Protecting and ensuring space for civil society

The following was originally published on UNDP’s Our Perspectives blog on 14 September 2015. The original article can be found here.

By Magdy Martínez-Solimán

This year’s theme for the International Day of Democracy, “Making Space for Civil Society”, is extremely timely. Reports by many civil society organisations and networks – many of which are echoed in the recently released State of Civil Society Report 2015 by CIVICUS – point to the worrying number of at least 96 countries where serious threats to civic freedoms were reported in 2014.

The scale and the depth of these threats is of great concern. I agree with UNDP’s Civil Society Advisory Committee, whose “first and foremost concern is the shrinking legal, policy and participatory space for civil society activists and organizations, in an increasing number of countries across regions and political regimes.” While it was once true that countries in crisis and post-conflict periods are the ones where civil societies have been most at risk, we now see similar threats spreading across a range of development contexts.

A free and vibrant non-government sector is indeed seen as a threat by many governments. So they over-regulate civil society organizations, putting in place restrictions on their funding, taxing, membership, registration, and thus, their functioning.

On the other hand, peaceful and inclusive societies tend not to fear meaningful interactions between the State and people, whether acting as individuals or associate in groups with like-minded others. In particular, these governments are less likely to restrict freedom of peaceful assembly, association, and expression.

Creating such an enabling environment for civil society is a complex, nuanced and dynamic endeavor, partly because of the inherent diversity of civil society, and partly because of a growing trend towards a tighter control of the public space, due to increasing security concerns in many parts of the world.

At the country level, we at UNDP have been engaged in quiet diplomacy and advocacy, to prevent the adoption of laws that aim to restrain non-governmental organisations. We have instead tried to promote an enabling environment that allows citizens to thrive and to play an active role in public policy and in the economic, social, and cultural spaces.

Wherever the circumstances allow, we will seek to do more, in a more systematic way, to protect and expand civic space.

  • We can use our convening power to bring unions, churches, human rights defenders, women’s groups, and other non-governmental organisations to policy tables and facilitate the setting up of national dialogue platforms.
  • We can ensure broader and better-coordinated UN system responses to the targeted repression of civil society, whether this takes place via the exercise of public power alone, or in concert with powerful private economic interests.
  • We can train our staff, especially at country and regional levels, to better understand and address the threats to civic and democratic space, and why it is vital to resist them.

Promoting full and meaningful participation in political and public life, including for those most excluded, is – and will remain – a priority for UNDP, and on this year’s International Day of Democracy, we restate that priority.

Magdy Martínez-Solimán is UNDP Director of Bureau for Policy and Programme Support in New York.

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