South Africa Needs Civil Society and Decent Work as Much as Overseas Aid

South Africa Needs Civil Society and Decent Work as Much as Overseas Aid
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This week has seen a row over whether the UK should continue to fund aid to South Africa. By pure coincidence, I am in Johannesburg at the moment. Aid isn't just about money. It's also about supporting developing countries as they make their own unique transitions. In South Africa, inequality, corruption, free speech and what we can loosely call 'civic space' are challenges on a part with HIV/AIDS, maternal health and child poverty.

But the development community grapples with the question of what should be in or out of the UN's post-2015 framework, one overarching issue is emerging. It is becoming increasingly clear that if more is not done to promote an enabling environment for civil society, efforts to reduce poverty, tackle inequality and resolve conflict will be fatally undermined.

As co-chair of the UN's High Level Panel advising the UN on this question, and as host of the next G8 summit in July, David Cameron has a big say over this. His theory of development, the so called 'golden thread', places emphasis on economic growth, but has little to say about inequality or Decent Work. He understands the importance of the New Deal on conflict resolution and peacebuilding, but has not yet made a commitment to spreading support for civil society beyond DIFD's current efforts.

Sadly, despite numerous international commitments to protect civic space, evidence from around the world suggests that conditions are actually getting worse, not better, for civil society. The State of Civil Society 2013, published this week by CIVICUS, catalogs a litany of threats to civil society, from outright violence against civic leaders to legal restrictions on civil society organizations and dramatic funding cuts.

In the last year, across the world, 30 per cent of internet users have faced increased restrictions on accessing content. The Association for Progressive Communications estimates that over 45 states have imposed some kind of online restrictions. The APC's assessment is part of a major annual stocktake in the new CIVICUS report.

Other countries are leaving internet access open but are monitoring for dissent and using social media to create 'Autocracy 2.0': allowing freedom of expression online but rounding up, jailing and physically attacking people who dare to disagree. The acid test of internet freedom, says the APC, is whether people can express their sexuality online.

In some countries, such as Bahrain, Cambodia and Ethiopia, activists have been imprisoned for daring to criticize the government. In Azerbaijan, Canada, Malaysia and Russia, regressive laws place new barriers on the right to peaceful assembly. In Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, new laws give the state power to declare a civil society organization unlawful. Bangladesh and Russia are the latest countries wanting to restrict foreign funding of local civil society groups, and in several donor countries such as Canada, the Netherlands and New Zealand, funding for civil society organizations that support international development has been cut.

Much of the euphoria and optimism surrounding the Arab Spring has been lost amid the chaos, corruption and clampdowns on civil society that ensued in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. And the potential of arguably the most liberating tools for social activism -- the Internet and social media -- is under threat from new restrictions that clamp down on the ability of citizens to mobilize or hold governments accountable.

It is this context that serves as a backdrop for current discussions about the post-2015 development framework. Yet a vibrant civil society supports development in a range of ways, from community-based organizations that can deliver grounded and cost-effective services to independent voices that can hold governments accountable. The development sector knows better than any that without transparency and accountability, the fight against global poverty will be fatally undermined by corruption and waste.

Any new global development strategy has to put the enabling environment for civil society at the heart of other ambitions, so that citizens feel empowered to shape the societies around them rather than live in fear of reprisals. The freedom from want is nothing without the freedom from fear.

Richard Darlington is currently volunteering at CIVICUS in Johannesburg, South Africa


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