Civil society’s role more important than ever
“A shrinking democratic space for civil society organisations limits the flow of unbiased information and increases fear,” said Swedish journalist and foreign correspondent Cecilia Uddén, normally stationed in Cairo, when she took part in a Forum Syd seminar at Sweden’s largest political gathering in Almedalen last year.
Unfortunately, this is the reality in an increasing number of countries around the world. 2016 was a challenging year for civil society organisations – threats and restrictions against those who work to promote human rights, equality and diversity increased, and oppressive measures became more sophisticated.
Forum Syd together with our partners meet these challenges on a daily basis in our work to build capacity and advocate for a more just and sustainable world. In Cambodia, we experience how new legislation threaten civil society’s role to hold duty-bearers accountable, thus undermining the freedoms of assembly and expression. In Colombia, we see how existing laws are used to prevent participation of civil society actors, and how violence against human rights defenders is increasing. In India, where Forum Syd’s partner the Swallows India and Bangladesh is active, many organisations are stigmatized and deregistered following new legislation. Measures to limit civic space ultimately constitute a threat to democratic and just societies, as an open and dynamic civil society fills several functions indispensable to democracy.
In these challenging times, civil society organisations have to join forces and mobilise to defend our role in ensuring transparent, responsible governments that respect all peoples’ rights. Throughout 2016, Forum Syd reorganised its operations, with one of the main goals being to increase co-operation and synergies among member organisations that all work to achieve global justice. Together, we can find new and innovative ways to respond to growing intimidation. We look forward to further strengthening our role as a platform for Swedish civil society organisations, and working even more closely together to defend civil society’s role in ensuring sustainable development globally, not least in the work to achieve the new global goals within the 2030 Agenda.
Another important goal with Forum Syd’s organisational change project has been to decentralise our operations. Increased local strategic presence enables us to act rapidly and adjust to changing environments, deepens our local knowledge and improves our contextual analyses. Ultimately, this ensures that Forum Syd and our partners organise efforts in the most relevant and effective ways to achieve results that create long-term, sustainable impact.
Civil society organisations have a joint responsibility to convey unbiased information about the state of the world, which in many respects has never been in a better place. Even though civil society organisations meet many challenges in their day-to-day operations, we also see the great results to which our work contributes. The number of people living in extreme poverty has decreased steadily since the 1980s – from 40 per cent then to less than 10 per cent now. Even if global income inequality is still very high it is declining and has been doing so for the past decade. Growing numbers of girls are getting a fair education and a chance to choose for themselves what they want to do in the future. To ensure that people understand these positive developments and civil society’s contribution to them, we need to become even better in communicating our results. Now more than ever, people need to receive unbiased information about the state of the world to understand that there are positive developments, and that they can contribute to supporting these trends.
Within civil society organisations, we need to take pride in our results, reiterate our contribution to positive development and revitalise for future efforts. For us at Forum Syd, when we hear testimonies from our projects such as: “Forum Syd is the reason I know what rights I have as a citizen and how to defend them,” and “…after working with Forum Syd, I have decided to become a politician to make sure that more women and girls know their rights,” we know that our work is contributing to sustainable, long-term change. It is these stories that inspire us to continue mobilising, continue advocating, and continue building capacity for a just and sustainable world where all people have the power to effect change.