June 15, 2016 : Ruth Boyle

Political activities are not only matters for politicians

Many reasons to be positive and a rallying call from International Non-Governmental Organisations conference

The shrinking space for civil society to engage in political activities is a big issue for our sector.

The problem was in focus at a conference of INGOs held last week at the Council of Europe. I could probably write several blogs on what transpired (watch this space) but I’m going to look here at one key question: how do NGOs respond to government attempts to depoliticise organisations in our sector?

Governments across the world are, to varying degrees of severity, narrowing the space for the political activities of NGOs. I heard about the exploitation of anti-terrorism legislation and the introduction of gagging clauses, such as those introduced by the UK Government. I also heard from Intigam Aliyev about the imprisonment of human rights defenders in Azerbaijan.

A democratic system is more than merely organising free elections

Behind these measures is an anti-democratic desire to silence organisations that might be critical of governments. Such clauses limit the role of civil society to merely ‘doing good’ and ignore the broader role of our sector to advocate on behalf of groups, individuals and causes.

Recent election turnouts, including that for our own Scottish Parliament, suggest that the public is not enthused by democracy when confined to party politics and formal institutions.

A democratic system is more than merely organising free elections. This is where civil society comes into play, stimulating faith in transparent, inclusive institutions as part of participatory democracy.

In light of this drive to limit our space, another question is worth considering: does language matter?

Should we shout about our political functions, regaining the language of the political sphere?

Or is it results that matter most? If so, should we just focus on our charitable aims and goals?

I’d be interested to hear your thoughts.

I’ll end with some motivating points I picked up on the opportunities, and inevitable challenges, which lie ahead.

  • The importance of national networks in capacity building and representation was raised as a key challenge to counter the closing space. Scotland is well-established in this regard.
  • More must be done to influence parliamentarians and legislation before it is drafted, rather than afterwards. This is something I feel we are already practicing in Scotland, where organisations are active across drafting, consultation and decision-taking.
  • Our political environment is favourable. We need to entrench our gains and our work more generally to ensure that doesn’t change, regardless of which political party is in government.

… and, as promised, a rallying call!

Despite a favourable environment, we mustn’t underestimate the importance of our work to date in fostering a strong, productive space for civil society in Scotland. This space may well narrow, or indeed close, if we do not work to fill it. The conference was a reminder of our right to participate, a right rooted in various international conventions.

We must use the tools and conventions at our disposal to promote, and ultimately defend, our role. A code of good practice for civil participation in the decision-making process was adopted by the Council of Europe in 2009, stressing the need for participative partnerships and close collaboration with public authorities and NGOs.

Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 16 and 17 are of particular interest to our work. They promote inclusive and participatory decision making, fundamental freedoms and civil society partnerships. Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has pledged a commitment to the SDG; civil society should not miss this opportunity to engage with this agenda.

When we see examples of our operating space closing, we must pull together to challenge it from the outset with strong counter-narratives. We must also communicate with the public, to ensure they know and understand the importance our work, building on existing high levels of trust and support.

I look forward to working together, both within Scotland, throughout the UK and across Europe, to make sure we have an active voice in defending our right to participate.

Important: Opinions expressed by bloggers are their own and don't represent those of the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations.

by Ruth Boyle