Protecting civic space

To counter closing civic space around the world, the role of online platforms cannot be overstated.


In December 2017 staff from The Change.org Foundation joined hundreds of other civic leaders at the Civicus International Civil Society Week. It was an incredible opportunity to meet other organizations and activists working on social and political issues around the world – from education reform in Kenya to human rights in Bahrain. However amidst the many conversations, one theme continually emerged – the global crackdown on activists and closing civic space around the world.

Through our work with the Change.org Foundation we see everyday what people can achieve when they feel able to campaign on the issues they are passionate about. From campaigns for lifesaving medical legislation in Argentina to demands to update Japan’s sexual assault laws, these campaigns are more than just individual victories. Taken together they represent a population that feels able to make their voices heard and speak truth to power.

Today, online forums are a vitally important civic space. No longer a sideshow to ‘in real life’, the internet and social media have fundamentally transformed how people communicate – personally but also politically. Last year, a fifth of all Argentine laws considered by the national congress were supported through online campaigns [link]. Thousands of petitions are now being shared through WhatsApp messages, alongside Facebook and email. Activists make decisions and run meetings through Facebook groups or Twitter storms. In fact today even categorizing campaigns as online or offline campaigns can be misleading – the majority of successful movements employ a diversity of tools and tactics to achieve long-term change.  

In the fight for civic space, online forums are valuable and important spaces for dialogue and engagement. In Thailand for example, where restrictions exist for people to physically gather in groups, we strive to keep the Change.org platform open as a space where it is still possible to gather and take action on issues.

Online campaigns can provide opportunities to reach a vast audience, building a sense of community through people who may not share the same physical location. In India when Subarna Ghosh started a petition to limit dangerous c-sections, thousands of women signed her petition and shared their own experiences in the comments on the petition page or by reaching out to her directly on Facebook. From this, Suburna is now working with women in states across India to start their own state-level campaigns. In Kuwait, where many Asian migrant domestic workers are not allowed to leave the homes they work in or engage with the outside community, a online petition enabled them to engage and support the campaign directly.

Signing a petition is often criticized as being a low bar for engagement, but it is precisely this ease which enables so many new people to become engaged. From domestic workers in Kuwait to mothers in India, you don’t need to be a professional campaigner to feel passionately about injustice. Like holding local government meetings in a community center, allowing engagement with political issues through Facebook, email and online is about meeting people where they are already gathered.

As we seek to counter closing civic space around the world, the role of open online civic spaces cannot be overstated. Through the Change.org Foundation we are working to understand how we can deepen the impact of online campaigning, reach new audiences and create sustainable change.

 

By Katherine Baird, International Projects Manager