Push back against the tyrants: how to counter authoritarian assault on civil society


With rising awareness that simply holding elections does not a democracy make, investments in civil society are central to democracy promotion—helping to provide the education, information, and accountability without which voting can be an empty exercise, argues Suzanne Nossel, the executive director of PEN American Center. Civil society is the most viable long-term counterweight against the deep, uncompromising, and immovable state, which is the most potent anti-democratic force in the world, she writes for Democracy: a Journal of Ideas:

Yet, at least in some places, Western embrace may risk becoming the bear hug that suffocates local civil society. Soaring rhetoric about the importance of civil society, faraway meetings, training programs, and generous grants have colored how local civil society activists are perceived, not just by the governments they challenge, but by the people they aim to represent and serve. Seizing any opportunity to impeach their critics, self-serving governments have gone on the attack, seeking to stigmatize and smear local civil society organizations. Disadvantaged and repressed populations with limited access to independent media and objective information accept these false narratives. 

Another problem relates less to the “what” of civil society and more to the “who,” Nossel contends:

Partly due to the demands of securing and managing Western funds, supported civil society organizations are often populated by professionals selected for their issue-specific skills and expertise, often acquired abroad, and knowledge of English; these qualifications can take precedence over local stature, clout, or credibility. ….. The most influential independent local civil society icons who would be hardest to delegitimize—reputable businesspeople, clergy, labor leaders, writers, publishers, intellectuals, academics, media personalities—are often ill-equipped to respond to U.S. government or foundation requests for proposals relating to their work. They may also not self-identify as part of civil society or an NGO, nor construe their work as fitting under the rubrics that Western governments and foundations fund. ….. Albeit unintentionally, civil society funding and support from the West can tend to go toward groups whose personnel, reputations, and methods make them relatively easier to discredit and marginalize locally.

Vladimir Putin has exploited this opportunity masterfully to discredit critics and amass power, Nossel adds, noting that the Russian government has designated 126 groups “foreign agents,” while the Open Society Foundations, National Endowment for Democracy, and the U.S. Russia Foundation have been declared “undesirable” and banned for allegedly undermining Russia’s security, defense, or constitutional order.

As a new Administration prepares to take office early next year, there is an opportunity for a serious rethink on new approaches that avert, deflect, and defang the kinds of countermeasures repressive governments have now perfected, Nossel continues. A series of measures should be explored: changing the rhetoric and redefining Washington’s role, ramping up cultural diplomacy, shifting the focus to influential individuals, engaging diaspora communities, and using new funding and support channels, she suggests:

The Obama Administration’s “Stand with Civil Society” has the potential to be an enduring part of the President’s foreign policy legacy, or to be looked upon wistfully as a well-intentioned effort gone awry, feeding the very forces it was intended to counter. There is no easy solution to this dilemma. Even smartly retooled tactics will not reverse the pernicious trends toward repression witnessed worldwide. The aim for the time being must be to strategically sustain vulnerable organizations while striving to steadily build up the coalition of countries—including those active in bodies like the Community of Democracies and the U.S.-backed Open Government Initiative—that recognize civil society as a greater asset than it is a liability.


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