2018 Civic Comeback: Five Ways to Turn the Tide of Global Repression

From rising repression on the streets to the battle for the internet, in 2018 the spaces where citizens seek to freely express themselves and organise are increasingly contested.

What was a trend has become a global emergency and “‘a universal phenomenon, no longer restricted to autocracies and fragile democracies,” writes Danny Sriskandarajah, Secretary General of CIVICUS. The struggle to take back and create civic spaces for expression continues and not just in repressive contexts.

The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) 2018 Annual Risk Report identifies threats to social cohesion as being amongst the leading risks to the health of countries and economies. These threats include crackdowns on the ability of people to speak out, organize and protest. Against a backdrop of rising state authoritarianism and unchecked corporate power a range of tactics designed to check dissent have continued to spread globally.

There are deepening divisions in some wider societies as governments demonise civil society by turning public opinion against the people and organizations that defend human rights. New laws are making it more difficult for NGOs to operate whilst increased electronic surveillance is just one of a number of ways used to intimidate activists, often under the guise of anti-terrorism efforts.

But civil society is not a passive actor in the face of these challenges. Community groups, social movements and NGOs are all innovating around new strategies to turn back the tide.  We’ve identified five ways that could spark a global civic comeback in 2018 inspired by new ideas, methods and technologies from across the Innovation for Change network and the different groups and sectors we work with.

1. Experimenting with alternative economy ideas

To find new ways to transact, share and access resources, civil society networks in different parts of the world are testing a range of alternative economy ideas including new online sharing economy platforms.

One example is Comunidas. Launched by the I4C Latin America and Caribbean Hub the platform offers a catalog of services that network member organisations in the region are willing to exchange. By tapping into a highly skilled marketplace willing to donate or exchange pro-bono services, Comunidas addresses both the demand for certain types of services and a lack of available funding to access them.

2. Campaigning in closing civic spaces

One of the biggest concerns in high risk environments is how to continue working for social justice when faced with a range of restrictions. It was a key concern for the hundred or so campaigners, activists and technologists who gathered in November 2017 for the second edition of global skillshare Campaigncon. Future social change network Mobilisation Lab spoke to campaigners from Sudan and Somalia in particular who shared important insights into how to overcome challenging, often personally threatening circumstances.

The CIVICUS Monitor research tool rates the status of civic space in countries across the world

Common tactics that emerged at Campaigncon included conducting in-depth contextual analysis, responding and adapting rapidly to changing circumstances, working closely with communities and letting them lead, and using media lightly. It’s an area the Innovation for Change network is working on in 2018 with the January launch of a new online community of practice coming next.

3. Building our own ‘internets’

Nearly four billion people globally were internet users in 2017 as connectivity keeps growing. The methods of connection continue to diversify across the world, be they traditional broadband or Facebook Free Basics via mobile. One solution is the wireless community network, where users’ devices share information to one-another without the need of a direct connection to an internet service provider.

From improving the security of communications for activists to connecting isolated communities the benefits are obvious. To track the effects of climate change the tiny Inuit town of Rigolet on the north coast of Labrador in Canada is building a ‘mesh network’ in the absence of a conventional internet connection. This decentralized network – in which devices act as not only receivers but transmitters – will enable inhabitants and researchers to use a new monitoring app to gather a range of data.

4. The battle for secure communication

How we communicate, organize and mobilise continues to be disrupted by increasing state surveillance in what is a complex, dynamic and changing landscape. As regimes from Iran to China grow increasingly sophisticated in their ability to censor, monitor and control communications platforms, civic space defenders will need to better understand their options for communication. What’s legal? What’s encrypted? What is ultimately secure?

What works now will change so beyond encrypted services such as Signal and Whatsapp, we need to train and then keep learning to be able to choose the right tools to keep safe.

Resources we’ve found for digital security best practices and tools include:


5. New funding options  

If the question is ‘how to create lasting change’ then how to sustain civil society’s work into the future would be high on the list of priorities. Funding realities are changing with pressure on Traditional Overseas Development Assistance and potential corporate support globally patchy and problematic. Innovative funding approaches are needed.

There are ideas from social enterprises that civil society can take to adapt to this changing funding landscape. Small businesses focused on creating social goods and employment may find stakeholders including governments more receptive than traditional NGOs, especially when profits are re-invested into programmes to support the communities in which they operate.

Alternative funding approaches can also feature a ‘fee for service’ where the specialised knowledge a civil society organisation has can help contribute to its financial sustainability. Philanthropic, personal crowdfunding is growing in some countries across the Global South as people become more aware of ways to provide support to causes that they feel passionate about.

Community philanthropy also continues to grow as the power of small grants is better understood. The Global Fund for Community Foundations’ #Shiftthepower movement has seen growth in new models of local giving such as giving circles and new ways in which businesses can contribute to community asset management.


Authors: Adi Mistry Frost, Derek Caelin, Ellie Stephens, Cecily Rawlinson, Kara Andrade