Even as the role and influence of civil society on the world stage has increased over the last 20 years, the sector faces ever-tightening restrictions, according to a January 2013 report created for the World Economic Forum (WEF). Prepared in part by KPMG, The Future Role of Civil Society, touts the positive qualities of civil society, such as “significant experience and expertise, particularly at grassroots level,” and its ability to “enable new institutional forms to address an ever-evolving global agenda.” At the same time, the report identifies threats to the operating space of civil society by overly broad laws and regulations that “hinder the development of democratic governance, accountability and stability over the long term.” The findings in the report are the result of interviews with over 200 leaders from civil society, government, and other key sectors.
In the report’s introduction, WEF founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab praises the sector as a key player in world affairs, saying “Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), labour leaders, faithbased organizations, religious leaders and other civil society representatives play a critical and diverse set of roles in societal development.”
Despite this acknowledgment,” the sector’s operational space is shrinking in some countries. “Whether via strict media oversight or burdensome regulatory hurdles for [civil society organizations], governments in numerous countries are restricting the space for civil society – particularly in the arena of advancing human rights or democratic principles,” the report says. While many of these measures may not constitute overt acts such as bans, “applying onerous, arbitrary or poorly administrated registration processes” and limiting access to national and foreign funding limits the effectiveness of humanitarian activities in places where its most needed. In some countries, anti-terror finance regulations are being used to target political opposition and curb freedoms of assembly and association.
“It is a shame to see some governments quietly gagging their civil society actors; I strongly believe that governments and their citizens have so much to gain from strong and dynamic civil society organizations,” Richard Blewitt, CEO of HelpAge International says in the report.
Along the same lines, WEF’s Nicholas Davis, head of constituents and strategic initiatives, , wrote in a Huffington Post blog about the role of civil society in an ever changing and increasingly interconnected global landscape:
“Civil society plays a key role in modeling the kind of organizations, individuals, movements and partnerships that are built on trust, commitment, a sense of service and a focus on the collective good. In all its forms, civil society can continue to hold all stakeholders, including itself, to the highest levels of accountability, helping other sectors to realize the value of challenging the status quo and pushing for change.”