Citizen voice, agency and accountability in a post-Brexit era

Published on 20 July 2016

Becky Faith

Digital Cluster Leader

The IDS 50th anniversary conference ‘States, Markets and Society’ was a chance to reflect from a global perspective on the meaning of citizen voice, agency and accountability in a post-Brexit era.

Through four conference sessions on ‘Pumping Life into Civil Society’ we saw a convergence of debates between North and South; reflecting IDS’ universalist perspective on development. As Deborah Doane described it: ‘…we are all fighting the same battles now. This is an opportunity for civil society more generally – how do we change power dynamics in our own country?’This blog post briefly reflects on three themes which emerged in discussions: threats to civil society, the challenges and possibilities presented by alliances between civil society, the private sector and social movements, and new processes for participation and mediation.

In terms of the relationship between the state and civil society, we heard how threats to civil society are being felt very keenly in Mozambique. There has been an increase in government control of mainstream media and social media. These threats have also seen lives lost; a law Professor who was a central figure in a sensitive debate about autonomy for Mozambique’s provinces and decentralising power was shot dead last year. Adriano Campolina, from ActionAid International, reported seeing economic interests typically underlying threats to organisers when they were campaigning on issues such as the exposure of land grabs, suggesting there was a company behind it. Michael Edwards, from Demos, discussed the challenges to civil society identified in Civicus’ State of Civil Society Report but felt that a healthy state of continuous mutual suspicion’ between the state and civil society might offset the risk of co-option.

Evelina Dagnino, from the University of Campinas, spoke of her abandonment of her usual optimism about deepening democracy. She reflected on what she described as a wearing out of the ‘architecture of participation’ in Brazil, through the ossification and capture of participatory structures and the exclusion of young people from these spaces. Newly mobilised right wing social movements are funded by powerful overseas vested interests, and are organising both on the streets and online. Meanwhile there are divisions between older movements such as union activists and new social movements leveraging networked technologies, such as a new generation of feminists and school students occupying schools. The lack of convergence between these movements is a critical issue: ‘one of the first challenges is making alliances within civil society itself’.

In light of the Brexit vote, participants spoke of the need to avoid ‘othering’ people with whom we disagree, and the need for new mediating structures and ‘Habermasian’ spaces for dialogue. This need for new structures and processes for mediation was also reflected in broader discussions about how to reconfigure and reinvigorate alliances between northern NGOs and civil society in which INGO staff spoke of their fears of ‘sucking the oxygen out of southern civil society’. But Adriano Campolina spoke about how relationships with social movements can be very transformative, but only if the NGOs are in the service of these movements. The commitment to shift the dynamics of these relationships in the field of humanitarian action is reflected in the Charter for Change, signed by 27 prominent NGOs, which commits signatories to ensuring that southern-based national actors play an increased and more prominent role in humanitarian response.

Other alliances under discussion were the challenges of leveraging partnerships with the private sector without compromise. John Plastow, from Care International, thought it was vital that these partnerships were not founded on funding but on win/wins in terms of social goods, and spoke about successes in partnerships with the banking sector on financial inclusion and the telecoms sector on emergency response. In response to this Deborah Doane raised concerns about the ability of NGOs to ‘maintain their values at the highest levels’.

So where now? Discussing the failure of civil society and progressive movements in Egypt, one audience member bewailed the fact that ‘we’re so good at breaking things down… but no good at offering viable alternatives’. Given IDS’ long history in researching participation, Hilary Wainwright, from Red Pepper and the Transnational Institute, wondered how IDS might contribute to a new research agenda on collaborative politics and new institutional framework. Other contributors spoke of the potential for participation to flourish at a local level with Jo Howard from IDS suggesting that the local state can create mediating spaces through community development. And finally we were tasked with not being ‘paralysed’ by failures; instead to be inspired by successes in participatory governance and budgeting in countries like the Dominican Republic, and the strength of movements such South Africa’s #FeesMustFall protests which resulted in the freezing of tuition fees.

Becky Faith is a Research Officer at IDS.