Civil society keeps democratic transitions on track

By Biljana  Radonjic Ker-Lindsay
@EBRDBiljana

Civil society keeps democratic transitions on track

Civil society as a catalyst and driving force for reforms and change

This could be the year civil society makes a comeback. Why? The recent announcement that the Nobel Peace Prize 2015 has been awarded to Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet for its role in building pluralistic democracy after the Jasmine revolution in 2011. The announcement came hard on the heels of the news that this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature went to the Belarusian writer and investigative journalist Svetlana Alexievich, an influential civil society figure who has written movingly about the impact of war on women and children and the horrors of Chernobyl. These are welcome and timely reminders of the continued, important role of civil society actors in keeping democratic transitions on track.

The so-called ‘third sector’ – individuals, groups and organisations that operate in the space between government, businesses and general population – received significant financial and political support from international donors during the 1990s and early 2000s. However, over the past decade, both funding and the importance attached to civil society by world leaders have been in a steady decline. While engagement has continued, including in the UN Sustainable Development Goals debate, the influence of civil society on the international stage has not been as significant as it once was.

If civil society was in the media spotlight recently, it was all too often for the wrong reasons such as infringements of their rights or restrictions on their ability to operate. The latest 2015 Freedom House Nations in Transit report downgrades ratings in nearly one-third of Central Europe and Eurasian countries when it comes to enabling environment for civil society and overall democracy scores. Such developments are counterproductive for the development of open, transparent and accountable societies. The “third sector” has  a key role as a watchdog and an intermediary between governments, businesses and individuals. Civil society organisations can be the voice of those who have no voice and as such serve as a crucial measurement of the inner fabric of a society and the direction of its development.

It is for this reason that the EBRD is engaging with civil society organisations very closely and on a continuous basis. We do not always agree, but we respect each other, because we value our counterparty’s contribution and genuine engagement for the causes they represent. Civil society organisations can point out our shortcomings or flag issues that others – authorities, investors or other involved parties – fail to see. Speaking out for local communities and the environment can prevent detrimental decisions, including severe injustice.

Because civil society organisations by definition must have their ears to the ground they can provide us with valuable insights that all other parties are well advised to listen to. In that sense, civil society also has an important role as a mediator. Tunisia’s National Dialogue Quartet serves as an excellent example and its work illustrates how society as a whole can benefit from an open and honest dialogue between authorities and civil society organisations.

Often civil society can also serve as a catalyst and driving force for reforms and change. The toppling of authoritarian regimes would not be possible without citizens starting to move against a leadership that would not respect basic democratic rights and civic freedoms. Civil society organisations are crucial to channel growling dissatisfaction and transform emotion into strategic political momentum. The work of Ukrainian CSOs over the past two years is a very good example. Regimes that try to obstruct the work of civil society organisations usually pay for this in the long-term by losing touch with their own population. The stifling of dissent also leads to the loss of dynamism and innovation in other areas, such as economy and science.

Here too civil society organisations often play an invaluable role as trend-setters. It was independent civil society groups, all too often described as sectarian and alarmist that brought issues like climate change to global attention. Here again they served as an indispensable complement to the traditional viewpoints of governments and industry.

The award of two Nobel Prizes in one year serves as a welcome opportunity to express our recognition of the work of these groups. We salute their often brave, courageous and tenacious endeavours. It also serves as a reminder of the indispensable role civil society groups play as watchdogs, intermediaries and mediators as well as trend-setters in every society. Sometimes it is in the nature of things that different actors in society have to disagree. But as Voltaire once put it: “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it.”

* Biljana Radonjic Ker-Lindsay is EBRD's Head of Civil Society Engagement