Having a voice is a prerequisite for development

The CIVICUS Monitor measures the degree of freedom of civil society.
Political article
In functioning societies, civil society acts as a critical counterpart to the government. There is a worldwide trend toward restricting or even closing down spaces for participation and critical engagement by NGOs.

We read and hear it almost every day: autocrats such as Putin, Orbán or Erdoğan violently put down protests, order the arrest of critical bloggers and journalists and threaten them with death. Violence against those who stand up for their rights is daily fare in many countries. This is making it ever more dangerous to fight for one's own rights and for those of the underprivileged. A total of 312 human rights activists were killed in 27 countries last year. For that same period, 207 environmental activists lost their lives. An all-time high.

Other civil society organizations too are coming under intense pressure. This affects first and foremost organizations that are politically engaged, critical of the government, and demanding more accountability and transparency. In Kenya, for example, the government closed down some 1,500 NGOs between 2014 and 2015. Yet the underpinnings of sustainable development must include a voice for all stakeholders, transparency, and accountability of politicians to society, as political openness and development go hand in hand. Accordingly, countries where civil society has the benefit of an open, encouraging and enabling environment are ranked higher in the UN Human Development Index (HDI) than authoritarian countries, whose civil society must operate in a restricted, limited or even totally closed environment.

When NGOs do the work of governments

Such restrictions therefore also impact organizations that provide services and foster development, for example in education or health. They often fill gaps that developing country governments do not, whether on account of the remoteness of some regions, the lack of resources or because of bad governance. For beneficiaries, the work of these organizations is often crucial to survival, as it helps meet basic needs. If sustainable results are to be achieved, however, these services must go hand-in-hand with the political empowerment of beneficiaries, who must be in a position to claim their rights vis-a-vis the government and themselves take action to improve their lot and promote development in their region. To promote real, sustainable development, cooperation must be accompanied by the political work of these organizations.

As even authoritarian regimes recognize the service aspect of development work – whether at the local, national or international level – they do allow (at least ostensibly) free rein to non-political NGOs. After all, the funding and provision of basic services by others suits them just fine. The challenge in international cooperation therefore lies in encouraging and supporting civil society players without abetting the government and its principle of "divide and rule". Beneficiaries need to be politically empowered so that they can promote the necessary change in their society.

Good solutions include everyone

The role of civil society organizations in development work has long been recognized. In the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, they are expressly mentioned as playing critical roles in implementation. It is important, in a functioning society, for development prospects to be debated collectively in an inclusive process. If instead debate takes place in a closed process within elite circles, the solutions favoured will be those that benefit the very few. The more people taken on board, the more inclusive the solutions will be.

This can be very easily recognized in resource-rich countries. The more people there are deciding over matters of distribution and use of natural resources, the more people will benefit from them.

The example of oil-rich Chad illustrates this correlation: since the start of oil mining in 2003 some US$13 billion have flowed into State coffers. Yet the country has fallen even lower down the UN Development Index and now occupies the ante-penultimate place. The earnings from oil exports are benefiting only a small elite around the country's President, Idriss Déby Itno, who has been in power for the past 27 years. According to CIVICUS, the global network for civilian participation, Chad's civil society is being stifled.

Leave no one behind, the guiding principle of the 2030 Agenda is central to the implementation of sustainable development for all: no one should be left behind, everyone must be a participant. This motto assumes that in particular the weakest will be included. According to the principle "nothing about us without us", they must be able to stand up for themselves and have a voice in the discussion of solutions. By definition, a critical civil society that champions sustainable and inclusive development is the counterpart to State authority and therefore needs space, recognition, access to funds and trust, so as to be able to play this role properly. There is no arguing away the dilemma whereby NGOs in fact operate in a space outside of State structures, at the same time being dependent on the State to protect that space.

It is precisely this space that is being eroded by the current trend toward shrinking space. This is occurring in various ways:

  • The government imposes excessive requirements relating to the registration and official recognition of an organization or the reporting on its work.
  • Access to funding is made difficult or even impossible. This may be through measures taken under the pretext of fighting terrorism or by applying the "foreign agent" stigma.
  • Violence, the threat of violence or toleration of violence by third parties.

The upshot is a climate of fear and insecurity, which often gives rise to self-censorship in which civil society players no longer venture to demand or decry things that are self-evident.


Joint learning process with SDC

Private and public development players in Switzerland have been closing ranks for many years now to push back against the trend towards shrinking space in developing countries. The first joint event was organized in 2016. On 14 September 2018 another event was held in Berne. On the basis of jointly conducted case studies in Myanmar, Tanzania and Cambodia, concrete options were discussed as to how governmental and private players could enhance the scope of action of their local partners.

The Alliance Sud position

In its development work in partner countries, Switzerland must push back against the trend towards restricting the space available to civil society. Protecting civil society is a core function of development cooperation. For it is only where open debate, inclusive and democratic decision-making processes are possible that rights can be won and enforced, elites can be held accountable and grievances overcome, thereby realizing sustainable development for all. In Switzerland too, much that we now take for granted first had to be fought for – be it women's suffrage or the rights of people with disabilities.