Protecting Civil Society Space

Breakout Session 1: Protecting Civil Society Space

This session featured Mandeep Tiwana (Head of Policy and Research at CIVICUS), Ellen Dorsey (Executive Director of the Wallace Global Fund), Ruairi McKiernan (social innovator and campaigner) and was chaired by Lorna Gold (Trócaire).

It was a fascinating discussion that covered how and why civil society space in shrinking, and how we must adapt and work together to protect it.

Here are some highlights from the discussion:

  • Shrinking civil society space is no longer an issue only for the global south – it is a global problem - speaking truth to power often gets you locked up, and peaceful processes are being ignored. Right wing extremism is threatening progressive movements through both political and violent means.

  • Frontline Defenders have documented 281 killings of human rights defenders in 2016. The scale of the joint up nature of the threat is severe – killings on social and economic and environmental rights. The challenge we face is in how we work together to protect our partners.

  • Huge corporations have huge power – and transnational corporations are the new governments.

  • It is the job of civil society to speak unpalatable truths to power, but one challenge to this is that we have become too like the corporate sector – looking at budgets, endowments, staff, and brand.

  • The explosion of resistance in the US has been a beautiful thing. People who have never been politically active before are becoming engaged. Organisations need to look at how we support these forms of spontaneous resistance.

  • Civil society organisations need to think about accountability – we have evolved effective systems but they are systems that are more accountable to the organisation than to the larger strategy. We need to think of our accountability as a sector – between NGOs and social movements – to achieve the ambitious transformative platforms of the SDGs and the Paris Agreement.

  • We need to imagine power – it is rare that NGOs talk about power and the kind of power we need to bring about the systemic changes we need to see.

  • Many activists end up burning out and do not replenish their selves – we need to focus on our own wellbeing. There is a need for inter-generational mentoring and working together at all levels.

  • There is a challenge in advocacy – we are afraid to be confrontational. But we are here to challenge and defend society. The government and economy are institutions are designed by society and we must challenge them and hold them accountable.

  • The very nature of NGOs makes it difficult to collaborate, but the best NGOS learn how to step in behind social movements and support with resources. We need support and train activists in different spaces and we can re-orient to various social movements.

  • This is a challenging time for civil society – but people are not going to give up their rights without fighting for them!