Reflections from International Civil Society Week 2019

25 april 2019

Plenary at ICSW 2019

Author: Suzanne Keatinge

Serbia’s capital, Belgrade, was the apt location for International Civil Society Week (ICSW) 2019, with over 900 civil society activists arriving from all points of the globe to talk about the shrinking space for civil society. 

Despite all the talk of threats towards human rights defenders, the closing down of press freedom, and the growing architecture around IT and data surveillance, it was hard to escape the vibrancy, innovation and determination of the global civil society community as we sought new forms of collaboration and solidarity. 

The Irish were there in force, with at least nine Dóchas members attending the week of events, from 8 to 12 April. Many of them were involved in the Bridge 47 initiative that brings together Global Citizenship Educators to learn from each other, as well as critique some of the fundamental assumptions around power and social change in order to strengthen education practices. 

Throughout the week, there was a definite sense that civil society is under threat like never before, with the CIVICUS State of Civil Society Report 2018 documenting the increased attacks on civil society and the closing down of space for alternative voices. Not surprisingly, the rise of national populism, most recently in Eastern Europe, any many other parts of the world, was a key topic of conversation. 

“Maybe it's because I, like many others, tend to remember the negative more than the positive, but my sense from the ICSW 2019 is of civil society under threat,” reflected Eilish Dillon, head of Maynooth University’s new Department of International Development. “From the vantage point of Ireland, where we largely take freedom of the press for granted and where we can openly criticise our government, it was shocking to hear the numerous stories of how repressive laws and oppressive regimes are targeting progressive journalists, land rights advocates, educators and community activists around the world.”

Stephen McCloskey, from the Centre for Global Education, had a similar perspective: “We regularly heard phrases like ‘protecting civic freedoms’, ‘shrinking civic space’, ‘reclaiming rights and spaces for dialogue’, ‘enhancing civil liberties’, etc. The political shift to the right in many countries in the global North and South has threatened democratic freedoms and put human rights defenders at greater risk.” 

Ireland may have been protected from some of the major shifts threatening social change elsewhere, but it was a stark reminder not to get too comfortable. That is where the value of these kinds of gatherings and networking spaces comes into its own. It was inspiring and energising to have the time to share experiences, and learn of the many innovative ways that civil society activists are trying to #ShiftThePower. Now the challenge is to sustain that sense of collaboration and purpose.

One critical thread that resonated with Dóchas’ own efforts was on the question of narrative.  A particularly absorbing session was one organised by Vuka! Coalition for Civic Action, which challenged participants to find new “narratives of hope” rather than feeding into the negative populist narrative. Drawing from a range of effective campaign movements around the world, organisers called for a more optimistic vision of what we want, rather than always emphasising what we don’t want. “We need to mobilise based on optimism, and our capacity to change, rather than feeding negative emotions that generate short-term action,” was a key take-away from Stephen.   

Thomas Coombes of Amnesty International also provided convincing evidence during the workshop to suggest that people do respond better to stories of hope, rather than ‘cursing the darkness.’ “NGOS have to counteract the kinds of stereotyping of the global South that we often use in our advertising and communications,” he urged, arguing instead to engage in communities of action and help people to imagine and realise a better world that we want. 

There was a wide range of topics to listen into throughout the week, ranging from strengthening civil society’s own accountability and organisational learning, to talk of harnessing technology whilst managing growing data privacy challenges, to more specific experiences of communities under threat.

I was fascinated to sit in on a conversation with some of the civil society leaders from Armenia’s Velvet Revolution, where we talked about the importance of reaching that essential tipping point that enabled citizen’s power to win out. They managed that peacefully in Armenia, against the odds, just as we did in Ireland around our own referenda, but colleagues from Egypt, Ethiopia, France and many more were left to wonder why and how to reach “their” tipping point. But, we were also reminded that it wasn’t all plain sailing on the other side. In Armenia, the challenge now is to sustain the momentum for positive social change against fierce and complex challenges.

And, when the participants of ICSW were all done with the talking, it was over to the serious business of music and art to inspire us. The Russian punk rock group, Pussy Riot, leapt to the stage on the final evening to show us what real disruption felt like – if only I was a little younger, perhaps? Forgive me then if at times during the week, I was left wondering, for all the action and noise, was there a strong enough collective sense of purpose and vision to build a dynamic global civil society movement? 

At least that’s what the global networks including CIVICUS, Forus and CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness (CPDE) are trying to do as they organised a summit on the eve of ICSW to launch the ‘Belgrade Call to Action.’ It calls on every United Nations Member State “to act to reverse the closing and shrinking space for civil society, to stop the attacks on human rights defenders and the undermining of democratic participation, and to renew the prospects for an inclusive Agenda 2030, and the full realisation of the SDGs”. 

Following the summit with over 150 civil society leaders, which included former Trócaire Director, Justin Kilcullen as co-chair of CPDE, and Deirdre de Burca from Forus, they hope that civil society groups will now mobilise behind the declaration in their respective countries before targeting the High Level Political Forum on the Sustainable Development Goals in September.  

There’s no time to feel old, I guess, and I left Belgrade with a sense of hope at the potential for civil society to find its voice and collective vision, but only if we are able to build on the strong sense of solidarity that was so present. “Overall, I came away with a renewed sense of the importance of asking critical questions, which inspire us towards getting beyond the superficial ‘knowing’ of what’s wrong in the world, and into deeper understanding and meaningful action for global justice and equality,” Eilish concluded.      


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