During National Democracy Week, Dr Rowan Popplewell, advocacy adviser at Bond, shares her thoughts on how leaders can improve the environment for campaigning.
This week is National Democracy Week. For me, democracy is about voice, participation and inclusion. This is why a strong, vibrant and outspoken civil society is vital to a healthy democracy. Yet democratic governments around the world – including our own – have placed limits on the ability of civil society to speak truth to power.
According to the latest Civicus State of Civil Society Report, there are serious constraints on civil society in 109 countries, and just 4% of the world population live in countries where there are no restrictions. Established democracies are not immune to this phenomenon; the United States, Australia, France, and the UK have all introduced measures that make it harder for civil society to speak out and campaign.
Restrictions are often targeted at individuals and organisations who address issues that are seen to be controversial, or those who challenge vested interests. This is also the case in the UK where new research by the Sheila McKechnie Foundation shows that the Lobbying Act has the greatest impact on organisations committed to speaking out on politically sensitive issues such as welfare, disability and migration.
Civil society leaders have an important role to play in standing up for civil society and challenging restrictions on campaigning. One way of doing this is by making the case for campaigning. Here are five arguments on the benefits of campaigning that civil society leaders can use with politicians and policy makers to push for change.
- Campaigning contributes to social and political progress. Civil society campaigning has been the driving force behind many of our great social and political reforms, both here in the UK and overseas. It has contributed to policy and legislative changes that have immense public benefit and have improved the lives of people around the world; from the abolition of slavery and votes for women, to climate action and equal marriage.
- Campaigning tackles the root causes of problems. Most social problems cannot be resolved through the provision of services alone. Campaigning tackles the root causes of problems, whether that is a policy or decision which has had unintended consequences, or a social practice that does more harm than good. Campaigners don’t just highlight problems, what they really want is to find practical solutions that work for everyone.
- Campaigning amplifies the voices of the vulnerable and marginalised. Civil society organisations often work with and for the most vulnerable groups and individuals in society, raising the issues that matter to them and making sure they are part of the public and political debate. Democracies are more likely to flourish when they allow a diversity of voices to be heard. Civil society is critical to ensuring that no one is excluded from the democratic process.
- Campaigning leads to more effective and inclusive policy making. By bringing in different perspectives, campaigners provide decision makers with access to valuable insights. They draw on their grassroots connections and professional expertise within and beyond their organisations to develop evidence and learning that can be used to improve public policy and the delivery of much needed services.
- Campaigning shines a light on issues that have been overlooked. Civil society campaigns often highlight causes or problems that have either been ignored or have gone unnoticed, yet have a big impact on the lives of certain individuals and groups or the wider population. Civil society organisations often work closely with journalists and broadcasters to uncover injustices and bring them to public and political attention. Recent examples of this include the effects of plastic pollution on our oceans, and the treatment of Windrush descendants.
When you think about it in this way, it becomes clear that restrictions on civil society voice and campaigning are not just undemocratic, they are also counter-productive. They work against effective and inclusive policy making, make it harder to find practical solutions to social problems, and ensure that injustices persist. This is why we must make the case for campaigning this National Democracy Week.