Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Bibi van der Zee - Democracy campaigner: governments are scared of the participation revolution

The global pushback from governments against civil society is ‘an emergency’, says the head of a worldwide network of NGOs

Danny Sriskandarajah is charged with the job of looking out for countries where governments are cracking down on NGOs or on grassroots groups. Two years ago his organisation Civicus launched a monitor which tracks threats or infringements of the right to freedom of association, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression, both for grassroots, voluntary organisations, and for the larger professionalised NGOs. 

“In the last four years things have changed so dramatically,” he says. “In 2013 we would be issuing press statements or alerts about Russia, Zimbabwe, Ethiopia, countries where you’d expect to see this sort of thing. But over the last few years we’ve been issuing alarms about the UK, US, Hungary and Poland. What’s begun to emerge is that we really think there is a global emergency around civil space, that for a variety of reasons governments and sometimes non-state actors are going out of their way to shut down the ability of citizens to collectively organise and mobilise.”

There is a global emergency around civil space. Red flags have been flying for a couple of years now. Doug Rutzen, head of the International Centre for Not-for-Profit Law says: “Since January 2012, more than 140 laws have been proposed or enacted by governments in 65 countries around the world aimed at restricting the registration, operation, and funding of NGOs.”

Alarm bells began to seriously ring for Sriskandarajah when India moved to tighten up restrictions on foreign funding for NGOs. In 2014 a leaked report by India’s Intelligence Bureau had accused NGOs of reducing India’s GDP; over the next year under prime minister Narendra Modi, the government cracked down on foreign funding for organisations like Greenpeace and the Ford Foundation. “This was a real wake up call,” he says. “Firstly this was the world’s largest democracy, and a country still in need financially of foreign aid. But the political arguments the government was making around demonising civil society were being won easily. Indian civil society just wasn’t responding at the political level to challenge what the government was saying and doing.”

In the last couple of years, he observes, the same pattern has been playing out in the west. In the UK for example a number of moves by the government – “the lobbying act [which limits the amount that charities can spend on political campaigning], gagging clauses on NGOs, undercover surveillance by police officers, the well-documented extra restrictions on muslim charities…” have come at the same time as a sustained campaign against aid by the right-wing press, and aid organisations have been oddly unable to make the case for themselves... read more: