Worldwide, civil society—from NGOs to grassroots activist groups to social movements to unions—is being undermined by global conflict, suppressive governments, the erosion of democratic institutions, and the spread of disinformation.
Far from being exempt from these trends, the US has, in some cases, exacerbated them. Not only has this country seen continuing attacks on its own democratic institutions, but it has also supported regressive, anti-rights agendas worldwide by setting examples domestically.
“Much of civil society’s radical energy is coming from outside the NGO universe: from small, informal grassroots groups, often formed and led by women, young people and indigenous people.”
That’s according to a new report by the NGO Civicus, based in Johannesburg, South Africa, which paints a bleak picture of the current state of global civil society, defined broadly as including “non-governmental organizations, activists, civil society coalitions and networks, protest and social movements, voluntary bodies, campaigning organisations, charities, faith-based groups, trade unions and philanthropic foundations.”
Those institutions, the report says, are under attack and being eroded amid significant global conflict, increasing economic anxieties, a rise of authoritarian and far-right movements, and a new age of disinformation—globally, and here in the US.
“There is a need for transnational, rights-based solidarity.”
To respond to these threats, civil society must take a greater leadership role in the world—filling a vacuum left by failed international governance—and build a transnational movement that can stand up for civil rights and democratic institutions across the globe.
And such a movement must, the report finds, include nontraditional or nonestablishment actors, as “much of civil society’s radical energy is coming from outside the NGO universe: from small, informal grassroots groups, often formed and led by women, young people and indigenous people” (10).
“There is a need for transnational, rights-based solidarity, and that means in the first place civil society standing up for civil society,” says Inés M. Pousadela, a senior research specialist for Civicus and one of the authors of the report. “And it’s more difficult than it sounds.”
Conflict and Protest
International and intranational conflicts worldwide are causing suffering for millions and serve as the catalyst for attacks on civil society, the report says. “States affected by conflicts and crises often see civil society as a source of counterpower and counternarratives and a competitor for resources, and move to suppress it accordingly” (5). We see as examples the detention of journalists by the Ethiopian government to control the flow of information about the civil war that only recently ended there, or the prosecution by the Italian government of groups supplying aid to migrants at sea.
“Lack of recognition of its crucial roles and stigmatizing narratives are major challenges civil society faces around the world, not least because they enable violations of civic space and hamper its ability to do its vital work” (5).
These attacks on civil society are bolstered by what the report describes as “catastrophic global governance failures,” including inaction and ineffectiveness on the part of the United Nations, whose Security Council has been “hamstrung” by Russia’s veto power.
Civil society, says Pousadela, suffers from a lack of direct access to global governance institutions like the UN. “If you look at the access civil society has in the most important climate-related conference at the UN, the COP (Conference of the Parties), fossil fuel companies have much more access than civil society when climate is being discussed.”
Meanwhile, the right to protest “is under attack, even in longstanding democracies” (6).
The report states:
Although international human rights law makes clear people have a right to peaceful protest—and the vast majority of protests throughout the year were indeed peaceful—many governments are deploying a wide range of tactics to crack down on peaceful protests and using the occasional violent protest event as an excuse to restrict all protests (7).
Over the last year, many protests around the world (more than 10,000, according to a count by Civicus) have erupted in response to rising prices and cost of living and inadequate or “tone deaf” responses by the government, a claim that is backed up by a 2022 report by Democracy Without Borders, which also found that “rising costs of fuel and food are global protest triggers.”
Civil society groups, the Civicus report says, are key in defending the right to protest—but the closing of protest spaces also undermines civil society itself, “particularly in the many contexts where taking to the streets is the only means of expressing dissent” (8).
The right to protest, says researcher Pousadela, “is a right that’s basically a tool to achieve other rights. Most of the rights that we enjoy have been conquered through protest. When you don’t complain and you don’t mobilize and you don’t make demands, you don’t get anything, right?”
“And the problem is, [the right to protest] is really under attack. We’re seeing it even in democratic states,” Pousadela continues. “Even democratic states that claim to be climate leaders like European states, like the Netherlands and Germany, they are repressing climate protesters, they are curtailing the right to protest.”
The right to protest “is under attack, even in longstanding democracies.”
Disinformation, Extremism, and the Erosion of Democracy
Democratic institutions are being eroded around the globe. The report states:
Economic strife and insecurity are providing fertile ground for the emergence of authoritarian leaders fostering polarization and attacking rights . . . In countries where genuine elections were held, one distinct trend was a further embrace of far-right-extremism (8).
Pousadela went on to note, “Some things that happened in the US in the past couple of years were things that you had we would have never expected to see in the US. Like an attempted coup, for example,”
Even beyond events like the January 6 insurrection, the US has served as a base of operations for far-right interest groups exporting anti-LGBTQI+ and other anti-rights agendas.
“The US can be a force for democracy, but it can also be a regressive force, and not just the US as a state,” says Pousadela. “The impact that US funding is having on regression on LGBTQ rights in Africa, which is huge, it’s not the US government that’s sending that money. It’s very powerful conservative foundations that are sending money, sending their experts. They write these template laws that they reproduce in country after country.”
Complicating the picture is the role of disinformation, which played a “huge role” in elections around the world last year, the report says, noting that such disinformation is often employed specifically to undermine civil society and its institutions, especially when it comes to historically excluded groups.
The Civicus report states:
Civil society is often the target of disinformation and hate speech, particularly when activists come from or stand for the rights of excluded groups . . . Disinformation is pervasive in the pushback against women’s and LGBTQI+ people’s rights: it’s deployed in culture wars waged by well-resourced and influential global networks of ultraconservative, nationalist and white supremacist groups—including those that attack women’s rights in the name of what they characterize as the rights of the unborn while attacking trans people’s rights in the name of women’s rights” (9).
The report urges civil society organizations and institutions to play a more active role in combatting disinformation worldwide:
The challenge remains of forging a joined-up, multi-faceted global effort to counter disinformation—which must include better regulation of the social media and tech industry, developed through participatory processes and including safeguards for freedom of expression (9).
In a recent panel, NPQ explored the ways that global disinformation has worked to undermine and disempower movements challenging racial, economic, and gendered oppression. Guests addressed the question: How can social movements succeed against the rise of fictional narratives, propaganda, disinformation, and misinformation in the media and our daily lives?
Ideas for Action
The report lists 10 “Ideas for Action,” ranging from broad calls for increased vigilance by civil society groups to more specific strategies to counter “regressive” trends in society worldwide.
Among the key takeaways:
Right to Protest: “Greater emphasis is needed by civil society and supportive states on protecting freedom of peaceful assembly, including by developing preventative actions, advocating for law enforcement reforms and ensuring perpetrators of violence against protesters are held to account” (11).
Address Inequality at Scale: “Civil society should critique the structural flaws in the current global economic model that benefits a few while leaving many vulnerable to crisis. Areas for advocacy could include progressive taxation, such as windfall and wealth taxes, social protection floors, universal basic incomes, union recognition and more effective business regulation” (33).
Disinformation: “Civil society should play a leading role in developing anti-disinformation strategies, including fact-checking, enhancement of media literacy and, crucially, advocacy for higher regulatory standards for social media companies, consistent with respect for freedom of expression” (11).
Protecting Democracy: “Free and fair elections are a vital component of democracy. To ensure elections accurately reflect voters’ wishes, national and international civil society groups should work together to monitor elections and expose any wrongdoing…. When progressive political changes happen, civil society must help hold political leaders accountable for their promises, while guarding against the prospect of regressive backlash” (47).
Building Global Movements: “Transnational solidarity is vital in struggles to resist regression. Civil society should work to strengthen and enhance the membership and reach of transnational civil society networks, and enable the rapid deployment of solidarity and support when rights come under attack” (11).
Partnering with Media: “Media engagement is crucial for raising public awareness of issues such as climate change and gender equality, and winning support for action. Civil society should develop media partnerships as part of its advocacy and campaigning strategies” (11).