Commonwealth People's Forum 2011

Opening Plenary: The Global Context for Civil Society

by Ingrid Srinath

Where do we, civil society, find ourselves as we near the end of 2011?

The heady optimism of the 1990s following the fall of the Berlin wall and its promise of a global wave of democracy and freedom, and the growing power of citizen action symbolized by the protests at the WTO in Seattle were quickly followed by a decade of the “war on terror” used as an excuse by many governments around the world to restrict freedoms of information, expression, and assembly. Instead of the sweeping vision of the Earth Charter and the Millennium Declaration we settled, in the wake of 9/11, for the relatively minimalist, technocratic MDGs.

The unchecked market fundamentalism of those decades saw, not only sharp increases in disparity and marginalization, but also a hostile takeover of governance by private interests – business, military and religious – that subverted democracy – North and South. Worse still was the takeover of mindsets by the phantom one could call homo economicus – narcissistic, selfish, superficial, atomized individuals who spend all their time relentlessly calculatingtheir net worth and reducing nature to a set of tradable commodities.As Stewart Dakers put it: “In a toxic alliance between politics and the market place, we have all been transformed from citizens with mutual needs into consumers with competing appetites.

Observing the feeding frenzy that followed, I was reminded often of Mahatma Gandhi’s list of the 7 social sins: “wealth without work, pleasure without conscience, knowledge without character, commerce without morality, science without humanity, worship without sacrifice and politics without principles.”

Even the financial implosion and the economic and fiscal crises that inevitably followed did not yield significant change as governments deemed banks too big to fail and citizens too small to matter. The financial crises exacerbated the pressures on civil society - cutbacks in funding, especially for work whose outcomes are not easily measured in the short term, the erosion of political support for the interests of “the other” – indigenous peoples, ethnic minorities, immigrants, foreigners and the socially excluded – and the prioritisation of economic and strategic interests over human rights and political freedoms in national policies and international relations. In addition, the seismic shift in geo-political equations meant that countries that had been champions of democracy and human rights became more willing to turn a blind eye to violations if the states perpetrating them were important sources of capital, market opportunities or natural resources, especially energy. Over 2009-2010, CIVICUS’Civil Society Watch programme tracked 90 countries who changed laws or policies that had the effect of constraining civil society space and freedoms. North and South we witnessed a concerted criminalization of dissent.

Compounding and exacerbating all these was the paralysis in global governance. As the economist Nouriel Roubini describes it: “We live in a world where, in theory, global economic and political governance is in the hands of the G-20. In practice, however, there is no global leadership and severe disarray and disagreement among G-20 members about monetary and fiscal policy, exchange rates and global imbalances, climate change, trade, financial stability, the international monetary system, and energy, food and global security. Indeed, the major powers now see these issues as zero-sum games rather than positive-sum games. So ours is, in essence, a G-Zero world.”

For civil society already disheartened by the failure of the anti-war protests and the debacle in Copenhagen, and facing mounting threats, morale at the end of 2010 was abysmally low.

Then, 2011 began. And as Lenin, the revolutionary, not the musician, had said: Sometimes decades pass and nothing happens; and then weeks pass and decades happen.Disasters – natural and man-made have forced some re-thinking on energy choices and climate policies. What has been labeled the Arab Spring renewed faith in citizen action around the world and catalyzed citizen movements - from China to India, Israel, Chile, Europe and North America – as the people we often label ordinary citizens grew sick and tired of being trapped between states that don’t listen and markets that don’t care.

Regardless of their degree of success in attaining their specific goals, these movements have already achieved at least 3 things:

  • (re) politicisation of the youth, middle class
  • dramatic erosion of trust in institutions, political class, media, business opening up space for real debate on alternative paradigms of development, prosperity and growth
  • renewed belief that change is both, imperative and achievable, through mass mobilisation, and non-violent civil disobedience

These people’s movements are challenging the conventional definitions of state, market, media and civil society and the relations between them. They are resisting the imposition by stealth of new social contracts that reduce civil society to low cost contractors providing public services rather than our roles as advocates for the excluded, incubators of policy innovations, watchdogs of the exercise of power and shapers of political will. They are challenging definitions of national sovereignty already blurred by the global threats like climate change, pandemics and terrorism. Empowered by new technologies they are radically re-defining norms of transparency, accountability and participation. They are united not only in their fluid, horizontalforms of organisation, their definitions of leadership and their use of new technologies but more broadly in their quest to gain or reclaim an active say in governance.

CIVICUS’ most recent report analyzing trends across 35 countries that participated in the most recent phase of our Civil Society Index affirms these trends.

  1. That civil society space is volatile and changing 
  2. That State–civil society relations are limited and mostly unsatisfactory 
  3. That financial and human resource challenges for CSOs are continuing and in some casesworsening 
  4. That we need to do a better job of practicing the values we preach
  5. That we are most successful when we operate in networks and coalitions but that we don’t do enough in this area especially in making the links between local and national and national and global.

If we are to ensure constructive and sustainable pathways to participation and progressive change - rather than a series of fleeting moments of mass-based protest, prone to capture and co-optation by elite interests committed only to preserving the status quo - then an investment in rebuilding these connections between organised and less formal civil society is now essential. Whether donors, governments or civil society organisations, I would urge all those evaluating how best to support civil society in these extraordinary times to focus on joining the dots at all levels – local, national, regional and global.

Some have predicted that the movements we are currently witnessing have the transformative potential of the anti-colonial movements of the 1950s and 60s. They are certainly offering us a stark choice. From indigenous communities on every continent to indignados in Europe and young people everywhere the message I hear is this: “We are going to do this with or without you. Join us or get out of our way.

I applaud your civil society statement and the recommendations of the Expert Group. They are coherent, specific and action-oriented. But I believe we can do much more. I urge the Commonwealth – encompassing its many facets – governments, businesses, media, academics and civil society - and united by its distinctive values –to make the right choice.


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