11. 25 years later, the pendulum swings back the other way. Lessons for a civil society under stress.

Many of us at the Mott Foundation have heard the story of the founding of CIVICUS from our chairman, Bill White. He fondly remembers sitting in a “dimly lit” classroom nearly three decades ago, hatching a plan with a few other civil society leaders to create a new, global movement.

It was a time of optimism and possibility for civil society. The Berlin Wall had fallen, and democracy was increasingly being embraced around the world.  While these visionary leaders didn’t know exactly what they were going to create, they realized the world was at a crossroads, and they were seizing a moment to help steer the ship in the right direction.   

The people in that room imagined an alliance that could be a gathering place for civil society — one that could carry the greatest ideals of democracy forward. Out of that gathering, CIVICUS was born.  Now, 25 years later, that story comes to mind as we see the pendulum swinging back the other way. Democracy and civil society are under stress and, in many countries, outright threat.

We’re at another crossroads that feels quite troublesome and yet is not unfamiliar. 

It’s troublesome because we didn’t anticipate the extent of the crisis in democracy we’re experiencing worldwide. Yet it’s familiar because it takes us back to the basics of what makes a healthy civil society: engaged, informed, and inspired citizens with the tools and resources to make change in their societies and communities. As in the 1990s, when CIVICUS was born, funders and others working in civil society must respond with passion, enthusiasm and vision and rediscover what allows democracy to thrive.

The Mott Foundation considered our own response to these new challenges in our latest Civil Society grantmaking plan. We drew on lessons we’ve learned from working over the last 25 years in the emerging democracies of central and eastern Europe and South Africa, as well as our long-standing work in the US supporting the philanthropic and nonprofit sector.

Here are a few key lessons that helped us create our new strategy:

  1. Values and principles matter. A healthy civic space is, first and foremost, a reflection of deeply held values:  freedom of expression, assembly and association; rule of law; and respect for human rights, these need to be reinforced from the top down and from the bottom up.
  2. Strong institutions are critical to maintaining civic space and protecting democratic principles. Elections are not enough. Solid civil society organisations, key institutions of democracy, a free media, an independent judiciary — these all must be supported and uplifted. 
  3. There will always be difficulties and grievances — The challenge is how these are managed and addressed.  Citizens need to be able to shape responses and act to resolve issues at community, national and even international levels.  When citizens don’t — or can’t — act, the space is taken over by autocratic leaders and groups with agendas that don’t reflect or incorporate the broader public good.
  4. Civil society needs to be at the forefront of the digital revolution, not at its mercy. Digital technology has transformed how we communicate, participate and exchange information, and it is profoundly changing democracy and civil society.  It also is changing how we donate to and support causes and initiatives, conduct advocacy, and mobilize communities. We must reimagine democracy with a full and forward-looking understanding of the ongoing digital revolution underway in our societies.  
  5. Partnerships are essential.  Our work has taught us what the power of partnerships can accomplish. We’ve worked for years to build partnerships and foster collaborative efforts at all levels of civil society to encourage innovation and solidarity as we operate in difficult or constrained contexts.

With these lessons in mind, we zeroed in on areas that will build on Mott’s past efforts and allow us to address some of today’s most pressing concerns. Our work will focus on reinvigorating and protecting the space for civic engagement, helping community foundations build stronger ties in local communities, and increasing all people’s ability to understand, use and shape the laws that affect them.

There is much work to be done, and while these are uncertain times, we are nevertheless excited to renew our sense of common purpose with others working in this space. Today the challenge is the same for us as it was for the people in that dimly lit classroom, who created CIVICUS almost three decades ago. They were a part of the vanguard that helped usher in a new, open civil society. And now a new vanguard must reimagine, rediscover and revive civil society to carry it forward into the future.

Shannon Lawder is the civil society program director at the Mott Foundation. Follow them on Twitter @MottFoundation.

This article is part of a series to celebrate CIVICUS’ 25th anniversary and provide perspectives and insights on citizen action around the world.

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