A crisis in global civil society: mobilising the private sector to achieve our goals

Alex FarrowAlex Farrow is lead consultant at NCVO Charities Evaluation Services. He leads on supporting voluntary organisations to strengthen their strategy and evaluate their impact. Passionate about civil society, human rights and international development, he is an expert in youth participation and is a member of the CIVICUS Youth Action Team.

This year’s State of Civil Society Report has launched with the declaration that we are undergoing a ‘global civic space emergency’. Just 3% of the world’s citizens live in places where their right to assemble, organise and speak out are protected. In 106 countries, the ability of these rights to be realised is increasingly under attack.

The threats to civil society – be they constraining laws, forcible repression, or the erosion of rights and freedoms – are not one-off events. Rather, they are part of a long-term pattern of sustained assault on the individuals and organisations that are responsible for so much of our society’s progress.

From our work with the voluntary sector across England, we know the brilliant work that charities and voluntary organisations do to tackle injustice, solve problems, and support the most vulnerable people in our communities. If it is under attack – anywhere in world – we must, and we will, defend it vigorously.

CIVICUS Secretary General Danny Sriskandarajah, who is also a member of the inquiry into the future of civil society which launched at our recent Annual Conference, is clear that ‘we must value the positive role civil society is positioned to play in responding to growing disillusionment with established political and economic institutions’. As our CEO, Stuart Etherington, noted in his post EU referendum analysis, voluntary organisations are uniquely placed to reconnect with communities that feel ‘left behind’.

Using business to campaign for change

This year’s report focuses on how civil society and the private sector can work closely together. As a member of the CIVICUS Youth Action Team, I have contributed one of the 27 guest essays (pdf, 158KB). I tell the story of how All Out – one of the leading LGBT campaign groups – mobilised during the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014. The games were held in Russia against a background of aggressive anti-homosexuality legislation, with horrendous reports of violent attacks against the LGBTI community. The group saw the Winter Games as a huge opportunity to showcase the situation and campaign to stop the abuse – physically and legislatively – of LGBTI people in the host nation.

Instead of focusing on the Russian law makers, All Out targeted their efforts on Coca Cola – one of the biggest Olympic sponsors. This allowed for a simpler and more powerful message. Rather than a campaign on complex Russian laws, it became a story that was relatable around the world: Russia is anti-LGBTI; Coca-Cola is giving them money; you give money to Coca-Cola when you buy a drink. Over one million people took part in actions during All Out’s campaign. Their powerful and beautiful film depicting the reality of the games for a lesbian athlete has been watched 1.6 million times.

While the campaign did not see a change in the law or the withdrawal of sponsorship, it secured huge global attention for the situation of LGBTI community in Russia – and all those living under anti-homosexuality legislation – and resulted in a change to the Olympic Charter. ‘Sexual orientation’ is now listed as a group protected from discrimination under the International Olympic Committee’s charter.

Within Coca Cola, it led to a real drive on LGBTI provisions within the company and led to them supporting equal marriage in the USA. They also produced some particularly sweet and funny advertising campaigns featuring LGBTI stories.

The changing nature of campaigning

From our own work with the private sector, particularly through our Step on Board programme, we know the positive impact that business can have – not just in supporting charities, but as responsible corporate citizens in wider society. Just as we have with our corporate partners, civil society organisations can build and utilise the private sector – while continuing to speak out when those companies are wrong – to achieve their goals.

At the next NCVO Campaigning Conference we’ll explore the latest tools for lobbying decision-makers and mobilising your supporters. Don’t miss the early bird rate by booking before 30 June!

As a member of CIVICUS, we will be at the International Civil Society Week in December to represent our members at the global gathering of civil society. The way organisations campaign is changing, especially among youth organisations and movements (pdf, 709KB) and we must keep pace with these developments if we want to harness the energy of a new generation of activists. Alongside international institutions, large organisations and informal movements, we’ll share the experiences of our members with others around the world – as well as report back on what we’ve learnt from them.

As I conclude in my guest essay, ‘the dichotomy within civil society is often simplistic, with many of us believing that CSOs are good and corporations are bad’. From a campaigner’s perspective, this notion just isn’t useful if we’re serious about achieving social change. This shouldn’t just be about money: 75 out of the 100 biggest economies in the world are corporations rather the nations. It is to the detriment of our success that we ignore the powerful role that corporations play in society – as decision-makers, policy-influencers, and allies in change. We should not underestimate our influence on them.

As we grapple with enormous social, political and economic changes in the years ahead, NCVO will continue to champion the voluntary sector – at home and abroad – to ensure civil society organisations can flourish. The voluntary sector makes lives better for so many people – and we’ll use our power and resources to protect it.

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