Magazine article Carnegie Endowment for International Peace - Reports

Global Civic Activism in Flux

Magazine article Carnegie Endowment for International Peace - Reports

Global Civic Activism in Flux

Article excerpt

Case studies from eight countries show how civic activism across the world is evolving and reveal crosscutting themes relevant to the future of civil society support.


Richard Youngs

Important changes appear to be under way in civil society across the world. Civil society organizations have been subject to considerable criticism and doubt over the past ten years, after enjoying an enormous expansion and heightened attention throughout the developing and post-Communist worlds in the 1990s. Influential observers and analysts in many quarters decry a predominant focus on Western-style nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). They argue that these groups are looking increasingly ineffective, tired, and out of touch-artificial creations often nourished by foreign supporters that lack real domestic constituencies and the ability to sustain themselves locally.

Some of these critics argue that more broadly based citizen movements are starting to reinvigorate the civic sphere, with dynamic and fluid new forms of civic organization emerging and gaining a significant presence in political and social debates. The rise of such groups appears to reflect a determination by citizens throughout the world to hold their governments to account. Citizens appear less tolerant of nepotism and corruption, and they are mobilizing through many kinds of campaigns to bear down on self-serving elites. People have also begun to organize themselves within local communities and neighborhoods in search of more equitable decisions about practical, everyday issues. Moreover, information communications technology is generating fundamental changes in the structures of social organization-in the view of some optimistic observers, this is contributing to a seemingly inexorable civic empowerment.

What some analysts refer to as a new contentious politics has taken root. This is not limited to particular regions and regime types, but is increasingly global. Large-scale protests have flared up in scores of states across every region. Many of these appear to have emerged with a degree of spontaneity, involving tens of thousands of citizens who previously were not politically active. Such is their ubiquity that these protests have become a defining feature of modern politics.

The revolts embrace a range of causes. Some are about democratic revolution, some about neoliberalism and globalization, some about specific cases of corruption, and others about very local issues. If their driving motivations are different, so are their outcomes. Some of the new civic mobilizations have ousted regimes; some have won major concessions from incumbent governments; others have failed in their declared aims.

Given this diversity, it is necessary to understand civic activism in a broad sense that includes the activities of formal organizations such as professional NGOs, long-established civil society bodies, looser and newer social movements, individual activists, and local community bodies. Emerging forms of civic activism include protests and less contentious forms of self-organization, embracing both online and offline tactics.

While many allude to growing empowerment, at the same time, there is a more negative side to civil society trends. Many governments are more assertively seeking to deploy a range of mechanisms designed to neuter civic activism's reach and impact. Regimes are imprisoning and even killing greater numbers of civic activists.1 Close to too governments have introduced laws that restrict freedoms of association and assembly since 2012. In addition, these regimes are finding more subtle tactics to make life difficult for civil society organizations. In many parts of the world, the very principle of autonomous and free civil society is under assault, and activists are on the defensive.

Great and varied change is afoot within global civil society. For civic activism, it appears to be both the best and worst of times. …

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