Amid a worldwide deterioration in freedom of association and expression, civic activists must urgently discuss how a more enabling environment can be created for civil society organizations (CSO). Last month, a Taiwan Alliance in International Development (Taiwan AID) workshop, co-sponsored by the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, provided such an opportunity. Alison Hsiao gives the highlights.
About 6 billion people live in countries where civic space is either closed, repressed or obstructed, according to the latest findings by the CIVICUS Monitor made public in April.
“Only 3 percent of the entire population around the world live in countries where space for civic activism is truly open,” Henri Valot, lead adviser at USAID’s Voice and Accountability, Accelere Education Programme in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, told a workshop in Taipei last week, citing the report.
According to Maria Teresa Lauron, co-chair of CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness, there is a global trend toward shrinking and closing civic space, with governments “not only in the south but also in the north” implementing restrictive laws hindering and disabling conditions for CSO formation, registration and operation.
Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-ruled China is known for the limited maneuvering room for NGOs and civic movements. It has recently attempted to further restrain civic activities by unveiling, in April 2016, the Law on Management of Domestic Activities of Overseas Non-governmental Organizations.
The law requires overseas NGOs, which arguably have enjoyed more freedom in China and therefore have served as a critical source of resources and information for domestic NGOs, to report to the Ministry of Public Security rather than the Ministry of Civil Affairs as domestic NGOs must do, and to find a sponsor or “business supervisory unit” for registration, according to Chan Kin-man (陳健民), associate professor of sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and co-founder of Occupy Central with Love and Peace.
“The sponsors could be difficult to find as they would have to shoulder political responsibilities [if the NGOs cross Beijing’s red lines],” Chan said, adding that exceptions are possible for “sponsors” seeking financial opportunities in those NGOs and for those that have guanxi (political connections).
With recent developments surrounding the new legislation, “the grey area that Chinese NGOs used to enjoy is disappearing,” he said.
“The large third sector is expanding, but civil society is actually shrinking in China,” as Beijing continues to crack down on dissenting groups while supporting “governmental non-governmental organizations,” a term Chan used to refer to “NGOs” supported by government funding and which therefore adhere to the government’s agenda.
Linh Phuong Nguyen, executive director of the Research Center of Management and Sustainable Development in Vietnam, also told of the barriers facing CSOs in Vietnam.
Vietnamese CSOs, like their counterparts in China, need government approval before receiving international aid, she said, adding that it usually takes six months to a year before permissions can be obtained — if at all.
A draft law of association was put forward by the Vietnamese government in 2016 — “supposedly committed to creating an enabling environment for the CSOs, but in reality, there was no outside participation in the drafting process” — and if passed, would create a more restrictive environment for CSOs, Nguyen said.
The situation is equally dire in the Philippines. Despite his earlier announcement on negotiating peace with the country’s communist groups that have been waging armed resistance for the past 48 years, “[President] Duterte announced [in May] that he’s going after human rights defenders” and “[just in the night before the workshop took place on May 24], martial law was declared in Mindanao,” Lauron said.
As the above cases make clear, the development of civic space in Asia faces extraordinary challenges. According to the CIVICUS report, none of the Asian countries is in the “Open” category in the civic space tracking chart, with the best performers in Asia — Japan and South Korea — categorized as having a “Narrowed” civic space. (The conspicuous absence is Taiwan, which is colored grey, without information on the evaluation map.)
According to the CIVICUS report, none of the Asian countries is in the “Open” category in the civic space tracking chart, with the best performers in Asia — Japan and South Korea — categorized as having a “Narrowed” civic space.
Akio Takayanagi, policy adviser at Japan NGO Center for International Cooperation, outlined the depressing state of affairs in Japan, which is generally regarded as a developed democracy, citing the World Press Freedom Index that put Japan in 72nd place in the ranking of media freedom in 2017, a stunning gradual downgrading from 11th spot in 2011.
Additionally, an “anti-conspiracy bill” — pushed by the Japanese government and passed by the House of Representatives — could “lead to undue restrictions to the rights to privacy and to freedom of expression,” United Nations special rapporteur on the right to privacy Joseph Cannataci warned.
If it becomes law, the bill will allow the authorities to “criminalize acts of preparation to commit crimes such as terrorism,” Takayanagi said.
The Taiwan model
Left out by the global assessment, Taiwan has proven an encouraging exception to regional and global trends.
Tracing the transformation of CSO-state relations in Taiwan, Michael Hsiao (蕭新煌), distinguished research fellow at the Institute of Sociology, Academia Sinica, said that beginning with the democratization movements in the 1990s, the country’s CSOs have moved from external control to free association and self-governance, from state monitoring to self-discipline and accountability, and from state dependence to public empowerment.
Nevertheless, there are problems that need to be resolved to ensure a better functioning of CSOs in Taiwan and to strengthen its civic space. Jay Hung (洪智杰), Taiwan AID executive director, noted that while most CSOs in Taiwan align themselves with government requirements concerning internal management, “disclosure of financial reports and work plans to the general public, however, is not mandatory,” which could generate doubts with the public.
There is also the problem of “being strong in domestic affairs but lacking in global thinking and actions,” said Chien Shiuh-shen (簡旭伸), a professor of development geography at National Taiwan University, adding that activists over the years have sometimes worked too closely with the long-time opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and lost momentum after the DPP assumed power for the first time in 2000.
But the second democratic “alternation of ruling party” in Taiwan in 2016 has helped push legal and social change, which bodes well for the country’s civic space.
Amendments to the Civil Association Act, which regulates all “people’s groups” including political parties, civic groups and occupational associations, as well as new laws mulled by the government, would further strengthen regulations governing NGOs by enhancing their transparency and changing the language governing the establishment of civil associations from “applying for approval from the authorities” to “registration.”
Activists and CSOs have also “learned the lessons” from their experiences during the first transition of power, including the notion that they should “never say yes to the government all the time,” even if the ruling party was once an ally, Hsiao said.
Chien cited the ruling by Taiwan’s Judicial Yuan on May 24 in favor of same-sex marriage as a demonstration of Taiwan’s profound social progress, three decades after the lifting of martial law.
This is an experience in development that can be shared among Asian countries as the “Taiwan model,” he said, “which is in the social dimension” and is different from the “four tigers” type of economic model upheld in the past.
Enabling environment for CSOs
Besides sharing the Taiwan model, there exist global frameworks that, if observed, could help create a more enabling environment for CSOs, among them the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).
Goal 16.10, which encourages governments to “Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms,” and Goal 17.17, which urges governments to “Encourage and promote effective public, public-private and civil society partnerships,” for example, are civic-space promoting, said Douglas Rutzen, president of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, USA.
Anselmo Lee, secretary-general of the Asia Democracy Network, also weighed in.
“We have to remind the governments that it is their legal obligation” to follow those frameworks developed by the global organization of which they are members, he said.
Meanwhile, the mere presence of regulatory or policy frameworks, or more quantifiable socio-economic development (GDP, life expectancy, literacy and so on), which some argue indicates the existence of an enabling environment for CSOs, may fall short of being comprehensive, Valot said.
The capability approach, first conceived by Amyarta Sen in the debate on welfare economics and defining individual’s wellbeing in terms of their capabilities to achieve their goals, has been applied to assess the environment for civil society, Valot said. It not only means that the socio-economic environment, which should include gender equality and equity in general, but also socio-cultural (participation trends, tolerance, trust), political/governmental and legal environments (civil society infrastructure, state effectiveness, policy dialogue, rule of law, and so on), have to be taken into consideration, he said.
Cultivating an enabling environment therefore requires both government input and CSO efforts. Trust between the two needs to be built and CSOs have to work on their professional capacity and undertake self-regulation to be seen as dependable actors, Lauron said.
Global networking is crucial, especially people-to-people exchanges. “Every Philippine activist is also an internationalist because we see that the problems facing the Pilipino society are not limited to our domestic context but must be situated” in the world economic and political context, Lauron said. “Political education among activists and civil society is therefore important as we have to know the forces we’re confronting with in order to develop new strategies and for the approaches to be effective.”
Lauron was responding to concerns raised by Chien about civil movements being restricted to the local and domestic level without global connections.
To share the “Taiwan model” or other experiences of civil society across countries, “we must move beyond organizations and formal institutions [that tend to be] distrusted by citizens and society,” Rutzen said, adding that one effective approach lies with youth engagement.
Lauron echoed this sentiment.
“A new generation of civil society leaders and movement leaders need to be developed; seeds can multiply,” she said.
All photos courtesy of Taiwan Aid.