A political scientist by training, Inés is CIVICUS’ Senior Research Specialist. She is also a professor at Universidad ORT Uruguay and a researcher with the Open Government Partnership.
In many circles, ‘civil society participation’ has become a fashion accessory that everyone wants to flaunt. And indeed, judging by the weak ways in which international institutions often offer participation, too many people in powerful places view civil society as merely an accessory.
Inés M. Pousadela, Senior Research Specialist at CIVICUS, discussing how civil society must play a bigger role in working with global financial institutions, like IMF, particularly in the wake of COVID-19.
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Civic participation isn’t just a box to check
We have all been subjected to box-ticking exercises at one time or another, and have ignored our instincts to withdraw from the political table for a variety of reasons: either because we don’t want to be perceived as refusing to occupy spaces we have long fought for, or because we think there might be a chance that we could improve the imbalance of power from the inside. Or even because we believe small, gradual, but cumulative changes might still make a positive difference.
But we are often set up for disappointment, as acknowledged by many civil society activists featured in our latest State of Civil Society Report, which critiques the lack of openness of international institutions.
Civil society delivers action and impact
Looking back over recent decades, it is clear that civil society action has been central to every single collective effort that has made our world a more liveable place. Together, we raise the alarm, exercise pressure and help put together much-needed safeguards.
Consistently, civic action has achieved significant impact in securing progressive change. We’ve helped advance demands for stronger civic rights and democratic freedoms, fairer economic policies, greater equality, and more action on the climate crisis and international reform.
Our valuable role during COVID-19
Most recently, civil society has been deeply affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the ongoing crisis, civil society remains on the frontlines, providing health care, food, shelter and other essentials to those in need and harnessing local energies to help sustain communities.
As governments right and left take advantage of emergency powers to curtail rights and regress towards more opaque, exclusionary and potentially corrupt decision-making processes, civil society is stepping up to hold them accountable.
Often operating in challenging environments with very limited civic space, civil society continues to ask incisive questions about the quality of the COVID-19 response. In this role, civil society is monitoring policy, watching over rights and demanding that any restrictions be justified, proportional and temporary.
Engage locally, act globally
One of civil society’s unique strengths lies in sustaining connections between the local and global levels. But, while our deep roots in local communities are not in question, our leverage in global arenas is being increasingly challenged.
Even within the United Nations’ human rights system, in which civil society has long played a vital role, anti-rights forces are on the rise and authoritarian states are attempting to close down human rights scrutiny and challenging the limited access civil society currently has.
We also face the challenge of increased access by private corporations, as international institutions respond to financial restrictions with private partnerships.
If this is happening in spaces historically favorable to civil society engagement, what does it mean for international financial institutions, typically one of the least hospitable arenas for civil society participation?
Four ways to work more effectively with civil society
The COVID-19 pandemic did not create the problems we now face; it exposed and deepened pre-existing faultlines of our political, social and economic systems. It is precisely along these faultlines that civil society has long been fighting its battles.
Civil society needs to remain vigilant during the post-pandemic recovery to address the problems of climate crisis and economic injustice, but it also needs to play a bigger role in more technical decision-making arenas, including multilateral financial institutions, like the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
For this to happen, several things need to change in the ways those institutions work with civil society:
1. Ask us, the experts
First, you need to stop telling us that you understand our point of view, but that our asks are not feasible because they are based on a lack of understanding of the restrictions that decision-makers face.
We are not just watchdogs; we are highly specialised experts who are able to contribute to policymaking. We are innovative thinkers able to devise solutions for global challenges.
If we happen to be doing this very hard work with imperfect information, it is because financial institutions are quite opaque and are not sharing enough information with civil society. This needs to change.
2. Get a bigger table, deliver results
Second, don’t get stuck in the consultation phase. Organising massive convenings to collect input from key stakeholders, leading to document after document and changing little in practice, is a waste of both of our time.
Stop treating us as second-class partners. We want a seat at the table because the table itself would not exist if it were not for us. And we want a table big enough that we all fit – not just the ‘respectable’ international non-government organizations (NGOs) that are frequently consulted, but also the social movements that are achieving impact on the ground.
3. Open up decision-making
Third, you don’t get to cherry-pick our contribution, appropriating our useful skills but disregarding our critique. Civil society can certainly help monitor international funding to ensure accountability and prevent corruption, but then it also deserves to have real input into decision-making about how funds are used and whose interests they serve.
Additionally, monitoring shouldn’t fall only to elite NGOs. We need to find a way to open up democratic accountability so people can have a say on the decisions that have direct impact on their lives.
4. Support changemakers
And above all, don’t treat us like a nuisance to deal with. Sometimes our tactics are disruptive, and for good reason – that’s how change comes about, as the #BlackLivesMatter movement reminds us. When the status quo is not working for the majority, disruption may be just what’s needed. So make a little effort to see us for what we are: a rare opportunity for our failing systems to change course and make things right.