Shrinking Civic Space: The Role of Civil Society Organisations

During two days in September 2020, in relation to the United Nation’s International Day of Democracy, The Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Sida, the Raoul Wallenberg Institute of Human Rights and Humanitarian Law as well as a number of other Swedish civil society organisations co-organised 2020’s Civil Society Forum.

The CSO forum aims to follow up on the government and civil society’s joint commitments to strengthen dialogue in international development cooperation as well as to create better conditions to meet global challenges.

The Director of RWI’s Stockholm office and China programme, Malin Oud, was one of the organisers.

She explains why dialogue forums like this are  important, in particular in these times of shrinking civic space:

“Civil society organisations play a key role in defending democratic space and protecting human rights and freedoms. Civil society organisations are also important strategic partners to the Swedish government and Sida in international development cooperation. By working together, we can share experiences and support each other to tackle the difficult situation we are currently in, and which the pandemic is exacerbating.”

Human rights education empowers

During the forum, RWI hosted a session called ‘Supporting human rights education and research in a time of diminished democratic space’. During this session, we shared and discussed our experiences and lessons learned from working with partners in Belarus, Cambodia, China, and Turkey with the participants.

“Universities play a critical role in the international human rights movement and have often played an important role in democracy movements around the world” said Malin Oud, who moderated the session.

“A recent evaluation of Swedish democracy assistance to countries with increasingly authoritarian rule and shrinking civic space also highlighted the importance of supplementing civil society support with support to state actors, including universities. In countries with very limited civic and democratic space, the classroom can still be a safe place to speak out ones opinion and universities can function as a legitimate platform for different actors to come together”.

Working in the countries with shrinking democratic space can be difficult. It may take time before results are visible. Human rights education is a long-term effort, which requires sustained commitment and investment.

The UN defines human rights education (HRE) as ‘the development of knowledge about human rights, through human rights principles and values, and for human rights including the empowerment of persons to enjoy and exercise their rights and respect the right of others’.

Such education has both an intrinsic and an instrumental value – as a preventative tool, an empowering process, and a means of transformation.

Expanding civic space

Although the discussions at the CSO forum were framed around a so-called ‘shrinking space’ for civil society, Malin Oud remarks that this might not be the best way to talk about it:

“Mr Maina Kiai, the former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, put it well when he said that we should not talk about ‘shrinking space’ as if it were some kind of natural or astronomic phenomenon. Civic space is shrinking because governments around the world put in place repressive policies and laws. Recently, democratic space has diminished even further as a result of responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. Civil society’s ability to operate has been curtailed due to closures and restrictions on freedom of movement.”

At the CSO Forum, government ministers and civil society members from around the world had the opportunity to come together and discuss how to actively expand civic space and support those who are hit the hardest by the impacts of the pandemic.

The Covid-19 pandemic also meant that this year’s CSO forum contained hybrid meetings; digital as well as physical meetings.

This was challenging in many respects – working around technology, security, interactivity – but it also made it possible for participants from across the world to join, from Beijing, Dhaka, Istanbul, Minsk, Amman, Nairobi, Bogota, and Lund! Thus, it was also an opportunity to make this year’s forum more inclusive, accessible and expansive than usual.

“Universities play a critical role in the international human rights movement and have often played an important role in democracy movements around the world.”
Malin Oud, China Programme Director

Looking ahead

A new working group for ‘The Government’s and Swedish civil society organisations’ joint commitments to strengthen dialogue and collaboration in the area of development cooperation’ was also elected at the forum. The working group consists of representatives of Swedish civil society organisations, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Sida. Representatives of the following twelve organisations were elected for 2020-2021:

The Raoul Wallenberg Institute, Plan International Sweden, War Child Sweden, Swedish Red Cross, Centre Party  International Foundation, Swedish Missionsrådet (SMC), Union to Union, ForumCiv, Save the Children, Svalorna Latin America, and Islamic Relief Sweden. Malin Oud was re-elected as Chair of the working group.

The new working group will continue to ensure that the Joint Commitments are implemented and will organise another CSO forum next year.

Including Youth in the Democracy Process is Key to Development

Dalia Al Mokdad, was one of the four youth panellists invited to talk at the CSO forum. She works as a communications specialist and expert on violent extremism in Beirut and has been involved in the Lebanese youth movement for several years. She started her activism when she was a university student.

“The movement”, Al Mokdad says, “is diverse and neither always organized nor unified. It is, however, built on human rights values and is united in its call for political change and fight against corruption.”

According to Al Mokdad, Lebanese politicians are not inviting the young generation to take part in political decisionmaking as they claim that the youth are not mature enough. “Being a part of society, I think the youth should not only be involved in youth matters, we should be involved in all matters that we are experts in”, Al Mokdad said during the panel discussion at the CSO Forum.

Dennis Mungo, is the executive Director of Youth Alive Kenya, a youth led nongovernmental organisation that advocates for and supports youth participation in development processes. Youth Alive! Kenya (YAK) is a youth led and youth serving Non-Governmental Organization (NGO). YAK’s vision is a society in which ‘young people are empowered and take active responsibility for their lives’.

In particular, Mungo works to ‘break the selfperpetuating cycle of exclusion of young people so that they may actively chart and address issues affecting their well-being and development by empowering and providing a platform for them to amplify their voice in the development discourse’.

Mungo sees the exclusion of youth and their problems from decisions making processes as a global problem and wants to change this. Because, as he puts it: ”we are always told that youth are leaders of tomorrow, but no; we are not leaders of tomorrow, we are leaders of today!”

In the podcast, Mungo talks about the programmes that YAK runs, for example on youth unemployment and youth inclusion in governance, and how they cooperate with Swedish  organisations.


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