Civil society has the potential of finding new solutions to global challenges which are based on the principles of equity, participation and sustainability: An Interview with CIVICUS Secretary General, Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah

New CIVICUS Secretary General Dhananjayan (Danny) Sriskandarajah who officially began his mandate as head of the global alliance this week speaks to the CIVICUS Policy Unit about the role of civil society in redressing the challenges affecting citizens around the world.

What are your preliminary reflections about the role of CIVICUS in particular and global civil society in general in responding to the convergence of crises affecting the world today?

I am very excited about the chance to work at an organisation like CIVICUS. I have long-admired the work that CIVICUS does to protect civil society space and promote citizen participation. I also feel positive about the role of civil society in addressing some of the great challenges facing the world today.

Civil society voices were screaming about the big problems – from financial meltdown to climate crisis – long before governments and business woke up. But, with governments lacking the will or resources to do anything and most businesses still addicted to short-term profits, I am certain that it will be civil society that will find new solutions based on equity, participation and sustainability.

One of my main aims at CIVICUS is to help amplify those voices, especially from the global South, which are coming up with novel ways of promoting citizen voice and innovative ways of fighting injustice.

The momentum that accompanied the Arab Spring seems to be dwindling and today even long-standing democracies are imposing restrictions on civil society space. How can this momentum be re-ignited/sustained in other countries to expand spaces for citizen participation?

Sadly, history teaches us that democratisation is a slow, difficult and often reversible process. It is a shame, but sadly predictable, that the energy and momentum from the Arab Spring is being stymied by the forces of autocracy and repression. Vested interests are hard to fight. And in the established democracies, policymakers seem to be coming up with ever-cleverer ways of keeping civil society in check. Politicians' paranoia is also hard to fight, the world over!

That said, I think we are learning that there are new and interesting ways of opening up spaces for citizen action. New technologies mean that people can not only mobilise more effectively but also monitor and hold governments to account. I also think that global solidarity holds the key. We need to ensure that we share experiences and lessons across civil society, and use our collective voices in support of common causes. This too is an area where I think CIVICUS can help.

If we take into account the major lessons learnt from the implementation of global development initiatives, what in your view should be the major factors needed to drive a new paradigm shift for development?

My sense is that the development paradigm is changing faster than the key players realise. Official aid flows are becoming less important, new actors such as China and India are blurring the boundaries between development and business. Big business has smelled potential profits to be made from the 'aid industry' and so on.

I think there are two key mechanisms for responding to these changes and to ensuring that we do make significant progress on the development agenda. At the global level, we need to see real commitments that involve all the key actors, not just bland targets and not just agreements that involve a few players. At the local level, we need to find new ways of involving citizens in shaping the development process. We've been talking about people-centred development for decades; now we have an opportunity and technology gives us the ability to do things meaningfully.

When states participate in multilateral negotiations, do their representatives adequately represent the voices of citizens?

One of the great frustrations about current multilateral processes is that the negotiating positions taken by diplomats do not always reflect the wishes of their citizens. Principles around human rights or democracy or on environmental sustainability seem to fly out the window when diplomats land in New York, Geneva, or Rio to negotiate a new treaty or agreement. Narrow interests that do not arise out of any popular mandate hold sway. This cannot go on. We need to find new ways of holding governments to account for the positions they take on the international stage.