Mass public protests that have grabbed headlines around the world during the last few years reflect a failure of governance at the national and international level, says a new report by the global civil society alliance, CIVICUS.
“In many countries around the world people see formal democratic processes and party politics as failing to address the issues they care about. Instead these systems are seen to serve the interests of political and economic elites,” said Dr Danny Sriskandarajah, the CIVICUS Secretary-General on launching the organisation’s 2014 State of Civil Society Report.
“One would hope that those being repressed, marginalised or excluded at the national level would be heard and protected by institutions at the international level – but global governance is not working either.
“Many of our international institutions and processes are out of date, unaccountable and unable to address present-day challenges effectively. International governance institutions with limited scope for people’s participation risk becoming irrelevant.
“To make matters worse, the things millions of people are expressing their anger about – inequality, lack of voice, low wages, unemployment – are not being tackled by international institutions, and in some cases they are complicit in promoting the interests of global capital.
“Millions of citizens are therefore facing what we call a `double democratic deficit’: at both the national and international level citizens are not heard and their voices not taken into account,” said Sriskandarajah.
These are the findings of the CIVICUS State of Civil Society Report 2014 which draws on contributions from more than 30 of the world’s leading experts on civil society. The report also contains the results of a pilot project, based on research conducted by CIVICUS with more than 450 civil society representatives, which assesses how intergovernmental organisations (IGOs) engage civil society.
In reviewing `the year that was’, the report shows that the latest waves of protests are taking place all over the world, including in countries like Brazil, Turkey and Venezuela that are democratic on paper and have had high economic growth.
The report also shows striking commonalities across countries and regions, including the escalation of protest from an initially local grievance, to broader issues of dissatisfaction with the behaviour of the economic and political elite, corruption and rising inequality.
Often the spread of protest is unintentionally encouraged by heavy-handed state responses to largely peaceful dissent.
CIVICUS said that in many cases, governments respond to the rising tide of citizen action by stepping up efforts to further close down already diminishing civic space. This is being done through a combination of dubious legislation, the demonisation of protest movements and direct harassment of civil society activists and their organisations.
With regard to global governance, the report finds that there are huge disparities in who gets to have a say: with the wealthiest states and corporations disproportionately influencing international agendas and norms.
Global governance remains remote and often disconnected from the people whose lives it impacts and therefore needs to be democratised to support greater participation of citizens in decision making, and to create an environment that enables civil society to substantively engage in these processes.
The report provides several recommendations for governments and intergovernmental organisations, among them arguing for a need to move away from the state-centric model of international governance towards a citizen-oriented model.
There is a call for exploring radical new forms of representation and oversight, such as citizens’ panels and assemblies that have real power. International institutions are urged to make their decision-making processes more open and democratic.
The notion of promoting equality between states and removal of arbitrary veto powers by some states is emphasised. There is a call for greater parity between official and civil society delegations and a need to address imbalances in access between Northern and Southern civil society actors.
The CIVICUS State of Civil Society Report also has recommendations for civil society. Civil society organisations (CSOs) are encouraged to deepen their understanding of the impact of global decision-making on their local conditions, create linkages with new protest movements and build coalitions and networks that enable the sharing of resources and the connection of diverse parts of civil society.
Larger, better resourced CSOs that have an established presence in international forums are encouraged to democratise the space and share their access with a wider range of civil society groups.
“We in civil society have our work cut out. We need to both drive and be the change that we want to see,” said Sriskandarajah.