Oxygen for civic power

Civic Action,The Spindle Series on Civil Society10 Jul 2017Yannicke Goris

“We are lucky to be here in this room and lucky to be in the Netherlands” said Bart Romijn, director of Partos, in his opening speech at the launch of Activism, artivism and beyond. “We live in one of the few countries where fresh air for civil society is still plentiful, where it has space to organize, act and breathe”. Unfortunately, for many people in the world such oxygen supplies are dropping, making it difficult, sometimes impossible, to enjoy the freedoms necessary to build a thriving civil society. We therefore felt it was high time to draw attention to the importance of such a healthy civil society. To do so, we teamed up with Partos and The Spindle to create Activism, artivism and beyond: Inspiring initiatives of civic power. This report forms a starting point in our aim to foster cooperation and solidarity between those people and organizations that can support it.

Click here to download a free pfd version of Activism, artivism and beyond.

A key component needed to safeguard and work towards an open and free society is keeping a close eye on the forces that impact on civic space – something that CIVICUS, the World Alliance for Citizen Participation, is constantly doing. With Activism, artivism and beyond we have taken a different approach. Rather than focusing on the forces that limit or threaten civic space, the report looks at the positive side of the story – zooming in on initiatives that create breathing-space or defend the oxygen still available for civil society. By highlighting creative actions from civil society organizations (CSOs), grass roots organizations and movements alike, Activism, artivism and beyond seeks to showcase the wealth and breadth of civic action that is already out there.

Dropping oxygen levels and new spaces to breathe

One particularly interesting example of such action is the website Love Matters, an online platform initiated by RNW Media that offers sexual health information to young people in societies where such information is not readily available. Abir Sarras, who is responsible for the Arabic edition of the platform, attended the book launch in The Hague to explain her project in more detail. For more information, also watch this video-interview with Abir Sarras. Her story testified to the fact that the battle over civic space is not taking place in a political or social vacuum – a point also made by Duncan Green in one of his recent blogs. First, cultural and religious norms are at work here; they are the reason Love Matters was created in the first place. Second, the emergence of new technologies is playing a key role. Thanks to the internet and social media, initiatives like Love Matters can exist, and provide endless opportunities for civil society to spread information, create safe spaces and mobilize people for civic action. Such new opportunities however, also trigger new forms of regulation and attacks on civic freedoms. The Love Matters team for example, must constantly censor itself to avoid clashes with cultural norms and risk being shut down. Unfortunately, examples like this abound of organizations unable to do their work due to cultural or legal constraints. They too must come up with creative ways around the obstacles that are put in their way.

Such creative ways of bypassing obstacles took central stage in our own short presentation about Activism, artivism and beyond. Focusing on the positive and vibrant examples of civic action, we explained what a Russian cat, a group of young women in Pakistan and two artists creating a video installation in the heart of Paris have in common. These three cases reflect the creativity and energy present in today’s civil society and are exemplary of the many ways in which civic space is defended and expanded across the globe.

Supporting civic power here and abroad

The question that remained for the rest of the afternoon was how we can learn from and better support creative actions such as those described in Activism, artivism and beyond. Because while the examples in the report are a source of inspiration and draw attention to the importance of a vibrant civil society, these actions alone are not sufficient to bring about durable change. Given the different forms of threats and repression, the variety in oxygen levels for civil society, and the diverse forms of civic action and organization, a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach will not do. Responses to pressures and measures to support civil society must be adjusted to the demands and needs of the given context and actors. This implies that support should not be directed solely to established NGOs or CSOs, but also to more informal organizations, movements and grassroots initiatives. Moreover, as The Broker’s director Frans Bieckmann emphasized, support for civil society should no longer be embedded in the framework of development policies. Dutch and European civil society – which fall outside the scope of the development agenda – also requires active support, as does civil society in upper middle-income countries (UMICs). UMICs are not eligible for most development support either, which is worrisome because many of them struggle with weak and corrupt public institutions and high levels of human rights violations. Consequently, the existence of a healthy civil society is threatened, and more should be done to support those that are fighting to protect it.

Cooperation and solidarity

Supplying oxygen to civil society and safeguarding civic space requires a global and long-term effort from governments, NGOs and international bodies alike. Moreover, close cooperation and solidarity between people and organizations is needed if such efforts are to stand any chance of success. With Activism, artivism and beyond we are trying to start building the bridges necessary to foster this solidarity by showing that people from all corners of the world share much more than might be apparent at first sight. They share creativity, energy and a common set of goals from which others can learn and take inspiration. So yes, civic space is threatened and in some areas oxygen levels are at a dramatic low. But at the same time we should not lose sight of the opportunities and initiatives that are out there. We at The Broker will continue to actively follow them in months to come, with the hope of contributing to a strong, breathing civil society.

Click HERE to download the full report Activism, artivism and beyond. Inspiring initiatives of civic action.