"Civil society is the ultimate antidote to populism" - Deborah Doane

author: 
comms
23 april 2019

This is the fifth in a series of blogs that will be published in the lead up to the Dóchas Conference 2019 – Finding Our Voice: How Civil Society is Countering Uncertainty – on 2 May 2019 in the Radisson Blu Royal Hotel, Golden Lane, Dublin 8. Find out more.

We are asking leaders, innovators and thinkers working in the areas of equality, justice and development to respond to a set of questions around the theme of the conference - the key challenges facing international cooperation and how we can shape the Irish response to these challenges, find opportunities within them, and build public support along the way.

Today, we are delighted to feature Deborah Doane, Partner, Rights CoLab. Deborah has worked in civil society for over 20 years, as a campaigner and leader, working across human rights, development, environment, and economic justice issues, including as Director of the Funders’ Initiative for Civil Society. Find out more.

Read the other blogs in this series.

Deborah's Response:

What do you see as the main challenge facing international cooperation between now and 2030?

Nationalist populism is probably the biggest challenge we face at the moment. It creates a view of ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ and results in people retreating to a mis-perceived sense of safety and security without having regard to the rest of the world. Rather than celebrating difference, people become afraid of it and prioritise their own protection over those of others.

Populists are taking advantage of people’s insecurities in Europe. A recent poll showed that far right populists could take up a third of seats in the European parliament in the upcoming elections. 

For people working in development, it makes things more challenging. There is a lack of political space to negotiate international norms and secure action and respect for human rights or systemic environmental issues like climate change, as people retreat to their short-term, national concerns.  Brexit is a perfect example of this.

What role can civil society play in overcoming this challenge, and how will civil society need to change to achieve this?

Civil society is the ultimate antidote to populism. Where governments are deadlocked and obsessed with short-term politics, civil society and civic engagement has the potential to overcome deadlocks and show a positive vision for the future. The Irish referendum on reproductive rights is a beacon for how civil society can mediate society’s differences, and bring forward more progressive outcomes.

This does need a shift in approach from civil society. For too long, we focus on what’s wrong, rather than the vision of what we want to see in the world. Civil society should be reducing people’s fears, not stoking them. People need a sense that change is possible and that the issues faced by people in one country are the same issues everywhere – that by looking outwards, we can also have safety and security at home.

I love the Libero campaign from Switzerland that’s reframing the debate around migrants. “At the moment, in lots of places, it’s populists. Everywhere, the conversation is about identity: who we are, where we’re from, the past. But that’s their turf. We have to go on the offensive – clear the fog, refocus attention, reframe the debate.”

How do we bring the public along with us to believe in and champion the importance of international cooperation?

We need to bring people with us and talk about values and solidarity, not difference. Civil society, even international civil society, needs to be much more grounded in communities and the grassroots. We need to make the connections between one’s rights at home and those abroad. 

The Sustainable Development Goals are useful in that they’re universal. Poverty isn’t about what happens somewhere else: the structures that bring about poverty or climate change, are the same everywhere. Civil society needs to connect those dots. 

Coalitions and alliances are critical, but not just on paper or online. We need to work actively in communities close to home, demonstrating shared values and then showing ways to act on them. International civil society should be as much a part of local community organising as other groups. This will build solidarity between people of different cultures, faiths and communities and civil society is well positioned to do this. The public doesn’t care about organisation’s brands – it cares about values and how we work together.

The opinions expressed in this blog are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Dóchas.

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The Dóchas Conference 2019 - Finding Our Voice: How Civil Society is Countering Uncertainty - will take place on 2 May 2019, 2pm - 5.30pm, in the Radisson Blu Royal Hotel, Golden Lane, Dublin 8. Registration from 1.30pm - 2pm. The Conference will explore the key challenges facing international cooperation between now and 2030. It will provide a space for discussion and new ideas about how we can shape the Irish response to these challenges, find opportunities within them, and build public support along the way. Speakers include Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam International, and Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, Chief Executive Officer, Plan International, and more.

Find out more and register.

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