2021 State of Civil Society Report – a great new summary

May 26, 2021

     By Duncan Green     

Civicus publishes its annual ‘State of Civil Society Report’ today. It’s great, with a v cool website and the report is beautifully written too (thanks for that – I have to read a lot of plodding devspeak, so it makes a real difference!). I recommend the overview if you’re looking for a succinct, accessible summary on the state of civic action for advocacy or teaching purposes.

Civicus summarizes the global picture of civic action and government response in the pandemic, but also goes back over 10 years of these reports to highlight 10 recurring themes. Tomorrow, Tom Carothers will discuss what donors and other international players can do to help.

Here’s some extracts:

Many states fail the pandemic test

The pandemic offered a stress test for political institutions, and most were found wanting. The inadequacy of many systems of healthcare and social support was revealed, and the ways in which economies fail to work for many people were once again demonstrated. The world was not ready: international cooperation was needed to respond to a global challenge, but was lacking as governments asserted narrow self-interest, birthing the dismal practice of vaccine nationalism. Vast disparities in vaccination rates between economically powerful states and the rest exposed an ugly reality in which the value of a human life depends on the lottery of birthplace.

State after state asserted top-down, command-and-control approaches that seemed to show little trust in the wisdom of people and communities. The first instinct of many presidents and prime ministers was to act as though the pandemic was a threat to their power, rolling out well-rehearsed routines of repression. States took on broad emergency powers, and at least some clearly used the pandemic as a pretext to introduce rights restrictions that will last long after the crisis has passed. At a time when scrutiny was more difficult, the suspicion was that some political leaders were opportunistically consolidating their power, rushing through repressive measures they had long wanted to unleash.

Many states poured out official propaganda and, under the banner of controlling ‘false information’, sought to control the flow of information, ramping up censorship and criminalising legitimate inquiry and commentary, including attempts to hold them to account for poor pandemic performance and whistleblowing by healthcare workers. China’s customary response of controlling narratives and suppressing dissent enabled the virus to become a pandemic, but the state did not relent. China was in the front rank of states that expanded surveillance practices and trampled on the right to privacy, on the grounds of preventing virus spread, developing surveillance capacities that will likely enable ongoing intrusion.

States increased their coercive power, unleashing violent enforcement of restrictions on movement and suppressing protests, treating the public as targets for enforcement measures rather than partners in defeating the virus. In the Philippines, people were put in dog cages for breaking pandemic regulations. In several Middle East and North African states, including Bahrain, Egypt, Iran and Saudi Arabia, civil society activists imprisoned for their work to defend rights remained in crowded jails, at increased risk of contracting the virus and with little hope of access to adequate healthcare. In Algeria, the state freed some prisoners on safety grounds but filled up the space with activists newly sent to jail.

In many countries holding elections, incumbents applied narrow political calculation and either rushed into votes in unsafe conditions, as in Singapore and Sri Lanka, delayed them, as in Bolivia, or tried to politicise pandemic response to benefit re-election campaigns, as attempted in the Dominican Republic and Poland. Ruling parties took the opportunity to ban opposition rallies while continuing with their own campaigning, as seen in Tanzania and Uganda. Where right-wing populist and nationalist forces were already active, including across a swathe of European countries, they seized on the pandemic as their latest opportunity to sow division and polarisation for political advantage, politicising issues such as mask use and vaccination, little caring that their disinformation cost lives.

While international law sets out that any restrictions introduced on health grounds should be proportionate and time-limited, there is clear concern that many states went further than needed and that at least some new powers will stick, particularly where emergency laws were passed without expiry dates; past experience, such as the introduction of enduring laws and practices that extended state violence in the wake of the 9/11 atrocity, is not encouraging. Little wonder that at the year’s end, some 87 per cent of the world’s population lived in countries with severe civic space restrictions.

This was not the only model, and some states – notably New Zealand, South Korea and Taiwan – got the virus under control, won public trust and communicated pandemic response measures clearly, while largely respecting rights and upholding democratic freedoms. This showed that the path of repression taken by many was not a necessity but a choice.

10 years, 10 trends

1. A sustained civic space crackdown

2. Politics in flux and democracy at risk

3. Ultra-capitalism’s impacts and popular rejection of the economic model

4. Climate change recognised as a crisis

5. Challenging structural exclusion and vindicating difference

6. The rise of social media and the disinformation economy

7. Rogue states take their models global

8. Beleaguered multilateralism

9. The reality of conflict and militarisation

10. Newly mobilised people and new civil society forms

May 26, 2021
Duncan Green