Narrow & occupied: views on a shrinking civic space

Photo by IISD/ENB | Mike Muzurakis

By: Dumiso Gatsha

The civic space persistently shrinking. From regulatory pressure, repressive governments, abuse of leadership and limited resourcing; civil society work is compromised. This is not new to many who have been active over the last 5 years. Human rights defenders are arbitrarily arrested, voice of dissent silenced through compromise of mental, economic and even physical safety. These narratives are common throughout the world. Particularly in civil society convening spaces; the shrinking civic space narrative is felt, heard and spoken of. We preach to the choir – to what end? Many spaces created for dialogues leave the knowledge within those four walls or remain in the minds of the select few who had the privilege to attend. For some, it might be for survival within their organisation and others, simply because they are too busy to share the knowledge with others. Having observed this from a grassroots level, two perspectives come to mind: the shrinking civic space is narrow and occupied.

On being narrow

Deliberations around programming or policy related work are often viewed in consideration of the worlds challenges and securing resources. This results in a focus on what would be considered the most critical of issues (climate, HIV, death penalty etc.) and is further narrowed by funding criteria or limitations. Building a strategic framework isn’t as simple but would certainly progress within those two fundamental influences. These influences rationalise the exclusion of demographics that would never be in the room during deliberations. The likelihood of a decision maker being in the same room as an indigenous, non-binary, migrant, under/unemployed or young person when formulating a strategy or designing a programme is narrow and uncommon. Even more glaring is if all attributes apply to one person. This is often understood as intersectionality or multidimensional views to social justice issues. Thus when I hear phrases such as “not everyone can be represented/accommodated”, I understand why many solutions today are linear and inadequate. They meet the bare minimum of impact and compromise meaningful improvement in lived experiences. They will always leave someone behind because of limited resources or strategic frameworks.

On being occupied

As a young activist from a developing country, the journey into activism was not clear or defined. The challenges an adolescent and teenager face require survival not agency. Having voice and visibility is a privilege. The power to take action and speak of injustice does not come easily and neither is it supported. One is raised in a household where only the head of the household has a say. One schools in an environment where you are taught ‘what’ and not ‘how’ to think. The dreams of your parents take precedence, just as the harmful culture and toxic socialised disregard of any forms of autonomy. These are all attached to what one’s family can afford in social rapport, livelihood, religious norms and means. These examples can be applied to civil society organising. At a more micro level, the advocacy spaces are already occupied with longstanding activists, institutions and those with the means of sustained access and engagement. How impactful can one/similar perspectives be, in the context of governance, accountability or advocacy? If the same head of the household speaks on behalf of the child – could any solutions be meaningful for that child? If the child were to be co-opted into the decision-making structure, how meaningful will his/her/their participation be if they do not have resources or a history of accomplishment to be taken seriously? These are the same dynamics that impact youth activism today. The structural barriers to meaningful civic participation are reflective in civil society organising.

No movement or society has been changed by meeting the norm. No change occurs as a result of business as usual.

Business as usual and institutionalised norms have dominated civil society decision making and impact. These are the same indicators that impede freedoms, deny the existence of minorities, police bodies, compromise autonomy and eliminate diverse experiences. No movement or society has been changed by meeting the norm. No change occurs as a result of business as usual. Taking from some of the examples shared above: if the elderly and children at an African wedding or funeral can be served food first, because of the difficulty in navigating long lines or delays in partaking in the feast the same way as the majority, then there might be a higher likelihood for everyone to eat together. This is the principle of recognising that those most excluded, marginalised and unable (physically, psychologically, economically, racially, geographically, etc.) should not only be reduced to advisory committees, sensitization videos and quota systems. Also, that it is critical to understand that inequalities are not always visible and can only be reduced by those who still live, feel and experience them. Having them equitably participate, is the first step towards building solutions that can accommodate and safeguard everyone’s rights. Easy wins for sustaining the future and comprehensive impact of civil society:

  1. Adding an intersecting and diverse lens to programming. Example: supporting all human rights defenders when arrested, with a lens to further strengthen those working on criminalized issues (sex work, LGBTI) with emergency evacuation support.
  2. Adding an intersecting and diverse lens to M&E indicators. Example: Campaigns against corruption with an outcome on gender-oriented restorative tax justice.
  3. Adding an intersecting and diverse lens to supporting international advocacy/accountability. Example: ensuring participation criteria includes intersecting struggles of poverty, identity, political affiliation and/or language.
  4. Safeguarding intersecting and diverse lens in any work. Employing those vulnerable, excluded or objectified. Although some may work, migrate or uplift themselves out of those environments and still have remnants of those experiences. It will never equate to those who are just as qualified living those experiences.

Dumiso Gatsha is a third year PhD (Law) candidate, Chartered Global Management Accountant and researcher. Founder of Success Capital NGO; an LGBTIQ+ youth led, managed and serving grassroots organisation working on moving its community from survival to success. IG: dumi.activist