary General Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah warning that efforts to tackle inequality and resolve conflict will be “significantly undermined” if more is not done to promote an enabling environment for civil society organisations.

With contributions from nearly 50 experts and civil society leaders around the world, the 500-page report paints a gloomy picture of conditions for civil society organisations globally, with Dhananjayan saying the report has found a “litany of threats to civil society.”

In her foreword, Cathy Ashton, who is the high representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy for the EU, said: “A vibrant and independent civil society is an essential ingredient of effective and stable democracy. The EU has for many years sought to incorporate the input and views of civil society in its foreign policy.”

But she warns that, “It is precisely because of the importance of civil society to European foreign policy that I am growing increasingly concerned about the efforts of some states to bar, constrict, or control the work of NGOs. In too many cases, the voices of civil society are being stifled and the space in which they can express their views is shrinking. This is happening through overt means of oppression such as the implementation of restrictive laws and the persecution of activists, as well by marginalising civil society in national and international decision-making processes.”

The ‘threat’ of the internet

While the 2012 report displayed a more positive hue, pointing to the Arab Spring uprising and similar democratic civil action spurred by the influence of social media, the 2013 report warns that, a year on, governments have addressed this threat. The internet has increasingly been used as a hub for new online civil society communities, to express views and publish real-time information on what is happening in their countries and to allow the real-time organisation of offline protests. Aware that social media has mobilised citizen action, however, some governments are in turn placing greater restrictions on technology or taking action against those using it. Contributors note the arrests of tweeters or bloggers and the interrupting SMS services. The authors warn that over 45 countries, most notably China, have imposed some kind of restrictions on their citizen’s internet.

Adding to technological barriers, governments are also using their legal system to block funding to civil society organisations. The report advises that many organisations with a “political edge” or strong human rights or advocacy focus struggle to find domestic funding and are forced to look internationally. But some governments are blocking such funding through legislation. For instance, in Ethiopia CSOs that receive more than 10 per cent of funding from foreign sources can not undertake advocacy or human rights work. The report notes a “contagion effect” with countries adopting similar laws to their neighbouring or like-minded countries, and raises concern that “regressive international norms” are being established. 

In order to progress civil society throughout the world, Civicus says a number of key principles should be followed. These include: improving CSOs’ transparency and accountability; improving connections between CSOs; tackling corruption, and providing sufficient resources. CSOs need to be strategic and work together in coalitions in order to utilise the multiplicity of strengths across the sector and combat barriers.