Challenging exclusion: why civil society matters

We live in an age of multiple paradoxes. In times of unparalleled wealth creation, according to Oxfam,  just 62 people own as much wealth as half of humanity while 700 million people or roughly 10 percent of the world’s population are said to live in extreme poverty on less than $1.9 a day.

We live in an age of multiple paradoxes. In times of unparalleled wealth creation, according to Oxfam,  just 62 people own as much wealth as half of humanity while 700 million people or roughly 10 percent of the world’s population are said to live in extreme poverty on less than $1.9 a day.  Integrated economic and cultural ties bind us as peoples and nations as never before but religious and ideological fundamentalists in politics and terrorist outfits are threatening to reverse decades of progress on social cohesion.  Although world leaders have committed to creating peaceful and inclusive societies through the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals framework, civil society organisations and activists challenging exclusion and the violence it perpetuates are facing existential threats.

Exclusion occurs whenever individuals or groups are denied equal access to livelihood opportunities, goods and services, or decision-making processes on the basis of an aspect of their identities. Notably, the sources of exclusion vary from historic practices of marginalisation of particular groups such as Dalits to present day market-driven models of economic growth that restrict opportunities for the excluded. Exclusion matters because it is part of the everyday lived experience of many millions of people whether on the basis of their gender, sexual orientation, disability or HIV status, race, ethnicity, caste, age, faith, refugee or migration status, location and income among others.

Even as many of our societies are failing to address exclusion, CIVICUS’ 2016 State of Civil Society Report highlights numerous examples of valiant efforts by social movements, professionalised NGOs, labour unions, community based organisations, think tanks and individual activists who make up civil society to challenge the status quo.  For example in Europe, where politics have become more volatile and polarised amid high levels of xenophobia and racism,  a voluntary response from citizens and civil society organisations (CSOs) to communicate that refugees are welcome has helped settle them into communities. Civil society also continues to mobilise to provide essential services and document abuses in refugee camps.

In the United States which faces an epidemic of black people being killed by the police in questionable circumstances, the Black Lives Matter social movement, which started as a hashtag, has established itself as a widely recognised locus of resistance, embedded itself in communities and continues to challenge impunity and racism. In Tunisia, the commitment and sustained engagement of civil society to build peace and democracy, and resist a slide into repression and extremism, has been recognised no less by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, comprising a human rights organisation, a lawyers’ group, a labour union and a trade confederation.

In Guatemala, a country characterised by deep economic divides and high level corruption, protests by active citizens sustained over months led to the resignation, stripping of immunity and arrest of the president, on charges of fraud and bribery last year. Elite corruption has long been a problem in Guatemala, but public anger was fuelled by allegations that public officials, including the president, were responsible for the loss of millions of dollars of customs revenues, by accepting bribes for low custom taxes and fees, at a time when public services were in decline was the tipping point. Among the revealed impacts of corruption was the loss of vital dialysis treatment for kidney patients belonging to economically weaker sections of society.

In South Korea, tens of thousands of people marched through the capital, Seoul last November when labour unions, civic groups and farmers’ groups joined came together to resist the elitist pro-business policies of the government. Grievances included widening economic inequality, worsening employment conditions, and free market trade deals adversely affecting small farmers. Opposition also focused on government plans to change labour laws to make it easier for business owners to lay off workers amid broader concerns about the erosion of civic freedoms of expression and assembly.

In addition to myriad forms of online and offline protest, civil society activists and organisations are  challenging exclusion by documenting rights violations and engaging courts and institutions at the national, regional and international levels. For instance, in Africa where discrimination against the LGBTI community remains rife and where till just a few years ago there was no visible LGBTI movement, the efforts of civil society have resulted in demands at the UN Human Rights Council for the appointment of an independent expert to bring attention to rights violations on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Nevertheless, despite or perhaps because of such impacts, civil society organisations and activists are facing heightened restrictions and attacks. CIVICUS’ recent findings point out that the core civil society freedoms of association, expression and peaceful assembly were seriously violated in 109 countries in 2015. In several instances, activists have paid the highest price. The assassination of Pakistani social activist and women’s human rights defender Sabeen Mahmud last year has once again exposed the dangers of working in a society torn between the authoritarianism of the state and the religious fundamentalism of extremist groups. Sabeen’s crime in the eyes of those who killed her was to provide a safe space for socially progressive individuals to discuss alternate models of politics at her café in strife-torn Karachi.

As is evident from the above, civil society’s enduring quest to create inclusive societies is being strongly resisted. Global Witness, the rights monitoring organisation has uncovered the killings of 185 land and environmental rights defenders in 2015 alone. Almost 40 percent of the victims belonged to indigenous communities resisting land grabbing and natural resource exploitation by mining and agribusiness sectors.  The sad reality is that when civil society challenges exclusion and asserts rights, it seeks a redistribution of power which is automatically resisted by those who hold it. Even then civil society activists and organisations are refusing to accept a narrative of disempowerment and challenging injustices as we speak. However, in times of constrained space, they need the support of publics and decision makers from the local to the global levels. 

The Sustainable Development Goals adopted last year commit all nations of the world to promote social, political and economic inclusion, and end discriminatory practices by 2030. In an empowered, enabled and committed civil society lies our best hope of realising this promise and countering the present toxic mix of economic inequality, marginalisation of minorities, and the rapid rise of extremism coupled with state authoritarianism. 

Mandeep Tiwan is head of policy and research at CIVICUS