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Hands off civil society

An international campaigning alliance offers ideas for Ireland’s overburdened NGOs

The UN’s Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, has called civil society “the oxygen of democracy” but its space is shrinking. This may be jargon, but it is inspired by a serious threat to democracy – the undermining of basic rights: freedom of expression, freedom of association, and the right to peaceful assembly.

Civicus grandly describes itself as the ‘World Alliance for Citizen Participation’. It is more down to earth when highlighting failures to address this shrinking civil society space.

In recent months environmental and land-rights activists have been assassinated in Honduras and South Africa. Civil society organisations in Egypt are being prevented from receiving funds from foreign sources. In India the police have repeatedly sought the arrest of a couple who criticised Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his role as Gujarat chief minister during the Gujarat riots in 2002 in which at least 790 muslims (and 250 Hindus) died. The police have confiscated their passports and blocked their bank accounts and their homes have been raided. A woman human-rights defender has been arbitrarily detained in Bahrain with her 15-month-old son. A new law in Jordan is imposing arbitrary conditions on the formation of civil society organisations. An activist opposing a hydropower dam in Cambodia has been given a suspended sentence.

That is disturbing and unacceptable. However, some will argue that only happens elsewhere. But civil society space is shrinking in Ireland too: different means, same intent.

Civil society organisations here are strangled with cuts and encumbered with ever greater levels of bureaucracy such as charity regulation, lobbying legislation and tendering demands; and are spending too high a proportion of their time reporting on endless indicators.

For example our long-standing local not-for-profit development companies providing programmes to tackle unemployment and social exclusion suffered reductions in funding from €84.7m in 2008 to €48m in 2014 and have been required to submit detailed competitive tenders. Most got through the process but some didn’t. Those that did are now bogged down in an indicator-dominated programme.

The environmental pillar of social partnership has been under severe pressure due to reductions in funding arising from cutbacks in the environment fund and Department of Finance obstruction.

The Minister for the Environment implied he was considering removing An Taisce, the largest environmental NGO, which has been critical of him, from the list of bodies consulted over big planning applications.

Organisations are bound into service-provision contracts that preclude criticism of the state. The structures for engagement with the State have been dismantled. There is an evident hostility to and a demonisation of protest and dissent.

We can’t stand aloof in Ireland from this global attack on democracy and ostensibly valued freedoms. Locally, as internationally, those in power do not want these organisations giving voice to and mobilising dissent to a model of development that impoverishes, generates inequality and destroys the planet we live on.

Civicus are seeking to foster greater coordination between civil society organisations to face down these threats.

Civicus and Human Rights Watch hosted a meeting of regional and international civil society organisations to explore the agenda for a campaign on these issues. They identified the need to develop a new positive narrative about the contribution of civil society to national life. This seemingly basic step was prioritised in the face of what was described as ongoing stigmatisation and vilification of civil society organisations.

A second step was to inform the general public about the nature, causes, and extent of restrictions on civil society activists and organisations. A third step was to broaden the debate beyond advocacy organisations and those working on civil and political rights. They noted that restrictions are increasingly applied to anti-poverty and development-focused organisations. Civicus are seeking inputs on how best to develop this global campaign.

The International Civil Society Centre is the “global action platform” for international civil society organisations (ICSOs). It works to support the “world’s leading ICSOs in maximising their impact for a sustainable and more equitable world”. It is also initiating a process of consultation on a ‘Civic Charter’ which it will launch in October 2016 as a means of building international solidarity for civil society organisations.

Some key directions have been suggested, including the need for new ideas for collective advocacy to reverse repressive legislation targeting civil society organisations, the adoption of progressive institutional frameworks for civil society engagement with Governments, and the recruitment of eminent persons to demand the release of unjustly imprisoned civil society activists.

Civil society in Ireland should prioritise the re-appropriation of civil society space. It must participate in these global campaigns and aim to get international demands tailored to address how civil society is specifically being eroded here.

As we face increasingly intractable inequalities and irreversible climate change it is a political imperative.

Niall Crowley