Amitabh Behar (CEO Oxfam India)
August 3, 2022
India and the rise of authoritarianism
India achieved independence from Great Britain in 1947 and became a beacon of hope for the post-colonial world with the establishment of a secular constitutional democracy amidst high levels of poverty, illiteracy and underdevelopment. Democracy in India has a checkered record, but it successfully established the basic pillars, including separation of power, free and fair regular elections, independent judiciary, free press (media), freedom of civic association, and -except a brief period of around two years of internal emergency- democratically elected governments over the last 75 years.
During the past decade, however, we have seen the rise of populist authoritarian regimes across the globe, leading to unprecedented assaults on civic and political freedoms in several countries. The normative consensus as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is being challenged and the idea of human rights is under threat. India is no exception and has seen a significant down-sliding of democratic freedoms in the last few years. In its annual democracy report in 2021, which provides an overview of the state of democracy in the world, the V-Dem Institute noted that ‘India is no longer an electoral democracy and should be classified as electoral autocracy’. The Freedom House report on ‘Freedom in the World’ has downgraded India from being a free country to a partly free country in the last couple of years.
Shrinking civic space in India and role of civil society
According to the CIVICUS Monitor of civic space, India is now in the category of ‘repressed’. These are not just academic reports and indices developed by international agencies; the reality on the ground is quite severe. Civil society organizations (CSOs) are increasingly finding it difficult to operate and are faced with multiple of challenges. These challenges include draconian laws and a repressive regulatory framework, as well as systematic political discrediting of the work of CSOs and negative pubic narrative building and vilification of civil society.
Recently, the National Security Advisor of the Government of India, while giving a speech to police officers said that the ‘next frontier of war is civil society’, reflecting the trajectory that the State is pursuing. In the last few years, international NGOs such as Amnesty international, Greenpeace and Open Society Foundations have been barred from functioning in India. In early 2022, more than 6,000 CSOs lost their licenses to receive foreign money as donations or grants, severely affecting their operations.
This shrinking of civic space is a direct result of an authoritarian regime’s inability to accept dissent and civil society’s watchdog role of holding government accountable. In a liberal democratic system, one of the important roles of civil society is to hold ‘power’ to account. This is particularly important in contexts where there is discrimination against minorities, non-respect of basic human rights, and misuse of state power.
India has a robust civil society, which plays multiple roles ranging from charity to development, including empowerment of communities and holding ‘power’ (including State) accountable to people and the Constitution. This civil society demand for accountability from the government has led to a backlash in the form of draconian laws, as well as vilification and harassment of civil society organizations. Government decisions and actions towards CSOs reflect an increasingly limited environment for dissent and questioning by people, going against the fundamentals of democracy. The democratic downslide threatens all the enabling conditions required for development, human dignity, and a sustainable future. In fact, it moves in the direction of reversing the gains made towards establishing a just, sustainable and humane society.
Reframing CSO accountability in a context of shrinking civic space
The discourse around CSO accountability has evolved rapidly during the last couple of decades. It is important to underscore that while there are a few relevant frameworks for CSO accountability, they have largely been developed in a context of stable liberal democracies, where the role of civil society is not under threat and civic space is protected (and not shrinking). Many of these standards can become ineffective or inadequate in a context of shrinking civic space and backsliding of democracy.
Therefore, it becomes imperative to have a new imagination for civil society accountability in the context of shrinking civic space. The old frameworks, at best, are good starting points but a whole new reality of a hostile environment needs to be factored in. The Global Standard for CSO Accountability and its 12 commitments, including promotion of justice and equality, of women´s rights and people driven work, appears to be a step forward. This need for a new imagination is premised on the fundamental understanding that certain values like democracy, human rights and dignity are non-negotiable for CSOs. They cannot function oblivious to the erosion of these values and feel good about delivering ‘developmental projects’.
Six new Principles of CSO Accountability
This is an attempt to present a new framework for CSO accountability, which builds upon the existing frameworks of accountability. However, it attempts to bring in six new elements that seem imperative for ensuring that CSOs can continue to play a key role in the changing environment as reflected in the rise of populism, authoritarianism, xenophobia, racism and assaults on democracy and rights of common and ordinary people.
Robust compliance of existing accountability frameworks
Before I delve into a discussion on the six new principles, it is important to underscore that in a context of shrinking civic space and authoritarian regimes, it becomes imperative that CSOs robustly adhere to existing frameworks of accountability, which would cover procedural, financial, statutory and multi-stakeholder accountability. An authoritarian regime will pick even minor lapses to unleash disproportionate punitive action to prevent CSOs from continuing to operate. In other words, CSOs must ensure that they are also seen in the public opinion as being accountable, because government authorities discredit them by building a public narrative that civic organizations are not accountable to anyone.
In addition to this, six new principles need to be highlighted to ensure stronger and more substantive accountability in a shrinking civic space context; not just procedural accountability which is like a tick-the-box exercise in a development toolkit. One can argue that much of these are already enshrined in the existing principles – without getting into this quibble it is important to emphasize the new perspective that is needed in the following principles.
Alignment with core values and mission
First, most of the CSOs have a very idealistic vision and mission, which is often built around values such as justice, non-discrimination, equality and freedom. These ideals come under the greatest stress in authoritarian regimes. Unfortunately, several CSOs under the pressure of government become disengaged with their own vision and mission, which have a much larger ambit, and end up focusing on specific development issues. This leads to serious mission drift and complete lapse of responsibility on part of the CSOs in playing their role of defenders of higher ideals and values during times of stress.
Second, CSOs do not work in a vacuum. The operational space and legitimacy of civil society comes from a democratic framework. CSOs cannot afford to be blind to the down-sliding of democracy. However, often in the hope (or due to fear of repercussions) of being on the right side of the government, CSOs do not question the erosion of democratic norms and spaces; instead they deliver development projects which are being pursued by the government as its populist agenda. These CSOs then justify their work by presenting a rationale that they are rather small actors to influence the larger democratic system. This is counter-productive as it legitimizes the authoritarian regime and weakens the opposition to attacks on democracy.
Accountability towards their own stated vision and mission gets compromised when CSOs prioritize protecting their projects and institutional assets by not challenging the government, which has the power to harm an organization. It is totally understandable for organizations to have an instinct of self-preservation. However, it cannot come at the cost of vision subversion and dilution of commitment to core values. Organizations often become ‘risk averse’ and end up not speaking truth to power. In this context, accountability regarding the value of courage is crucial. CSOs cannot put their head in the sand and expect the storm to pass; instead, they need to demonstrate courage in standing up to the ideals for which these organizations are built.
Martin Luther King once said ‘in the end we will not remember the words of enemies, but the silence of our friends’. This also holds true for CSOs. Often CSOs distinguish themselves from corporate businesses by highlighting the fact that the latter work within a competition environment, whereas CSOs have collaboration as their fundamental DNA. Yet, when the authoritarian regimes go after human rights defenders or peoples’ organizations focused on justice and other rights, many CSOs remain silent and do not stand in solidarity. The entire edifice of civil society crumbles if CSOs get so overwhelmed (or afraid) by power that they are not able to provide basic solidarity in times of crisis to other actors involved in defending democracy, freedoms and human dignity.
‘Leave No One Behind’ – Putting the Last First
The slogan of ‘Leave No One Behind’, which is at the center of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) was put there by consistent civil society activism. However, unfortunately, under authoritarian regimes, some communities are particularly left behind. These communities face discrimination and are often from a range of socially excluded groups, including religious minorities and refugees. Some CSOs shy away from working with the communities being discriminated in order to prevent backlash from authorities. This lack of ‘putting the last first’ is a political choice made by CSOs. These choices, while can appease temporarily a hostile regime, end up making CSOs unaccountable and irrelevant.
Meddling – Not a Bystander (Neutrality is not an option)
CSOs can use nice words, intelligent rationale and smart log-frames to justify their neutral positions even on highly contentious issues. The entire country might be erupting into protests and repressive state action on issues which are directly important for CSOs; nevertheless, many of them will still not take sides and remain mute bystanders. This might be a way of protecting the institutional interests of a CSO, but it is a shortsighted way of functioning. When the battle lines are drawn and deep struggles are taking place, neutrality means siding with the oppressor. Thus, CSOs lose credibility and legitimacy. CSOs must keep what Heinrich Boll, the famous German author, said ‘meddling is the only way to stay relevant’.
At the end, it is important to underscore that these six principles are not independent of the existing frameworks of accountability, but will work in tandem with them. These principles are premised on a deeply political role of civil society, which is central for building a peaceful, democratic, equal and just future.