By Brian Pratt.

The latest special issue of Development in Practice is based on some of the interesting work of the ‘Civil Society at a Crossroads’ initiative that INTRAC was part of. ‘Crossroads’ was a collective of civil society groups in India, Tanzania, South Africa, Uruguay, the UK, and the Netherlands which together studied both country level contexts and specific movements, totalling 22 cases in 18 countries. The collective’s members were keen to explore the impact of a range of often very different forces of change on civil society in their own countries and other parts of the world and to see if we could learn something of global significance. We realised very early on that the factors challenging civil society were often very different and sometimes even in opposition to each other.

For example, recession in Europe has led to major challenges to civil society groups in Ireland, Greece, and elsewhere, whilst in India, South Africa, and Latin America it was economic growth which created the challenges to civil society; for example through the cutting of external aid, new economic structures and businesses, increased national wealth and a struggle for who controls it. Whilst the space for civil society is expanding in some parts of the world with new civil society movements and improved democratic processes, there is evidence that space is being constrained in other parts by negative legislation and government repression.

Other key lessons that came out of the work were:

1) In Europe, challenges for civil society include coping with cuts in government funding whilst also facing an increased demand for services. There is also considerable domestic criticism of many of the traditional large scale charitable organisations for their lack of engagement in political debates on the future.

2) The end of aid and the transition from an aided to unaided civil society is striking in many countries as donors withdraw, leaving many NGOs in particular bereft of funding. Meanwhile many traditional NGOs also face criticism from new social movements who are looking to challenge government policies, including over the allocation of new state revenues, as well as questioning the nature of the development approaches. It is argued that older NGOs seem unconnected to the contemporary challenges around them.

3) “Second generation” issues are emerging. Economic and political conditions have led to new concerns in some countries; whereas previously the issues were perhaps more stark and grouped around absolute poverty or severe political repression, growth has now led to the emergence of nuanced issues around the nature of education (Chilean case), equal marriage (Argentina), commuter rights (Indonesia), and corruption (India), to give a few examples.

4) Many new forms of social movement have emerged, sometimes enabled through new technology, others formed to meet some of the new “second generation” issues, still others a reaction against traditional NGOs. Examples in the special issue of a new generation of social movements include Occupy London, anti-corruption movements in India, and protests in Greece.

5) There is a general frustration in many emerging economies where growth and democratisation have raised citizens’ expectations not only around their economic well-being, but also around political freedoms and a more open and less corrupt state. New social movements have also demonstrated an ability to throw up new issues and concerns which are often different from those of previously donor-driven agendas. There has been fresh energy captured through new alliances across class, caste, gender, ethnicity and sexual preferences.

6) There is a blurring of issues and organisational forms between the north and south. Similar movements have appeared in both in response to economic and political challenges. Issues such as the costs of an ageing population, equal marriages, anti-corruption, the nature of state welfare, state repression, and others are similar across the world.

7) In most parts of the world, new forms of information technology have been used for information exchange, mobilisation, communication about issues, and to monitor abuses of power. As the editors of the special issue note we see the non-violent methods of Mahatma Ghandi being dynamically and successfully brought together with new information and communications technologies, by new social movements and civil society groups.

The crossroads collective feel that there is more to do to review and analysis the impact and nature of civil society at a crossroads, including the need to investigate areas of the world that have not been covered so far, to feedback and maintain a live debate on these trends in civil society globally, and to continue to refine the understanding and significance of these and other lessons that are emerging from the crossroads examples. It is hoped that we can find the resources to continue this important work.