What is behind the Global Crackdown on Civil Society? In Conversation with Dom Perera and Tonu Basu

December 13, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

Last week I went along to the launch of  People Power Under Attack 2019, the latest output of the Civicus Monitor project on the state of civil society organizations around the world. Afterwards, I picked the brains of two of the speakers, Dom Perera of Civicus, and Tonu Basu of Open Government Partnership. Here are a few of their insights

Main Findings

Dom: The big finding this year is that just 3% of the world’s population live in countries that have open civic space, which is our top rating, down from 4% last year. We’ve seen some big downgrades – Australia and Malta losing their gold rating. We’ve also seen a massive bloating in the ‘repressed’ category, the second lowest, after the downgrade of India and Nigeria. So across the world, the picture is of civil society under attack. It’s quite bleak.

Why are we seeing this, why now?

Tonu: There are a couple of trends we’re seeing. One is more countries trying to be open, more right to information laws, more countries working on anti-corruption. But clearly some interests are being harmed by that, so you have a parallel trend towards closing down. We are also seeing governments and non-state actors using the language of open government to crack down, for example through more onerous registration laws.

What is the link between the crackdown and the global wave of protests?

Dom: I think the protest movement has been bubbling below the surface for some time, and has now come to the surface in something quite ferocious. The traditional avenues for citizen participation through an NGO etc are being closed down. So the arrow of causation is from crackdown to protest.

Tonu: I also think it goes the other way: governments are scared of more people coming out and want to preempt that space by closing that space.

Dom: The costs of repressing protests is really high. Restricting some NGO that only a small group is going to care about carries much lower cost. So governments are sharing notes on how to stop these movements from coming to fruition.

The link to Digital: 

Tonu: There is a total lack of any global/international policy on how to regulate social media. We’re seeing the misuse of new technologies because there is no agreement between governments on what can/can’t be done. It’s an unclaimed policy space that is being used both by governments and non-state actors to crack down.

New Tactics and Innovation by the Bad Guys

Dom: We’re seeing the delegation to non-state actors, proxies like government-sponsored NGOs who crowd out space for civil society participation, internationally or domestically. We also see partisan and state-owned media playing an appalling role in publicly vilifying activists who speak out against the government. And when it comes to repression, we see delegation to pro-government militias who can put down protests at lower political cost to governments – the government can look the other way and say, ‘this has nothing to do with us’. Clean hands but dirty gloves!

Tonu: Repression of journalists, using the language of fake news and disinformation. We’re seeing governments controlling the language using those tactics.

Dom: Undoubtedly the structures of formalized civil society have made restrictions easier – if you’re reliant on foreign funding, if you have a bank account, or you try to move staff across borders. On the other side, reforging connections to constituents can increase resilience. That could hold the key for formalized CSOs.

Has the behaviour and organization of Civil Society contributed to the problem?

Tonu: In OGP, we are working on beneficial ownership – chains of anonymous companies. But this easily becomes an elite conversation. If I go on the streets and talk about beneficial ownership, why should they care? This is where we’ve lost that connection, we have to explain why this matters to schools and healthcare, real issues.

Second, because civil society has become so sophisticated in its advocacy, we see our partners in different siloes – anti-corruption, human rights, public services etc not talking to each other, even on a common issue like civic space. When different groups come together on a certain issue, that’s when we’ve seen the best results.

Identity v Economics

Dom: I would say we’ve seen a shift towards identity issues. The identity-based activism we are seeing is far more potent than those driven solely by economic demands. Women human rights and LGBTQI defenders have been the most targeted groups, but organized, formalized bits of civil society has not done enough to stand with them or translate their struggles into the broader spaces we occupy. There’s work to be done there.

Tonu: It’s both: in Chile, people were coming out on the streets about economic inequality as well. In Hong Kong it’s democracy. But within those larger movements, that identity piece plays a big role – we’re seeing many more particular communities making specific asks in broader movements on transparency and accountability.

Civil Society v Civil Society Organizations

Tonu: We say to governments consult early, consult often. Maybe we should tell ourselves that as formal CSOs. How are we using structures like citizens’ assemblies here in the UK, deliberative democracy to bring groups of citizens together. We need to do more of that both as CSOs and governments.

Dom: Organizations, formally structured groups, are by their nature more cautious than individual activists who are leaderless, dynamic, fluid. That makes them ferocious and hard to put down. But in the ‘Balkan Spring’ in Serbia and other countries, we saw individuals working for CSOs who were unable to do much in their organizational capacity, so joined movements as individuals, and became catalysts. They brought in their learning, their expertise.

Great stuff. Many thanks to Dom and Tonu, and as always, please listen to the podcast if you can – much more in there that I couldn’t fit into the transcript

December 13, 2019
Duncan Green