Dispatches from Serbia: a week with the world’s leading activists and movements

Last week, the International Civil Society Week (ICSW) took place in Serbia. This was a conference with a difference: the week included a well-known TV political satirist, an all-girl rock band, and a performance by the Russian punk activist collective, Pussy Riot (with Maria Alyokhina performing her book/show, Riot Days).

Organised by CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society that seeks to strengthen citizen action and civil society, the event brought together voluntary organisations and activists from around the world. By supporting its members, championing action, and making global connections, CIVICUS is the global equivalent of NCVO – and we are proud to be members.

A worsening situation for civil society

This year’s global gathering, the first #ICSW2019 to take place in the Balkans, occurred under difficult circumstances: in 111 countries, where almost 6 billion people live, civil society is repressed and under attack. The CIVICUS Monitor keeps track of the most recent abuses including:

  • a ban on election critiques in Bangladesh
  • suppression of protest against draconian human rights abuses in Brunei (such as the recent law permitting the stoning to death of LGBT people)
  • arbitrary arrest in Myanmar
  • attacks by the far-right on journalists in Italy
  • harassment of human rights defenders in Equatorial Guinea
  • violence at the #1od5Miliona protests in Serbia.

In one session, a young activist from Thailand described how she faces six years in prison for three social media posts (two years for each post) that highlighted labour violations in her country. I spoke with activists who have been arrested, beaten and who fear for their safety if/when they return home.

Against this, the ICSW theme of the ‘power of togetherness’ could appear a lofty and woolly sounding slogan. It’s easy to cringe at the repeated phrases of ‘solidarity’, ‘unity’ and ‘strength in numbers’.

But tap below the rhetoric and it’s clear why this is important: civil society organisations are on the frontline – and take the first hit – as many countries and communities tear themselves apart. As one Turkish journalist said, sometimes the feeling of international solidarity is the only thing you have that keeps you going.

NCVO’s global role

Throughout our history, NCVO has played a major role in setting up and supporting well-known UK charities – like the Youth Hostel Association, Age Concern and the Citizens Advice Bureau. On the international stage, we were involved in the early creation of CIVICUS, taking on the chair role of CIVICUS in Europe, and with Sir Stuart as treasurer of CIVICUS in the early 2000s.

At a time of such political and social turmoil in the UK, it is tempting to look inwards and focus on our own sector’s challenges and respond to the radically changed landscape for charities. This would be a mistake: to those living under repression – unable to realise their basic right to expression, assembly or association – the UK remains an example of what a true civil society can be like.

Supporting global civil society

As we have said, we believe that civil society organisations are uniquely placed to bring communities together.

In this country, we need to be thinking seriously (and innovatively) about how we engage with social movements, youth organisations and informal groups. With a move away from individuals engaging through formal organisations, we will need to rethink how we champion their involvement in society – as activists, volunteers and citizens.

Globally, established organisations have a responsibility to act for those that cannot. But we will need to find new ways of supporting international civil society. While it is important for us to show solidarity with fellow activists, organisations and movements, we need to go further. How can we use our power, rights and resources to support the creation of open, free societies?

The ‘power of togetherness’ will only be realised if it is underwritten by hard cash, a shift in resources, and the opening of access to power.

We must all be champions for this. In many ways, we’re the only ones that can.

This entry was posted in Impact, Policy and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Like this? Read more

Alex Farrow Alex Farrow is a lead consultant in NCVO Charities Evaluation Services. He leads on supporting voluntary organisations to strengthen their strategy and evaluate their impact. Alex is particularly interested in charity governance and strategy, having supported The Diana Award to set their new five-year plan, and is currently a trustee of GirlGuiding UK.

Comments are closed.