Gaining ground against rising illiberalism

Guest article by Edwin Rekosh, Rights CoLab

Starting in the 1980s, and accelerating through the 1990s, as democratic political systems and market economies spread around the world, the public sphere at the national level became increasingly populated by formal civil society organisations (CSOs). CSOs have served an important intermediating function for the general public, complementing the work done by governments and independent media to facilitate greater participation by citizens in decisions that affect their lives.

In the meantime, shifting geopolitics and unpopular neoliberal policies connected to economic globalisation have created an enabling environment for a new, populist form of political leadership at the national level, often described as illiberal democracy. One of the hallmarks of illiberal democracy has been a significant increase in governmental attacks on formally-structured CSOs, most of which depend on financial support from foreign philanthropic funders and development agencies.

A clear pattern of attack has emerged, consisting of two steps:

  1. stigmatise CSOs in the public eye, particularly through highlighting their foreign funding sources and other foreign connections;
  2. adopt increasingly restrictive regulatory measures, building on campaigns to weaken public support for CSOs and falsely justified as part of a global effort to curb money-laundering, corruption and terrorism.

As a result, CSOs in many countries are finding it harder to function effectively. Some are having difficulty raising and expending funds from donors upon which they have traditionally relied. Others are struggling with dramatically increased administrative burdens and the need to defend themselves against inappropriate regulatory actions. Still other CSOs are finding themselves distracted from their core missions as they devote resources to defending their image in the public eye. Most dramatically, some CSOs have been forced to shut down entirely for non-compliance with new laws and regulations intended to eliminate them from public spaces.

Members of the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations (INCLO) have experienced such attacks, both historically and today. In order to share insights on how best to respond, INCLO developed a strategic framework to aid CSOs in considering responses and collected case studies drawn from the experiences of members and other CSOs around the globe.

As the resulting manual reflects, CSOs are often able to do little more than manage ongoing risks, such as arbitrary enforcement of restrictive regulations, increased surveillance or physical threats. In the most difficult environments, CSO staff may develop alternative structures that permit them to function, but not without compromising their activities and strategies significantly.

Most importantly, CSOs need to address the globally replicating strategy deployed by many governments that plays on public fears to stigmatise, divide and conquer CSOs. As the manual lays out, among the more proactive strategies for CSOs to consider are:

  1. forging new alliances;
  2. reshaping public perceptions;
  3. building stronger constituencies.

1. Forging new alliances

Civil society typically fragments along various lines, including between: the different roles and approaches of service-providing CSOs compared to advocacy CSOs; the differing international networks connecting CSOs, whether oriented around humanitarian, development, human rights or environmental issues; and the degree to which CSOs might be engaged in areas that are particularly sensitive culturally or politically, such as LGBTI rights or the rights of a particular ethnic minority. Coalition building is not a new strategy for civil society, but when there is a sector-wide assault, it is particularly important for CSOs to band together for at least two reasons: to prevent governments from exploiting typical fissures in civil society and to seek influential supporters outside civil society.

There are a variety of approaches that CSOs can adopt to make their alliance-building strategies more effective. One approach is to broaden out existing coalitions to include other spheres, including trade unions, media outlets, sympathetic or similarly situated businesses and others.

Kenyan coalition, including Kenya Human Rights Commission, broadens out to include business, labour, media and other institutions

The Civil Society Reference Group in Kenya, part of whose secretariat is housed at the Kenya Human Rights Commission, is a broad-based coalition of CSOs of all different types, including advocacy CSOs and development groups. As a pre-existing coalition of CSOs, it was able to mobilise its members rapidly to unite against the common threat of new legal restrictions that affect them all.

Even more importantly, the coalition was quickly able to frame the threat as one that affected civil society in its widest sense. The coalition has developed relationships of mutual support with many other institutions that have been negatively affected by government policies designed to control power. Those affected include others in civil society, including faith-based groups and trade unions, parts of the media, some segments of the private sector, and even formal, government-related institutions such as the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights, the National Gender and Equality Commission, some parliamentary factions and portions of the judiciary.

The resulting coalition has focused on broad common themes, connecting the crackdown on CSOs to wider government policies. In an almost single-minded focus on economic growth, the government of Kenya has privileged certain business sectors over others, creating winners and losers. Those who do not benefit are responsive to a narrative that decries ‘state capture’ as a scourge that is harmful not only to the immediate business interests of those who are excluded but also to the long-term aim of building a vibrant business sector. The ‘state capture’ narrative is widely embraced not only by specific businesses, but also by a wide range of actors in the media and political institutions.

2. Reshaping public perceptions

The most important long-range threat to CSOs is the increasingly pervasive use of delegitimising strategies to foster the perception that CSOs do not have any authentic local constituency. The fact that a large proportion of CSOs are financially dependent on foreign funding sources feeds into that perception, creating a vulnerability that can easily be exploited. For CSOs to fight back effectively, they need to find ways to explain their work in terms that convey legitimacy to the public.

Strategies include linking attacks on CSOs to past repression and characterising them as discouraging foreign direct investment, hindering achievement of the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and undermining democracy and stability. Another strategy is to frame an attack on CSOs as an attack on democracy.

Association for Civil Rights in Israel makes the argument that an attack on NGOs is an attack on democracy

The following is an edited extract from advocacy materials published by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel:

A democratic society is not based solely on the technical mechanisms of majority rule and decision-making. Democracy also involves defending the human rights of minority groups of all kinds, whether social, socio-economic, religious, national, ethnic, political, ideological, etc. Where a democratic regime does not protect these groups, but rather makes decisions in accordance with the majority opinion, society becomes a ‘tyranny of the majority’. Foundational values such as protecting minorities and their rights, freedom of expression, freedom of association and equality before the law are basic and essential parts of any democratic society.

CSOs, including human rights organisations and social change organisations, serve as the voice for many groups in a democratic society, including Israeli society. Specifically, these organisations serve as the voice, representation and defender of human rights for minority groups of all kinds, whose abilities and access to power and decision-making are limited.

Only those who ignore history, and especially that of the Jewish people, can make light of the importance of organisations that defend human rights.

Restricting the freedom of speech, association and action of these organisations will severely harm Israeli citizens, and in particular, disadvantaged and minority groups of all kinds, as well as the democratic character of the State of Israel as a pluralistic and diverse society, and the status of the state in the family of nations.

Defending human rights and criticising aspects of policy or actions of the regime are critical to preserving democracy and human rights in Israel. The freedom to examine and criticise the government and assist those harmed by government policies are critical and legitimate measures, which ensure the existence and prosperity of a democracy over time. In practice, the importance and strength of a democracy is based on its defence of the rights of minority groups, and defending the freedom of speech and promoting opinions even if they fall outside of the current consensus. Encouraging a public atmosphere that is hostile to those working to defend human rights undermines the foundations of democracy. Harassment of human rights organisations harms the most disadvantaged populations in Israel and in the Occupied Territories, which those organisations represent.

It is unfortunate and concerning that we must again explain basic principles of the democratic system. Every intelligent person is aware that in order for a democracy to exist at all, and certainly for a democracy to prosper, we must protect the freedom of speech, the freedom of association, the freedom to protest and criticise the government publicly, the freedom of CSOs to work freely, and to allow for a variety of opinions and positions, especially including unpopular opinions.

In a democratic country, political, social and other activities must not be restricted according to the social, religious or political worldviews of a sector of the population, whilst exploiting the political power of the same group in order to banish those who are unpopular. This is not a democracy defending itself; this is simply not a democracy.

Political persecution and attempts to undermine severely the freedom of expression and the diversity of voices in Israeli society must concern the entire political spectrum and all partners must be recruited to end this dangerous development. Actions of this type harm one group today, but will also legitimise the harming any other group in the future, according to the positions and opinions of the political majority and those in power.

3. Building stronger constituencies

Many CSOs develop in ways that overemphasise communication with key stakeholder groups outside their respective countries. As a result, rather than addressing those on behalf of whom they work, CSOs may be prioritising communication with foreign donors, international institutions, professional and expert networks and peer organisations outside their country.

In contrast, targeted and transparent communication to CSO beneficiaries can build trust and dispel unfounded insinuations about a CSO’s purposes, activities and motivations. The more information disclosed to the public about a CSO’s work, the harder it is to mischaracterise that work, and the easier it is to frame the work of the organisation in a positive light.

Six Russian groups webcast documentary videos about their work

In 2016, a group of Russian human rights CSOs, including Committee against Torture, Soldier’s Mothers of Saint Petersburg and Women of the Don Union joined forces to develop a public communication strategy. Together, they decided to respond to the government’s public stigmatisation of some of the groups as ‘foreign agents’ by communicating more clearly to the public about: who they are and what they do; how the problems they address are connected to human rights; how human rights organisations work in general; and what kind of people work for them and why they choose to work there.

The consortium of CSOs started a web-doc project, comprised of video clips and narrative texts, including interviews, descriptions about the history of the organisations and scenes illustrating how they work. The videos are shot in ‘cinema verite’ documentary style, with the camera following human rights activists in their daily work: meetings, conferences, field activities, client interviews and internal discussions about designing and funding new projects. The videos also show mundane details of daily life, including staff members taking a train home from work or changing a tyre vandalised by thugs.

The CSOs posted the videos on a project website, hragents.org, which is available in Russian and English, and promoted them through social media. The website’s name, hragents.org, was selected as part of a strategy to reclaim the word ‘agent’. The project team’s intended message is that human rights organisations are agents of universal principles, not foreign powers.

Further steps needed

The strategies outlined above are complex and dynamic, and they involve multiple actors over a long timeframe. Despite some of the lessons captured by INCLO members from their efforts to respond to governmental attacks, there are still many questions yet to be resolved before we can be assured that CSOs are in a position to turn back the tide. Among the questions that require further attention are:

  • How do CSO strategies need to evolve at the national level at a time when the international order is shifting in ways that weaken international protection and support?
  • How can CSO alliances be broadened, particularly for their policy work? How can effective collaborations be built between faith-based groups, trade unions and CSOs in general, and how can CSOs most effectively collaborate with young people, technologists, creative professionals and beneficiary communities?
  • How can CSOs of different types and pursuing different organisational purposes best support each other in shoring up civil society as a whole?
  • How can the business sector be guided to provide public support to CSOs more consistently? Where is the alignment of interests with differentiated segments of the business community, including large corporations in various industries, small and medium-sized enterprises, start-ups and social enterprises?
  • What is the best way to explain to the public what is at stake for them? What are the simplifying models and metaphors that will help the public to perceive accurately what is happening and why it matters?

The responses outlined in Gaining Ground are a good place to start for thinking through how to address some of the vulnerabilities that open up CSOs to attack. CSOs are essential for mobilising private initiative, facilitating citizen engagement and protecting human rights. But they will need new energy and creative ideas that harness the opportunities of the 21st century in order to ensure that the civic freedoms gained in the past several decades are preserved and strengthened in the decades ahead.

This contribution to the CIVICUS report on reimagining democracy is an adaptation of INCLO’s manual Gaining Ground: A Strategic Framework for Developing Strategies and Tactics in Response to Governmental Attacks on NGOs, drafted by the author and published in December 2017. INCLO has also published a concise brochure, outlining the strategic responses.