Over a few months in 2012, a question came up among Christian Aid’s staff in Africa reflecting on the impact of the ‘Arab Springs’: Will a summer or a winter follow the spring?
‘Summer’ means democratisation spreading and deepening; ‘winter’, on the other hand, means repression retaliating with a vengeance, leading to severe constrictions of democratic space.
While the democratic spring was reason to celebrate, the political weather forecast was bleak. Between January 2012 and October 2013, Civicus documented 413 threats and attacks on civil society in 87 countries. Ethiopia imposed new curbs on free speech, and froze the assets of human rights NGOs. Bills imposing further restrictions on civil society groups were filed in Zimbabwe, Malawi and South Africa, and many more. These legal restrictions underlay a context of increasing violence and physical attacks. It certainly seemed that winter was following the spring.
In 2017, Christian Aid staff around the world report similar patterns persisting, or worsening. For example, Angola approved further restrictions on NGO and media activity through the Press Law. In Israel, legislation ranging from bans on supporting boycotts to funding restrictions for NGOs receiving external grants came into force, amidst a rising wave of assaults on minorities in the public sphere. Brazil, the Philippines, and Colombia, continued to be the most dangerous places for people defending their land, forests, and rivers, as documented in a Global Witness report. The democratic ‘springs’ of 2010-2011 seemed so distant and forgotten by the steadily rising waves of authoritarianism and populism.
Over these years, Christian Aid partners reaffirmed that the shrinking space was a real global trend. But they also said that such trend was not new, but familiar hazards faced over the years. What was new was that the shrinking space had started to affect the ability of external actors, NGOs and humanitarian agencies etc., to achieve their aims and operations. Therefore it was important to adopt a long-term view. Attention needs to be shifted from the impact on external actors, to how local communities develop their own, and the sometimes messy mechanisms of engagement.
A few country programmes have looked into increasing support to national-level alliances or coalitions best placed to respond to both legal restrictions and physical attacks. Coalitions are typically greater than the sum of the parts, and can potentially change the local political equation. Yet like many actors, they struggle to attract core funding. Alongside, Christian Aid is looking at new potential partners, and using digital campaigning. In quite a few cases, for example, social media was instrumental in spreading information and mobilising communities.
The shrinking space also highlights dilemmas. For example, free elections are universally regarded as an indicator of expanding democratic space; hence electoral reform initiatives receive a good deal of international support. Yet over the past years, elections, apparently ill-designed, have proved capable too of worsening deadly ethnic and social divides. In Kenya, around 1500 people died in post-election, inter-ethnic clashes in January 2008 and elections have periodically put the country on the edge. Tensions are stoked again by the August 2017 elections; the Supreme Court cancelled the results, and ordered new polling. Elections can also legitimise rulers with no regard for human rights, like in the Philippines. It is ironic that countries admired for their democratic elections, like Brazil, India, and South Africa, have income inequalities at very high levels, which are increasing further, as reported by the OECD.
Capacity-building is another standard tool, but is not always the solution. Corruption, weak and dysfunctional institutions, and conflict and fragile situations cannot be readily fixed by the transfer of knowledge and technical assistance alone. More research has affirmed that development outcomes depend more on the incentives facing political leaders.
As such, claims of a democratic ‘spring’ some years ago were either wrong or premature. It appears then, that if a summer does not follow the spring, it is best to prepare for winter. For example, a more robust strategy to contest shrinking space, particularly where populism is on the rise, is necessary. And contestation need not always be confrontational. A quiet but systematic documentation of human rights abuses, such as that being done in the Philippines’ controversial drug war, could go a long way in slowing down abuses and shrinking space.
Conversations need to continue, especially on ‘uncomfortable’ topics. How should the INGO community be dealing with its ‘radio silence’? Or preferring not to say anything, how to avoid entanglement with messy local politics for fear of reprisal, targeting and monitoring, such as in Ethiopia or Myanmar? With the plight of Rohingyas continuing to worsen, could INGOs and funders organise a task force to collectively discuss what to do?
Authoritarianism and populism have certainly adjusted to the changing contexts. So should we, along with the questions we challenge ourselves with.
Eric Gutierrez, Policy and Public Affairs, Christian Aid