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Kate Oliver

Senior Campaigns Officer

Charities Aid Foundation

WHY THE UK NEEDS TO LEAD THE WAY IN CHAMPIONING CIVIL SOCIETY

7 February 2018


Today the EU Parliament will debate the closing space of civil society. With examples spreading across the continent and the rest of the world of Governments appearing to attempt to silence the organisations working in their country to highlight unmet needs – we’ve taken a closer look at what example the UK is setting and whether there’s more that can be done to allow civil society to flourish.

In the UK, we have long been established as a global leader for facilitating a vibrant civil society, and many nations across the world. Civil society advocacy has helped drive a number of the social movements that, whilst controversial at the time, are now universally considered to have been vital, such as the abolition of slavery, extending the franchise to women, and the legalisation of same-sex marriage. However, in recent years civil society has found itself under attack. The role  of the sector has been called into question by some, and negative rhetoric and scepticism about the value of charities has unfortunately been on the rise..

REPLICATING THE UK MODEL

Traditionally, the UK’s strength in this area has meant countries have sought to replicate our model of civil society, demonstrating our soft power in this zone, however increasingly we are finding that policies such as the Lobbying Act and ‘Anti-advocacy’ clause  enacted in the UK are limiting the possibilities for civil society, having a negative effect on how civil society is perceived around the world. According to the International Center for Not-For-Profit Law, since 2012 more than 120 laws constraining the freedoms of association and assembly have been proposed or enacted in 60 countries.  Our ‘Do As I Say Not As I Do’ report looks at this trend and draws attention to the UK’s role in addressing this trend.

We are yet to know what the reality of life outside of the EU will be for the UK - but civil society presents us with a clear opportunity to lead and demonstrate that as a nation we are still open and forward facing, and allowing those organisations who remind us that work still needs to be done to create an equal society,  have a voice.

Several policies introduced by the UK Government over the past decade have unfortunately had a negative effect on the operating environment for charities, whether that is delivering vital services, using their expertise to support policy change, or empowering people to hold Governments to account. In particular, the Anti-Advocacy clause and the Lobbying Act not only set a dangerous precedent to charities in the UK, but to those overseas who have watched in the past with admiration.

CRUCIAL FOR DEMOCRACY

The fear now is that these actions, taken to quieten the loudest of charity voices, will be seen as a logical solution that Government’s could and should take, if they fear the charities and NGOs in their country are becoming a problem.  A thriving civil society is therefore crucial to a democracy that allows for the voices of society’s most vulnerable to have  voice, improving policy and empowering citizens. Governments who are seeking to alter this are failing to realise the full potential of charities and the important role they play in highlighting issues which may otherwise be forgotten.

Whilst the eyes of the world continue to be on the UK as we navigate our new relationships on the global stage – now more than ever we need to celebrate charities for the work they do all over the world. In the area of civic society we should not see ourselves acting in isolation, but instead setting a precedent for those countries who will continue to look to us to set an example. We should not shy away from that challenge but show real leadership  to ensure that a flourishing civil society is a shared objective, where everybody holds responsibility for its future.

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