What have a Russian cat, fact checking and humor to do with civil society space?

Barsik, is a domestic Russian cat that wins a local election. The description will not fail to make you smile. The other week I attended the launch of  Activism, Artivism and Beyond by Yannicke Goris & Saskia Hollander, presented by PARTOS, the association of Dutch Development Organisations and The Broker Online as their  joint contribution to the ongoing debate on civic space and the role of international civil society organisations. The publication is an exciting selection or portrayal of smartly undertaken civic actions across the globe. The categories used to ‘classify’ the examples, such as ‘Humor & Public Shaming’; ‘Music, dance & theatre’; or ‘Transparency & fact checking’ show that these are exceptional illustrations of civic action that cut across the global scene.  This FREE publication will give you essential examples of people and organisations gearing up for a range of civic actions. Voice and the agency of voice takes many forms, combinations of Art, Humor and Social Change can bring out the best in human society. In short: download it, browse it and soak up the inspiration.

For the PARTOS Director, Bart Romijn, the publication was the occasion to launch a new drive of  PARTOS and Dutch international civil society of  Civic Space as a lead theme, in tandem with CIVICUS Strategic Priorities,  This synergy implies that in the coming months there will be more on this theme of civic space. This is a laudable choice simply for the reason that the concept of civic space is often poorly understood.  Even more so as at country level working with, in and on civil society space inevitably consists of making difficult choices. The global analysis of the trend that civil society space is threatened stands, but at what levels and in which fora should we raise our voice to counter this trend effectively?

Elbowing and Crowding out.

‘Crowding out’ can take different forms: in Russia legislation and financial rules and regulations are used to coerce domestic organisations to follow the increasingly authoritarian state line.  In South Africa, while working on Social Change Soul City’s Sue Goldstein observes: “At the same time there has been an influx of international agencies and NGO’s into Southern Africa and elbowing out locally based interventions. “Evidence based” interventions is used as an excuse not to support locally grown interventions when funding to build the evidence of locally based interventions is shrinking.” Recently I was involved with a quick scan inquiry of civil space experience in a number of African and Asian settings, (unfortunately as yet unpublished). Several respondents mentioned the impact of competition for resources and of local civil society organizations being ‘crowded out’ by stronger, bigger and wealthier INGOs that by their sheer seize, access to resources and networks and their ‘knowledge’ dominate the country aid scene. In Liberia, during the Ebola crisis, international humanitarians simply took over, although there were obvious opportunities for collaborative action with domestic organisations. Clearly this is not by design, but funding conditions that stipulate that international cooperation funds can only be used by organisations in Europe, USA or a specific country do have this effect of ‘elbowing out’ local actors. During earlier work with setting up the Southern African AIDS Information Service ( SAfAIDS), as a Southern foundation in the mid-90s, there were several examples of internationals elbowing ‘in’. A further learning from the survey was that there are many different forms of participation and expressing voice. The PARTOS publication show cases some of such examples that involve Art and artists, for instance. This indicates that civil space is multi-dimensional and access to that space can be fraught by designed and unintended barriers. I am not sure which one of those barriers is worse.

The business model fixes
The suggestion that the responsibility for protecting civil society space lies predominantly with International organisations is worrying as the digital transformation is sweeping across our increasingly globalized system. The digital transformation has several major implications. Let’s highlight three:

Digital civil space, although showcased in the Partos publication, is fast evolving and many ‘traditional civil society’ organisations are still adapting and struggling to come to terms with this ‘transformation’. This transformation is both about the implications of digital technology as a ‘disruptive technology’ that calls for an urgent and much needed rethink of the ‘traditional’ business models of international civil society organisations. On the one hand there are exciting examples of embracing the potential of digital technologies (see WarChild Holland’s use of e-learning).  Ground Truth Solutions on the use of constituent feedback demonstrates  that the role and contribution of intermediary organisations needs to be revisited and this will have far reaching implications. For too long we have professionalized local civil society into adopting ‘our development speak’ and associated models.  Burkhard Gnäring’s Hedgehog and the Beetle argues that the rise of these new technologies are actually a showcase of ‘disruptive technologies’ that underscore the urgency of rethinking and reworking ‘old school’ models of supporting civil society.

This suggests that there is an urgent need to transform and innovate, this requires resources, internal and collective reflection and dialogue, to rework organisational business models. At the same time we need to identify, explore and embrace the potential of digitalisation, while civil society and all those stakeholders who believe that diversity is beneficial to address our global issues will need to get their act together.

Lucy Bernholz warns that “Digital tools give governments – and corporations – many more ways to shut down or limit citizen actions than they had before. Digital infrastructure and data not only AMPLIFY old mechanisms for shutting down civil society, they also provide NEW MECHANISMS for closure”. This suggests a ‘sense of urgency’ and the need to work with a range of stakeholders. Here is the ‘danger’ the past decades have also shown that civil society and fundamental rights can not be delivered as a product or service.

Who is concerned with civil society space? Obviously the PARTOS meeting was attended by the Dutch international development in-crowd. At the same time, the sense of urgency suggests that we can not afford to lose an opportunity to increase the number and diversity of stakeholders.

Where were the humanitarians? The so-called ‘war against terror’ is one of the umbrella’s used to mould the use of digital tools in ways that are affecting the digital space.

Where were the religious organisations and movements, not just those affiliated to a church?

Where were the trade unions, the professionals, the judiciary for the legal framework, constitutional rights and the media for the right to voice?

Their absence suggests that the urgency identified by CIVICUS requires us to  think and work beyond the established sectors and self-constructed boundaries. Effective advocacy has long required adopting the principle of ‘unlikely bed fellows’  the urgency implies that this needs to be put into action, sooner than later.

Suggested further readings (besides the links in the blog text)

Civicus 2017 monitoring report on ‘the state of civil society’

Duncan Green’s blog on shriking civil society and possible responses

International Budget Partnership Making change in Closing Political Settings


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