Earlier this month, I travelled to Zanzibar to attend a workshop on strengthening the capacity of rights based CSOs and women human right defenders in East Africa. The gathering that attracted 25 participants representing various CSOs across the horn of Africa was organized by the office of the high commission for human rights, East African region. I couldn’t help but notice that most of the participant’s presentations pointed at the challenges, insecurities and the closing space for CSOs in their home countries.
Civil society represents organized groups and institutions that are independent of the state, voluntary, and at least to some extent self-generating and self-reliant. This includes non-governmental organizations, independent mass media, think tanks, universities and social and religious groups. One role for civil society organizations is to lobby for the needs and concerns of their members, as women, students, farmers, environmentalists, trade unionists, lawyers, doctors, and youth among others.
However, civil society organizations globally have been increasingly subjected to threats and excessive scrutiny by government officials thus restricting the functioning of the civil society. We talk of democracy and citizen participation but how will that be possible yet the civil society space is slowly by slowly dwindling?
Reports indicate that over 63 countries passed restrictive laws, shrinking civil society space and increasing the criminalization of and discrimination against CSOs worldwide. This is attributed to many reasons but in Africa, some countries see CSOs as drivers of the western agenda, forgetting their major role of advocating for people’s rights and needs and the fact that they represent citizens and give them a stronger voice. There is an increasing number of laws and bills across Africa, intended to regulate the activities of CSOs, directed at restricting the access to funding, particularly when sourced from abroad, yet NGOs have the right to access funding. This entire legal arsenal is aimed at stifling all forms of promoting and defending human rights by the CSOs.
May be, let’s talks about the reasons why many donors prefer often times to channel their overseas development aid through CSOs: it is because they can easily maximize the impact of the scarce development aid. It is easy to ensure good service delivery at CSOs. Logically, CSOs look at the funds as their source for survival and the path to the realization of their vision. I am not ignoring that there are some CSOs that swindle funds but the trend is very common among government institutions across Africa that do not care to efficiently use the funds.
Also, have we thought about how CSOs act as beacons of democracy, since they ensure direct citizen participation? CSOs work with citizens at the grass roots, they tackle the main challenges that people face and they are able to touch the lives of the people in the simplest forms, either by providing them spaces to talk about their day to day challenges or even facilitating their economic development. Civil society actors have also increasingly become vital forces in discourses, initiatives and programs that foster peace and security across the world.
So question is: Why exclude the civil society yet it plays a pivotal role in democracy consolidation of any given nation? Why is active citizenship under attack and the space for civic engagement closing?
The civil society is enormous in its size and diversity, its members of the media, for-profit businesses, volunteer associations, political parties, trade unions, faith communities, private foundations, and nonprofit organizations. But because the space we need for this work is closing, we must come together, understand our mutual dependence and interrelatedness, and support each other in this work. We must forge a new solidarity and thrive through to realize our mandate and change every life we can reach