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Where Do We Go From Here?

Disconnect between traditional organizations and citizens; shrinking space for civil society... Katsuji Imata from CIVICUS challenged Finnish CSOs to think of the picture for civil society in the next five years.
Anna-Sofia Joro
31.5.2012

Last Monday KEPA members had the chance to meet Katsuji Imata, Acting Secretary General of CIVICUS, World Alliance for Citizen Participation. CIVICUS focuses on strengthening civil society by bringing people together and offering them content for discussion - the aim is to compose a global narrative on what's happening. Key thematic areas include enabling environment and rights based approach.

Since 2007 KEPA and CIVICUS have been in dialogue on how to work together and since 2012 KEPA is member of CIVICUS. Currently, CIVICUS is carrying out a consultation for their new strategy for the next 5 years. Key sources for the analysis are 2008-2010 Civil Society Index, Civil Society Watch on attacks and restrictions on civil society, World Assembly in Montreal in September 2012 and networks and partners.

To stimulate discussion, Katsuji Imata introduced key findings collected in two recent reports, Bridging the Gaps: Citizens, Organisation and Dissociation and State of Civil Society 2011, downloadable for free on CIVICUS webpage.

The first finding is that there's a growing disconnect between organized civil society and active citizens. CSOs suffer from participation deficit because they are often seen as distant and part of urban elite. However, informal participation and volunteerism is high and online activism is bypassing organization. How can CSOs regain citizen participation and legitimacy?

Another, worrying global trend is the shrinking space for civil society. Bad laws, use of illegal measures and Internet monitoring are on the rise in many countries.

Meanwhile, CSOs continue in the global Post-Busan process and the development effectiveness debate. Katsuji Imata reminded that after some unfinished business in Busan, it's good to see people talking on measurement, targets and achievements. Now CSOs need to safe-guard that debates are turned into practice.

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An important part of the work of CIVICUS is to develop tools and measurements for civil society. The current projects include the Civil Society Watch, which focuses on spreading the word about threats and how to address what's happening for activists and human rights activists worldwide. This is done in close collaboration with UN Human Rights Council. One of the outcomes is the appointment of Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai a year ago. His work on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association has been quite successful but needs to get more visibility.

CIVICUS is also developing quantifiable indicators for enabling environment index and for demostrating CSOs work's results and impact on effectiveness.

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The big question was then posed to the audience: Given these global dynamics and local differences what does this picture suggest we need to do in the next five years?

This arose more questions than statements. One of the themes discussed was the widening gap between CSOs and citizens. Some participants claimed that civil society needs to redefine itself and CSOs have to find their identity and added value. Donors ask value for money and it's getting harder all the time.

Another challenge for CSOs is to question traditional ways of doing things. "We're bureaucratic, we should put down our feelings and ways of working and engage in dialogue. Now is the time, as everyone's a bit lost about development. In Southern civil society there is good progress that we don't listen", one of the participants commented.

How about CSOs role in international political negotiations, should we be "on the corridor or on the street"? Last December in Busan CSOs took part in the negotiations for the first time - it was a new situation, and CSOs need to find a way to have clearer strategies and defined roles.

An essential question is what's the real outcome of the efforts made in international conferences? "CIVICUS is trying to bring people from out to in, but we are not so good making people come from in to out. More and more civil society participation is coming, but is it really for impact and not just for the sake of it? It would be good to come up with measurement on quality of engagement", Katsuji Imata suggested.

The role of Northern CSOs was also discussed. The world is becoming more complex and different dynamics are emerging. In building a global civil society it's essential to form more solid alliances with emerging actors such as China.

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