So What if Civil Society Independence is Lost?

September 4, 2015

Angelo Kaggwa-Katumba is an AVAC staff member. A version of this blog post was recently re-printed in the New Vision.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines civil society as “a social sphere separate from both the state and the market” and civil society organizations (CSOs) as “a wide range of organizations, networks, associations, groups and movements that are independent from government and that sometimes come together to advance their common interests through collective action.” There are probably dozens of other definitions out there, but what stands out as core is independence and collective action by the citizenry.

In the recent past, however, there are more and more developments the world over showing that the independence of and ability to mobilize for collective action by civil society in many places is being seriously threatened.

Take Uganda as one instance. The country has a relatively vibrant and thriving civil society, but a new bill, The Non-Governmental Organisations Bill 2015, is threatening the very foundation of civil society in Uganda. Among its many flaws, this new bill would grant the Minister of Internal Affairs and the National Board for NGOs, absolute powers to supervise, approve, inspect and dissolve all NGOs, community-based and faith-based organizations—in the blink of an eye. In addition to this, the minister and this board would have the power to slap severe penalties to these groups for any “violations”. So why would a government that is serious about promoting basic freedoms of expression, association and others come up with a bill that would subject its citizens to such unnecessary government control and interference? Your guess is as good as anyone’s.

Fortunately, Ugandan civil society refuses to just sit and look on as government cracks down on the basic rights that they (government) are meant to ensure and protect. In a July 2 press statement signed by several NGOs, civil society demanded that government frees this space that rightly belongs to civil society to operate.

“We should not face criminal sentences if our work—research, advocacy or service delivery—touches on subjects sensitive to people in power,” reads the statement from civil society in Uganda.

They rightfully claimed the rationale for their very existence by adding “… the existence of independent groups in Uganda is no more a threat to national security than respecting fundamental human rights is, and they should not be subject to control by intelligence agencies.”

Sadly, it’s not just Uganda where this is happening. There are countless examples of similar developments in China, Cuba, Egypt, The Gambia, India, Kenya, Russia and Zimbabwe among others. To see a comprehensive update on information on legal issues NGOs are facing in various countries, you may go to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law—an organization dedicated to improving “the legal environment for civil society, philanthropy, and public participation around the world”.

There are countless accounts of infringement of citizens’ rights to assemble, organize and express themselves in these and many other places where new laws are being enacted or old ones updated, and human rights are being suffocated. The more such laws are enacted, the greater the government’s control increases, and on the other end, the faster the pace at which civil society space shrinks. Unfortunately, as citizens find new ways of organizing, assembly, and expression, particularly through use of new and social media, their governments are quickly reinventing themselves to keep up, thereby suppressing the citizenry even more. It’s a bonafide human rights crisis!

So, why is this important to HIV/AIDS?

Advocates, activists, doctors, scientists, nurses, counselors and other people working in this space wake up each day with the hope that they will be able prevent another infection or provide the opportunity for linkage to care and treatment as needed. They work with the most marginalized and disenfranchised, and in some cases, criminalized individuals and groups such as men who have sex with men, sex workers, people who inject drugs and others. Such individuals and groups already have limited access to the services they need for prevention, care and treatment, and bills such as these, which limit rights, make efforts to bridge gaps in service delivery even greater.

Unfortunately, funding for these human rights-based groups and individuals continues to decline. It makes their work hard, and in some cases, impossible! This decline is captured well in AVAC Report 2014/15 in a graphic that summarizes trends in funding for civil society organizations for human rights-related work. The graphic—derived from a UNAIDS report—shows that among the civil society groups queried by UNAIDS, 24 percent said that HIV and human rights funding stayed at the same level, 17 percent said that HIV and human rights funding increased and 59 percent said that HIV and human rights funding decreased. The trend is disturbing! And yet, as AVAC argued in the same report, for all of us collectively to achieve the UNAIDS Fast Track goals (or any other goals for that matter), prevention programs must respect human rights and the realities that communities face. UNAIDS was spot on in their Fast Track goals by saying that in order for these goals to be achieved, “much greater emphasis will be needed on community service delivery” and that there’s need for expanded funding for civil society. The trend of funding for civil society groups focusing on human rights has to change. It’s time to make our (again collective) actions speak louder than our words!

Ending AIDS will require bold action. Bold action requires confidence. Confidence requires safety. Yet civil society’s safety and independence in these countries and many others are being denied. This civil society space is needed. Collective action is needed. This space must be protected, not shredded. It should be a basic step to ensure that all citizens enjoy the basic rights that are provided for in constitutions and international statutes.