A Manifesto for Revitalizing Civil Society in Asia-Pacific in the 21st Century

A Manifesto for Revitalizing Civil Society in Asia-Pacific in the 21st Century

Shawn Shieh presented this think piece at the Innovation for Change – East Asia’s Reflection-Retreat on Civic Space for East Asian Civil Society Leaders, Thought Leaders, Public Intellectuals and Academics. The theme for this February 2018 Asia Academic-Civic Dialogue was Renew, Reclaim, Resist. Pondering Strategies and Counter-strategies to Protect Civic Space“.

Shawn Shieh was most recently Deputy Director at China Labour Bulletin (CLB) from 2014-2017. Prior to that, he lived in Beijing where he founded and directed the English language operations for China Development Brief (CDB), a bilingual, independent media platform covering China’s civil society and philanthropy sector. At CLB and CDB, Shawn’s work has focused on strengthening China’s grassroots, independent civil society sector.

A Manifesto for Revitalizing Civil Society in Asia-Pacific in the 21st Century

Shawn Shieh

Foreign funding. Many of us working for CSOs in the Asia-Pacific would not be where we are without it. Yet in this new era of closing civic space and democratic withdrawal, foreign funding of civil society in the Asia-Pacific, and other parts of the global South, is undermining the domestic legitimacy of CSOs. It has created a backlash among many states who see local civil society as tools of foreign forces and have tried to restrict and even criminalize foreign funding. In asking CSOs to follow priorities, language and standards largely formulated in the global North, foreign funding has also distracted them from engaging with local partners – government agencies, businesses, foundations, schools and universities, media – to strengthen local communities and their own domestic credibility[1].

In this essay, I call on civil society in the Asia-Pacific to respond by making a concerted effort to create indigenous models that engage local funders and partners. There are of course Asia-Pacific CSOs that already do this, but there needs to be many more, and localization should be made an important metric when evaluating the effectiveness of CSO programming in the region. Localization models will of course vary by country, but the end goal should be the same: empowering citizens and communities to participate in deciding their future.

The need for such a response is particularly urgent considering the following global trends that threaten civic space in the Asia-Pacific[2]:

  • Governments around the world using legislation and other legal and extra-legal measures to restrict foreign funding and CSO activities in their country
  • The rise of strongman, populist politics and weakening of democratic institutions and norms in the face of ethno-nationalist responses to globalization in many countries, including previously stable democracies in Europe and North America
  • The learning and demonstration effect taking place among states on restricting civic space and undermining democratic institutions and norms, fuelled by the growing influence of authoritarian regional powers such as China and Russia.

Below, I explain why we need to revitalize civil society through localization, and how we can begin the process by rethinking the meaning and role of civil society, and revitalizing civil society by working locally taking small, practical steps.

Revitalizing civil society through localization

A few years ago, I wrote an article about the disconnect between Chinese foundations and grassroots NGOs[3]. This came at a time when both Chinese foundations and grassroots NGOs were growing rapidly but not because the two were supporting each other. In fact, very few of the up-and-coming Chinese foundations supported grassroots NGOs, and many grassroots NGOs in turn did not have a good image of Chinese foundations. One reason, I argued was because foundations and grassroots NGOs in China came from different worlds. The former was closely linked to the government and business entrepreneurs, while grassroots NGOs were influenced more by foreign funding and priorities coming from Western multilateral and bilateral assistance programs and foreign foundations.

In principle, the disconnect between foundations and NGOs in China seems unusual given that grassroots NGOs, which are so named because of their ties with local communities, should be trying to work more closely with local partners such as government agencies, foundations, businesses, the media, cultural, academic and research institutions, and the public. Yet the same disconnect exists in other countries in the South where local and regional NGOs are aligned with overseas funding and their priorities.[4] Saskia Brechenmacher, Thomas Carothers, Ed Rekosh and others have argued that this reliance on foreign funding has become the dominant business model for many CSOs and made it easier for governments to undercut civil society simply by passing laws restricting foreign funding[5].

I agree with those who have called on civil society to strengthen indigenous CSO models that rely less on foreign funding and tap into funding from, and collaboration with, local partners. But we should also be clear that this strategy is only a means to an end. The more important question is to be clear about what the end is. For some the end is about diversifying their funding base. But this is a quite narrow, self-interested end that only addresses one of the above global trends, and not the most worrisome one. The more important end for civil society should be a rights-based one. In other words, it should strengthen the social infrastructure – the skills, practices and institutions – needed for citizens and communities to participate in defending their rights and interests and decide their future.

To do this, we will need to change our mindset about who we are and start thinking creatively about ways to engage and win over local partners and communities. This process of building the infrastructure will require reclaiming both civic language and civic space through a process of localization in these countries.

Rethinking the meaning and role of civil society

The rethinking process must start with an inclusive vision of civil society if it is to win the hearts and capture the imagination of local partners and communities in the Asia-Pacific. Too often, civil society is defined too narrowly to include only certain types of groups, such as independent human rights organizations that embrace progressive, democratic values enshrined in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and assume a confrontational stance with state and corporate actors.

In thinking about how to revitalize civil society in local settings, a first step is to open up a discussion about universal human rights. We need to have a difficult debate about which of these rights are more relevant in authoritarian settings that are hostile to liberal, democratic values and institutions. We need to think about reframing the language we use to talk our work, moving beyond the term “human rights” to talk about rights in language that is more relevant and persuasive to local partners. And we need to be open to the possibility that some groups will embrace values that may not align with these universal values.

In having that discussion, we need to be as inclusive as possible, and not get caught up in drawing lines between what constitutes civil society and what does not if we are interested in engaging local partners and communities in pushing for social change. We need to move beyond thinking of rights-based CSOs as pure, while casting doubts on the intentions of GONGOs and charities. That line of thinking is divisive and can be used to exclude even rights-based CSOs that seek to engage GONGOs. [6] One Hong Kong-based labor organization came under considerable criticism from other labor CSOs because of its strategy to engage with and reform a prominent Chinese GONGO, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU). That CSO became guilty by association, even though its intention was to influence the ACFTU to better represent workers.

Other scholars go even further, questioning whether civil society is too rigid of a concept. Andrew Wells-Dang argues that what we should focus on is not the actors themselves but collective action as a process in which CSOs of different stripes and colors participate with other actors from the state and market to promote social change. This conceptualization sees civil society or collective actions or social movements as a fluid, dynamic process or arena open to interplay among networks of different actors, not just civil society organizations, but also “policy entrepreneurs” from the state and business sectors interested in advancing social justice. This conceptualization moves us away from the academic debates about whether GONGOs should be part of civil society, away from an us-versus-them mentality, and opens our mind to possibilities of who civil society can work with locally and how, to organize and advocate for progressive social change.

Revitalizing civic space by working locally and practically

The other critical step is to start experimenting with CSO models of funding and engagement that are more in touch with local priorities, encourage more local participation and show local accountability. The goal is to build skills, practices, and institutions that provide a concrete benefit to local communities and create a foundation for more inclusive, more democratic governance. This requires that CSOs leave the comfort of their own bubble and approach communities of social entrepreneurs, technology companies, foundation leaders, and community activists.

Fortunately, there are models out there to emulate. One of the best-known examples of this partnership in the global South is the Tunisian trade union and employers’ association that partnered with the country’s lawyers’ association and Tunisian League of Human Rights for their work in steering Tunisia through its democratic transition in 2013-14. The trade union, in particular, with around one million members played a critical part in negotiating the transition with Tunisia’s political parties because of its deep local roots. For their work, the Tunisian Quartet was awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize[7].

Another example of regional partnerships in the Asia-Pacific is China Labour Bulletin’s collective bargaining project in India. In this project, CLB is partnering with a CSO and garment workers union in Bangalore to transfer its China collective bargaining work to India as a way of empowering women garment workers and strengthening the legitimacy of the union. CLB’s Indian partners, who depend on foreign funding, have taken a rights-based approach to empowering workers by handing leaflets to workers, speaking to them at the factory gates and in their homes, and urging them to protest or strike when disputes came up. What they did not do was train and organize workers inside the factory to elect representatives to negotiate collectively with management. Using our experience from China, we showed them that this model was not only possible but also desirable in that it would make the union more accountable and legitimate in the eyes of the workers, and create a domestic funding source, particularly if they could persuade workers to join the union. As union members, if workers saw that the union could deliver concrete benefits in the form of collective agreements, they would be more willing to pay dues to the union.

Localization models will depend on the country in question. In some countries where collective actions and social movements have sprung up as pushback against authoritarian populism, CSOs need to ask how they can help to turn these movements into something more sustainable.[8] One example is Open Culture Foundation’s work in Taiwan using technology and crowdsourcing to monitor government budgets and programs to make them more accessible to the public. Another is OVD-Info, an online monitoring project launched by Russian volunteers in 2011 to keep track of arrests and detainments during large protests against polling fraud in the parliamentary elections. OVD-Info was initially a small project that began to get grants from donors, including international ones, until Russia passed a law on NGO funding cutting off two major sources of international funding. It was sustained through a crowdfunding campaign that raised USD 35,000 in 2016 and now has an 11-person team with 50 percent of their budget coming from small, personal donations.

In other countries and regions like China, where the space for collective action and social movements is more constrained, CSOs need to be alert to other partners and spaces such as the still lively, albeit censored, social media space and the initiatives started by foundations and technology companies to promote crowdfunding and democratize the fundraising space that was only a few years ago limited to a small number of GONGOs. For example, in 2015, Tencent Foundation which launched an annual September 9 Day of Giving, along with an online platform to crowdfund charitable projects, as a way to mainstream charitable giving in China. In 2017, this event generated a total of USD 205 million in donations, including USD 130 million from 12.68 million individual donors, with the rest coming from matching funds from the Tencent Foundation and other social enterprises[9].

We should also be open to the possibility of cross-pollination, that models developed in one country could be transferable to other countries. The example of CLB bringing its collective bargaining model to India is instructive because the two countries are very different politically, socially and culturally yet encounter very similar challenges when it comes to labor relations and collective bargaining.

The overall effect of localizing is to create a virtuous circle. Engaging and showing respect to local partners and communities means encouraging their participation and giving them a sense of ownership which in turn means civil society needs to be more transparent and accountable about the benefit these models bring in terms of local empowerment. Transparency and accountability, in turn, will encourage more local participation and buy-in and more trust and respect in civil society.

This effort needs to build on a long-term vision of strengthening civil societies’ capacity to engage, dialogue, disagree and negotiate with local governments, businesses and other CSOs on advancing the public good. This requires not starting with large, contestable concepts like democracy or human rights, but by unpacking and localizing those concepts into more concrete, practical tasks which can appeal to local partners and communities and on which agreement is more feasible. Examples of these tasks would include:[10]

  • Expanding access to public services to ensure equal, non-discriminatory access to all citizens.
  • Strengthening civic education and engagement through volunteering, charitable giving, social media, promotion of forums and methodologies for dialogue on pressing local, national and global issues.
  • Bridging competing interests and identities and resolving conflict through dialogue, mediation, negotiation in communities and workplaces.
  • Monitoring and evaluating government, business and CSO institutions and programs to ensure that they serve the public good.
  • Influencing government and corporate policy through social innovations that can serve as models for policymakers.

In closing, we should see shrinking civic space not as a threat but as an opportunity to rethink old business models shaped by foreign funding, priorities and standards, and begin the hard work of innovating new models that engage more closely with local funders, partners and communities. In doing so, we should remember that the need to localize is about something more important than finding new funding sources. It is about finding new ways to strengthen the legitimacy and accountability of local CSOs and the causes and values they promote, to transform the civic sector into an exciting, mainstream, growth industry in the Asia-Pacific, particularly for the younger generation. Most importantly, it is about maintaining a rights-based approach to development by empowering citizens and communities to participate in deciding their future.

[1] CIVICUS surveys of Japan and Indonesia suggest that low rates of public participation in CSOs is related to CSOs’ low levels of trust and accountability to the public. See Anselmo Lee and David Hong, “Civil society landscape mapping in East Asia and the Pacific – A desk review,” CIVICUS (August 2015), pp.27-28.

[2] Anselmo Lee and David Hong, “Civil society landscape mapping in East Asia and the Pacific – A desk review”; Mark Sidel and David Moore, “The Law Affecting Civil Society Organizations in Asia,” International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, December 6, 2016.

[3] Shawn Shieh, “Same Bed, Different Dreams? The Divergent Pathways of Foundations and Grassroots NGOs in China,” Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations (2017).

[4] Anselmo Lee and David Hong, “Civil society landscape mapping in East Asia and the Pacific – A desk review,” p.24.

[5] Saskia Brechenmacher and Thomas Carothers, “In for a bumpy ride: international aid the closing space for domestic NGOs, openGlobalRights, March 11, 2014, https://opendemocracy.net/openglobalrights/saskia-brechenmacher-thomas-carothers/in-for-bumpy-ride-international-aid-and-closi; Ed Rekosh, “Old dogs, new tricks: rethinking human rights business models,” openGlobalRights, May 3, 2016, https://opendemocracy.net/openglobalrights/edwin-rekosh/old-dogs-and-new-tricks-rethinking-human-rights-business-models

[6] Anselmo Lee and David Hong also point out this can be used by governments to “divide and rule” civil society. See their report, “Civil society landscape mapping in East Asia and the Pacific – A desk review,” p.29.

[7] Anthony Faiola, “Tunisian group wins Nobel Peace Prize,” The Washington Post, October 9, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/tunisian-national-dialogue-quartet-wins-the-2015-nobel-peace-prize/2015/10/09/b85871ae-6e1a-11e5-aa5b-f78a98956699_story.html?utm_term=.2e58107c51ee

[8] Burkhard Gnärig, “The old world of civic participation is being replaced,” November 30, 2016, openGlobal Rights, https://www.opendemocracy.net/openglobalrights/burkhard-gn-rig/old-world-of-civic-participation-is-being-replaced

[9] “Third ‘9/9 Philanthropy Day’ raises 1.3 billion,” China Development Brief, September 11, 2017, http://chinadevelopmentbrief.cn/news/third-99-philanthropy-day-raises-1-3-billion/

[10] A more comprehensive list can be found in Annex 2 of the Siem Reap CSO Consensus, http://www.mofa.go.jp/mofaj/annai/honsho/seimu/nakano/pdfs/hlf4_8.pdf. CIVICUS provides toolkits for some of these tasks, https://www.civicus.org/index.php/media-center/toolkits.


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