The CIVICUS Monitor – global data provides picture of a global crackdown

By Cathal Gilbert, Dom Perera and Marianna Belalba

Today we launch ratings for all UN Member States on the CIVICUS Monitor – the first ever online tool specifically designed to track and rate respect for civic space, in as close to real time as possible.

Our findings - described at length elsewhere - are bleak to say the least. But their release represents an important moment for civil society and allow us for the first time to capture a global picture of a crisis facing all regions.

The need for such data is more relevant today than ever. Based on a vibrant civil society research collaboration, the CIVICUS Monitor shows how almost six billion people live in countries where civic space - in other words the fundamental freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression - is obstructed, repressed or closed. We hope that the CIVICUS Monitor will help to raise the profile of this crisis facing civil society – most importantly by placing the voices of local civil society at the centre of our analysis.

While it’s true that there is already a lot of data available on these fundamental freedoms, that information is dispersed, often months or years out of date and often not based on the views of civic groups under attack in the country under assessment.

CIVICUS members often tell us that, as a result, indexes and measures of civil society fail to adequately reflect their local realities, which are often extremely complex and quickly changing. Because civic space can be so volatile and subject to attacks and restrictions from many sources, information can quickly become out of date.

After carefully listening to our members, over two years ago, the CIVICUS Policy & Research department began a series of discussions and consultations aimed at addressing these deficiencies by delivering a timely tool grounded in local realities, which, in the hands of civil society, could be a powerful weapon in the fight back against closing civic space.

Today, we we take that development one step further as we release findings for all UN Member States - and Kosovo and Palestine - on the CIVICUS Monitor, which provides verified information on civic space developments, and is aimed at the public, civil society organisations, the media, academics, governments and international organisations.

It provides the user with both quantitative ratings and narrative descriptions through country pages .

The colour-coded civic space ratings (available now for 195 countries) reflect the spectrum of respect for fundamental freedoms around the world. The choice of broad ratings categories – as opposed to specific scores or rankings – was a deliberate one, aimed at recognising the difficulty of assigning a single number to complex social and political dynamics.

Ratings are generated by combining several sources of data on civic space. Once initial ratings are assigned, the CIVICUS Monitor closely tracks developments in each country over time, such that ratings will change directly in response to events on the ground. Several layers of cross-checking and verification are built into each rating, and our independent Advisory Panel provides an addition level of quality assurance.

Each ratings category represents a group of countries in which there is a diversity of civic space violations, driving forces and types of civil society organisations. So, though North Korea and Ethiopia both receive a closed rating, this does note mean that conditions are exactly the same for civil society activists in both countries. Rather, we place them in the same category because the data indicates that the severity of civic space violations is broadly similar in both countries. But we also recognise that the experiences of people and civil society organisations in both countries is very different, and that there is a wealth of nuance and context that can never be described in a rating, or a number.

This is why we have also developed a system to provide regular narrative updates from our research partners. These are organised around country pages and searchable categories or tags. On these pages, we tell the daily stories of civic space – the physical attacks on activists, protests disrupted, journalists killed – for country after country, based on updates from civil society organisations all over the world. We also tell the good stories, when we can find them.

As far as possible, we try to include video, social media posts and quotations from local organisations, to bring their voices directly into what we hope will become a credible and widely-shared global platform on civic space. The hundreds of posts already contained on the platform are the product of an incredibly dedicated set of researchers, a collaboration which CIVICUS intends to strengthen and build on as we move forward.  

Of course, generating relevant and credible information is just the first step and we are excited about the many potential uses there are for data provided on the CIVICUS Monitor. For a long time, civil society has been asked by decision makers to produce concrete evidence of the global threat to civic space. We hope that the Monitor’s robust methodology now enables us bring such evidence to the policy table so that real change can happen. The Monitor also allows us to evaluate the gap between rhetoric and reality, by examining states’ compliance in practice with promises made on ‘enabling environment for civil society’ or ‘fundamental freedoms’ in key intergovernmental forums and documents.

The Monitor can also help to identify positive trends by describing countries or regions where civic space and the freedom to offer dissenting views remains protected despite challenges from regressive forces and trends. Finally, as the volume of data increases over time, the CIVICUS Monitor will allow researchers to disaggregate data, and delve deeply into temporal and geographic trends in order to expose the real drivers of closing civic space.

The CIVICUS Monitor is still a work in progress. We know that the fight for civic space will be long and hard-fought. We know that the CIVICUS Monitor alone will not cause governments, corporations and other non-state actors to stop violating citizens’ rights nor compel the international community into action.

But properly understanding the scale of the problem we face, and then telling that story, is a crucial component of the fightback. What the CIVICUS Monitor will do is provide civil society, the media and decision-makers with a reliable, updated portrayal of the reality of civic space. By so doing we can enable stronger, more concerted action to open up civic space, and challenge those that seek to close civic space.

*An earlier version of this article first appeared in Equal Times in October 2016.