What’s Open Government got to do with Civic Space?
Closing civic space is a worrisome trend surfacing across regions. As we sit reading this, civil society activists from Azerbaijan to Turkey, Hungary to Honduras, are facing situations where their freedoms to operate and speak freely and – in many cases – even their lives, are under threat. According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL), since 2012, 71 countries put into place 146 policy decisions that restricted civil society space – whether it is adopting rules to allow unlimited government discretion to prevent NGOs from receiving grants, restrictions on social media content and the right to peaceful protest, increasing bureaucracy for registration and operation of organizations or using counter-terrorism laws to limit freedom of assembly and advocacy. The latest Civil Society Watch Report highlights violations to freedom of assembly, association and expression in at least 96 countries during 2014. CIVICUS has stated that their provisional findings for 2015 brings this number up to 101.
The question is what can we do, together, to strengthen enabling environments and protect civil society space. Open Government Partnership (OGP) was established based on the core idea that dialogue and engagement between civil society and government is vital for reform in any public policy area, even more so in civic space reform. And furthermore, an open and accountable government is an important factor to ensure and safeguard these reforms.
In the five years since its inception, OGP has provided an open platform for governments to work with civil society to identify areas of reform, and make concrete commitments towards them. OGP frames the concept of civic space as comprising two key areas: increased participation of citizens in policymaking, and strong legal provisions protecting the enabling environment for civil society to operate in. While a large percentage of the 2500 commitments made by the 69 governments in their OGP National Action Plans focus on policies that strengthen public participation, less than 1% focus on legal reform and strengthening enabling environments. To cite some examples: In Ukraine, Law on Public Organizations allows civil society organizations to “pursue any lawful aims, engage in economic activities for not-for-profit purposes, and acquire membership in public associations.” Bulgaria committed to developing a strategy to ensure financial independence and sustainability of non-governmental organizations. As civil society, we must actively adopt all advocacy tools available to us – and the OGP National Action Plans are an effective one – to push for more reform to strengthen space for civil society activity.
This year’s theme for the ICSW – “Active Citizens, Accountable Actions” – hits close to home for OGP for without a vibrant civil society, open government efforts will remain futile. Join us for a panel and workshop on Monday April 25th to discuss ideas, experiences, practical tactics and tools that OGP can offer civil society organizations to address closing civic space issues.
An open, safe and enabling environment for civil society is key to building public trust, and maintaining a strong, accountable government that is responsive to citizen needs. At International Civil Society Week 2016 (April 24-28, Bogota, Colombia), organized by Civicus and Confederación Colombiana de Organizaciones (CCONG), we seek to share some strategies and trends that we’ve seen across OGP countries, including innovative ways that civil society have developed to protect civil space and tools for advocacy on legal reform, including on the OGP platform. Furthermore, this will also touch on how civil society can play a more active role in countries for the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.