In a world increasingly driven by economic liberalization and neoliberal politics, countered by concerning levels of populist backlash, civil society rights remain a grave and legitimate concern for many countries. Citizens of 106 countries today experience the violation of their fundamental civil society rights; in fact, only 3% of the world’s population reside in a country that protects their freedoms to assemble, associate, and speak. This is all according to CIVICUS (World Alliance for Citizen Participation), an international coalition of partnerships and members that traverse each level of civil society.
CIVICUS defines the term civil society as: “civil society networks and organizations; trade unions; faith-based networks; professional associations; NGO capacity development organizations; philanthropic foundations and other funding bodies.” The organization recently published the 2017 State of Civil Society Report, which examines the implications of recent waves of populism, focusing on the relationship between civil society and the private sector and ways in which that relationship can be influenced to positively affect the current and future state of civil society.
But is civil society really at risk? The report terms the current restriction on civil society as an emergency. A highly restrictive civil society is characterized by legislative and regulatory restrictions, the coerced closure of civil society organizations (CSOs), judicial persecution, incarcerations, and violence. Recent political events have harmed democracy, which in turn has further restricted civil society. The rise of populist leaders in some countries, who promote a strong sense of nationalism and focus on appealing to certain large, influential blocks of society (without representing all citizens, especially minority groups that need protection the most), contribute to the decline of civil society.
The report finds that populism is not only a threat to the U.S. and Europe, but also to the global south, in places such as India and Turkey. Civil society needs to find a way to fight back, without directly challenging public opinion or appearing only as a microphone for the political elite that led to the rise of the populist factions in the first place. The report credits large protests and gatherings, such as the “Sister Marches” protest that spread around the world against Donald Trump, as viable options for voicing dissent. Connections throughout civil society should be encouraged, to promote the sharing of information regarding the successful planning and organization of protests. CSOs must also make clear that civil society rights are essential in the defense of democracy; pro-civil society and democracy alliances across all layers of society are integral parts of the solution.
Civil society is able to have an impact in other ways too, according to the report. With CSO advocacy and action, the UN now has an expert on sexual orientation and gender identity and a treaty regarding the relationship between transnational corporations and human rights is being developed.
But what exactly is the role of the private sector in all this? State power is declining in the international sphere. As economic neoliberal principles take center stage, the power of corporations is rising. Often, businesses possess more economic power or even more power to influence international norms than states, and thus more power to make a difference on behalf of civil society.
The success of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) created and encouraged by CSOs are more often than not in the hands of the private sector; currently much of development policy focuses on wealth creation. However, private sector decisions may too often be based solely on profit and company interest, despite their support of SDGs (in theory). The report gives suggestions as to how civil society can maintain a positive relationship with and further influence the private sector; by making the “business case for civic space.”
Networks for partnerships and dialogue between transnational corporations and CSOs are key; successful examples exist but more examples are needed of these partnerships. Civil society must also make businesses see the benefit of good practices, and the cost of bad. This entails CSOs working with businesses on the high end of the spectrum (good practice) while publicly condemning those on the low end (bad practice). In order to do this successfully, civil society should adopt a subtle approach and truly understand business motivations. For example, civil society can emphasize the costs to businesses, that can be saved by protecting civic space. The report finds that “social risk” can add 10% to business operating costs and bribery can amount to $1 trillion. Such an approach should also be characterized by a list of standards for how businesses should interact with civil society, and how civil society should engage with the private sector. These standards indicate the importance of understanding, trust, honesty, equality, and mutual respect and agreement.