Five Trends in Civil Society

Monday, December 5, 2016 - 9:00 am
Danny Sriskandarajah

Map of the world depicting where civic freedoms are threatened

Map of the world depicting where civic freedoms are threatened (green is open; red is closed). For those interested in social justice, democracy, and rights around the world, 2016 was an annus horribilis.

5 Trends in Civil Society

This post is part of our inaugural Trendspotting Series profiling important ideas that will be shaping some major fields of interest in 2017. Each piece represents the views of its author(s) and not the views of the Council.


Around the world, the freedom of citizens to protest, to mobilise and to speak out is being contested and restricted. According to the CIVICUS Monitor, over 3.2 billion people now live in countries where civic space is repressed or closed, with serious violations of civic space recorded in 109 countries. Governments are cracking down on protest, brutally silencing dissent, intimidating and murdering human rights defenders, lawyers and journalists. Civil society actors find themselves increasingly vilified as the destabilising agents of foreign powers. The scale of our global rights crisis is staggering.


But the threats to democracy are not limited to authoritarian regimes. Deepening economic inequality is driving citizen-led disruption, from the radical mass movements of Occupy, to the kind of anti-Establishment populism that fuelled Trump’s insurgency in the U.S. and the Brexit ‘leavers’ in the UK. In many states, this new era of messy, unpredictable democracy has triggered an authoritarian reflex and increasingly drastic attempts to curtail the ability of citizens to criticise authority or even to call for their basic social and economic needs to be met. In 2017, we need to nurture the spaces – online and offline – that channel citizen voice and dissent in meaningful ways without dismantling open and democratic societies.


While the statistics showing conflict-related deaths falling in historical terms, the world feels more insecure than ever before. War no longer equates to interstate conflicts between regular armies. The threats we face are more dissipated, embedded deep within societies, difficult to identify and still more difficult to defeat. While hawks promote militaristic and securitized responses, there is an urgent need to create new, progressive, peace building tactics; to convince a radicalising world of the need for reconciliation and constructive dialogue. In the 1970s and 80s, nuclear disarmament and anti-Vietnam-war movements in the West birthed a new kind of public consciousness around the value of peace and tolerance. In 2017, we must find – or invent – the techniques and tools that can build a similarly powerful, constructive, social movement today.


Never before has human mobility caused so much distress: for those fleeing war, persecution and poverty and for the societies that receive them. Managing the scale, complexity and impact of this crisis is now far beyond the remit or capabilities of any one state, or even bloc, and the need for a more humane, coordinated and durable response system has become critical. In 2016, a historic UN Summit put us on track to adopt a new Global Compact on migration by 2018. While our wealthiest states refuse to do more than the bare minimum and low and middle-income countries continue to host 86 per cent of the world’s refugees, any new Global Compact must be, first and foremost, about sharing responsibility. Equally, it must seek to ensure the practical implementation of countries’ existing commitments under established instruments of international law.


In 2015, world leaders agreed the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Climate Agreement. Both represent an ambitious and critical vision for a more just and sustainable world. Sustainable development will no longer be about wealthy Northern governments and NGOs flying aid into an impoverished global South; it won’t be about charity; it will be about solidarity, shared responsibility, partnerships, a redistribution of power and new, diverse flows of money. It will be about more than efficient delivery; it will be about empowerment, ownership, longevity, strengthening citizen voice and democratic institutions. It will be about reclaiming the art of social transformation, leaving no one behind, but putting the most marginalised and excluded first. Before we have even started on this road in earnest, there are already voices calling for a stop. In 2017, this fight will be over nothing less than the future of our planet.

Danny Sriskandarajah is Secretary General and CEO of CIVICUS: Worldwide Alliance for Citizen ParticipationCIVICUS is an international alliance of members and partners which constitutes an influential network of organizations at the local, national, regional and international levels, and spans the spectrum of civil society.

Learn more about the work of CIVICUS: Worldwide Alliance for Citizen Participation


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