What is new/the same about the world’s new civic activist movements?

May 10, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

Bumped into Tom Carothers in the DFID foyer the other day, and he handed me a copy of a fascinating new Carnegie Endowment Report, Global Civic Carnegie coverActivism in Flux. Late last year, Carnegie set up a Civic Activism Network that brought together 8 national experts on new forms of citizen activism in Brazil, Egypt, India, Kenya, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, and Ukraine, who each contributed chapters. Here’s the rationale, from editor Richard Youngs:

‘Civil society organizations have been subject to considerable criticism and doubt over the past ten years, after enjoying an enormous expansion and heightened attention throughout the developing and post-Communist worlds in the 1990s. Influential observers and analysts in many quarters decry a predominant focus on Western-style nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). They argue that these groups are looking increasingly ineffective, tired, and out of touch—artificial creations often nourished by foreign supporters that lack real domestic constituencies and the ability to sustain themselves locally.

Some of these critics argue that more broadly based citizen movements are starting to reinvigorate the civic sphere, with dynamic and fluid new forms of civic organization emerging and gaining a significant presence in political and social debates. Citizens appear less tolerant of nepotism and corruption, and they are mobilizing through many kinds of campaigns to bear down on self-serving elites. People have also begun to organize themselves within local communities and neighborhoods in search of more equitable decisions about practical, everyday issues. Moreover, information communications technology is generating fundamental changes in the structures of social organization—in the view of some optimistic observers, this is contributing to a seemingly inexorable civic empowerment.

What some analysts refer to as a new contentious politics has taken root. This is not limited to particular regions and regime types, but is increasingly global. Large-scale protests have flared up in scores of states across every region. Many of these appear to have emerged with a degree of spontaneity, involving tens of thousands of citizens who previously were not politically active. Such is their ubiquity that these protests have become a defining feature of modern politics.

The revolts embrace a range of causes. Some are about democratic revolution, some about neoliberalism and globalization, some about specific cases of corruption, and others about very local issues. If their driving motivations are different, so are their outcomes. Some of the new civic mobilizations have ousted regimes; some have won major concessions from incumbent governments; others have failed in their declared aims.’

The country case studies are well worth reading, as is the concluding chapter, identifying five overall messages:

  1. Civil society around the world exhibits a mix of common trends and country-specific changes. In recent years, new actors have emerged with common traits across the eight countries. In each case, civic activism has become more sporadic, footloose, tactically innovative, daring, and intent on carving out local autonomy and ownership, while new forms of civil society also are becoming less dependent on permanent membership


    structures and less exclusively channelled through traditional NGOs and similar groups. Social movements and individual campaigners are using more creative tactics based on imagery and symbolism. And in all cases, civic activism is adapting to evade governmental controls, as regimes—both democratic and authoritarian—respond nervously and defensively to the new type of contentious politics.

  2. Old and new forms of activism coexist. Analyses about the changing face of civic movements often portray new forms of mobilization as assertively sidelining a discredited arena of traditional activism. The reality appears to be somewhat less clear-cut. New activism has not entirely eclipsed old activism. Nor is new activism quite the kind of purely spontaneous, organization-free phenomenon of popular legend.

While emerging activism is certainly less institutionally rooted than older forms that long depended upon large, membership-based and permanently structured organizations, new activism itself often latches onto organizational structures and evolves over time as it seeks to amplify its reach—or, more defensively, simply to maintain its existence. Kenya, Tunisia, Turkey, and Ukraine all provide examples of old and new activism interacting and influencing each other.

  1. Civil society encompasses both political and practical aims. New civic activism is simultaneously more contentious and more pragmatic. It is both less accommodating of the status quo and more intent in practice on carving out islands of tangible progress and reform. It is driven both by citizens’ increasingly profound frustration with existing political systems and by communities’ desire to find ways of circumventing the constraints of these systems, while these obstacles cannot be immediately removed.
  2. Emerging forms of civil society include both liberal and nonliberal movements. Some new activism is led by leftist radicals, some by conservatives. Some new activism is carried forward by marginalized members of society who seek far-reaching overhauls of entire existing systems, but some activism is undertaken by well-off middle-class groups more concerned with preserving certain features of society….. Interestingly and crucially, new forms of civic activism are both associated with the much commented-on surge in political populism around the world and often aim to push back against this populism.
  3. The effectiveness of civil society movements is closely related to weaknesses stemming from governments’ repressive responses


    to them. A key question for future research will be why the new activism appears to have been more—even if not fully—successful in Brazil, Tunisia, and Ukraine than in Egypt, Kenya, or Turkey. There may be no easy single answer to this, although one initial factor that emerges from this report’s eight brief mappings is that there seems to be less polarization among civic actors in the cases of more successful impact. In the cases of Tunisia and Egypt, for example, the spirit of consensus building between civic actors in the former contrasts with the infighting and fragmentation that hampered post-2011 democratic reform in the latter.

New activism is both a cause and an effect of a harsher civic climate. An uncomfortable observation is that the new activism may have become the victim of its own significance—that is, its very success could be narrowing the future prospects of stronger impacts. In nearly all the cases, new activism today is under threat as governments judge it necessary to find ways to neutralize its potential and vibrancy.