Paper 6 Hearing the neediest voices, community and public participation in development: Why civil society and civic space matter

Paper 6

Hearing the neediest voices, community and public participation in development: Why civil society and civic space matter

Dr Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah and Mandeep Tiwana


Defined as the “arena outside of the family, the state and the market, which is created by individual and collective actions, organisations and institutions to advance shared interests,” civil society is a key driver of sustainable development (1). Indeed, civil society plays a critical role in ensuring representation of diverse voices, particularly those of the neediest in the governance and development discourse. Due to strong links with local communities and their public-spirited nature, vibrant and empowered civil society organizations (CSOs) contribute substantially to community and public participation in development.

Notably, the civil society sector helps shape official strategies and assists in finding innovative solutions to complex development problems from the lens of the most vulnerable and marginalized. In many instances, CSOs take responsibility for the actual delivery of services to communities. But vitally, civil society at the local, national and international levels independently monitors the objectives set by decision makers, and shapes public opinion to hold duty bearers to account for failing to deliver. To perform the above roles, civil society needs an enabling environment and strong protection of civic freedoms from encroachments by both state and non-state actors.

However, civil society groups are facing increasing challenges as they seek to assume their rightful role as partners in development.

Encroachments on civil society and civic Space

CIVICUS’ State of Civil Society Report 2014 points out that in the face of contemporary waves of protest, many governments are feeling threatened and have stepped up their efforts to close down civic space, through a combination of dubious legislation, demonization of protest movements and direct harassment of civil society activists and their organizations (2). In many of the parts of the world, in democracies and non-democracies, legal and practical limitations are preventing public-spirited individuals and groups from freely expressing themselves, engaging through associations and organizing peaceful demonstrations. While authoritarian governments pose a particular challenge to the existence of civil society groups seeking to democratize the development arena, threats emanating from non-state actors are also imperiling civic space (3).

The near total dominance of free market economic policies has created a tight overlap between the economic and political elite putting at risk civil society groups working to protect the environment and the collective rights of local communities to natural resources including land. Mining, construction and agricultural firms controlled by vested political interests are posing a serious threat to civil society.

Further, violent conflicts and cultural clashes are spurring religious fundamentalism and intolerant attitudes towards women’s equality and the rights of sexual minorities, putting progressive civil society groups at serious risk from both physical attacks as well as politically motivated prosecutions (4).

These negative trends on civic space are impeding the service delivery and watchdog functions of the civil society sector in sustainable development.

The story so far on the post-2015 agenda

Many practitioners and observers have argued that ‘too little partnership and too little space for civil society’ have severely marred progress on the current Millennium Development Goals (5). With debates underway on the next set of internationally agreed sustainable development goals, a key demand from civil society has been to entrench the notion of civic freedoms and “enabling environment for civil society in the Post 2015 agenda. In a submission made to the UN Secretary General’s High Level Panel on the Post 2015 Development Agenda, a group of CSOs comprising the Civic Space Initiative urged inclusion of the following: (i) a target and indicators to promote an enabling environment for civil society, (ii) linking the target and indicators to an analogue to MDG 8 focusing on partnerships for development or to a new goal, such as good governance, human rights, or the enabling environment for development writ large, and /or (iii) make enabling environment for civil society a cross-cutting theme across many goals (6).

The above asks are in line with the commitment made by 160 governments at the 4th High-Level Forum on Aid and Development Effectiveness in 2011 to enable CSOs to exercise their roles as independent development actors, with a particular focus on an enabling environment, consistent with agreed international rights, that maximizes the contributions of CSOs to development (7). Additionally, the outcome of the 2012 Rio + 20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development acknowledges the “role of civil society and the importance of enabling all members of civil society to be actively engaged in sustainable development through strengthening access to information, building civil society capacity and an enabling environment (8).

Positively, the UN Secretary General’s panel of experts on the post-2015 agenda has recommended in its May 2013 report that a separate goal on good governance and effective institutions should be created (9). The panel suggested that this goal should include targets to measure freedoms of speech, association, peaceful protest and access to independent media and information. A key recommendation of the panel was to forge a new global partnership involving people living in poverty, those with disabilities, women, civil society and indigenous and local communities, traditionally marginalized groups, multi-lateral institutions, local and national government, the business community, academia and private philanthropy.

Notably, the Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals (OWG-SDGs) has also emphasized the importance of partnership with civil society in the post-2015 agenda (10). In its July 2014 proposal, the Open Working Group recommended the creation of a goal on accountable and inclusive institutions (proposed Goal 16) and a goal on revitalizing the global partnership (proposed Goal 17). While proposed Goal 17 reinforces the notion of multi-stakeholder partnerships and seeks to encourage and promote effective, public, public-private, and civil society, partnerships, proposed Goal 16 promises responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels, along-with a commitment to ensure public access to information and protection of fundamental freedoms in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.

The way forward

As argued in the introduction to this brief paper, hearing the neediest voices and engendering community and public participation in development will require deeper commitment from states to protect and enable civil society actors currently facing an onslaught of restrictions on their activities. The new global development framework needs to explicitly recognize the necessity to create an enabling environment” for civil society with targeted indicators to measure progress on civic freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly. The OWG-SDGs proposal with its broad reference to “fundamental freedoms” worryingly lacks specificity on these freedoms.

A critical mass of influential civil society groups under the platform of the Post 2015 human rights caucus have urged world leaders to include clear targets to protect civil and political rights, in particular the freedoms of expression, association, assembly, access to information and political participation and guarantees of an enabling environment for civil society, human rights and environmental defenders (11).

With barely months to go before the finalization of the next generation of global development goals, it is vital that the new framework clearly recognizes the value of civil society partnerships and the imperative to protect its space.


(3) Global Trends on Civil Society Restrictions, CIVICUS, October 2013,

(4) CIVICUS State of Civil Society Report, April 2013­‐ content/uploads/2013/04/2013StateofCivilSocietyReport_full.pdf

(5) Civil society: only the clampdown is transparent, Guardian Comment is free, Ingrid Srinath and Mandeep Tiwana, September 2010goals

(6) Submission on an Enabling Environment for Civil Society to the UN High Level Panel on the Post 2015 Development Agenda, Civic Space Initiative consortium comprising International Center for Not-for Profit Law, Article 19, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation and World Movement for Democracy, April 2013Submission-to-HLP_Enabling-Environment-for-ÂCivil-Society.pdf

(7) Busan Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation, November 2011

(8) UN General Assembly Resolution 66/288 The future we want, July 2012 http://daccess-dds-Â

(9) A New Global Partnership, Report of High Level Panel of Eminent Persons on the Post 2015 Development Agenda, United

Nations, May 2013

(10) Open Working Group proposal for Sustainable Development Goals, July 2014

(11) Letter to the UN Secretary General by the Post 2015 Human Rights Caucus, September 2014_29Sep2014.pdf


Dr Dhananjayan (Danny) Sriskandarajah is Secretary General and CEO of CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation since January 2013. His previous posts include Director of the Royal Commonwealth Society, Interim Director of the Commonwealth Foundation, and Deputy Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research. Sriskandarajah is the author of numerous reports and academic articles on international migration and economic development who writes and appears regularly in the media on a range of topics. He sits on several boards, including those of the Baring Foundation, International Alert and Ockenden International, and has been a consultant to several international organisations. He holds a degree from the University of Sydney, and an MPhil and DPhil from the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. In 2012, he was honored by the World Economic Forum as a Young Global Leader.


Mandeep Tiwana Mandeep is the Head of Policy and Research at CIVICUS. He specializes in legislation affecting the core civil society freedoms of expression, association and assembly. On joining CIVICUS in May 2008, he was engaged in advocacy to protect and expand civil society space globally, including through the completion of a comprehensive compendium of legal instruments and other intergovernmental commitments concerning core civil society rights. Previously, Mandeep advised the New Delhi Delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross on due process guarantees for persons detained in Jammu and Kashmir.

Mandeep has a keen interest in human rights and comparative law and has also worked with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, an international NGO based in New Delhi, on campaigns related to criminal justice sector reform.







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