UK is no longer a beacon for international civil society

UK Ministers, and the Charity Commission for England and Wales, have sullied the UK’s reputation for exemplary regulation of civil society.

I have just had the privilege to be attending the international Assembly of ActionAid in Cambodia. ActionAid used to be run from the UK but took the visionary decision to devolve and share power among ActionAids that were encouraged to put down roots in their own countries. So ActionAid is now a Federation of equals, with a strong majority from developing countries. It is the most diverse and wonderful sovereign body of any organisation that I have witnessed. These ActionAids in developing countries are accountable to their own Assemblies, which frequently include representatives of social movements of the poor and marginalised: the idea is that they should drive ActionAid’s agenda of priorities.

They bring  stories of moves by Governments around the world to repress inconvenient work by civil society to magnify the voice of the poor and help them assert their rights. Typical civil society campaigns, for example, might be against land grabs that sweep local people from their land, forests and homes; against appalling abuses of women’s rights, or against large corporations who avoid paying tax in developing countries by siphoning their profits off to tax havens. This gets in the way of many Governments and their cronies, and they don’t like it. So Civicus has tracked well over 100 countries where civil society space for peaceful protest and campaigning has been shrinking.

In Cambodia, the Government (in power for over 30 years) has revived draft legislation to repress civil society organisations and put it on the fast track. In Tanzania, there is a threat to close down ActionAid because it was part of publicising a big land grab by a sugar cane company with money from the Swedish Government, who have now withdrawn their support for the venture. In India, there are serious moves to close down Greenpeace, who have been highlighting the environmental ill effects of Modi’s push for economic growth. There are many more examples. Sadly, these brave champions of the rights of poor and marginalised people can no longer look to the UK as a beacon of how to regulate the charity sector with full respect for its contribution to democratic debate and collective decision-making.

For the tactics of some Conservative Ministers and some Charity Commission Board members have been all too familiar to civil society in Tanzania, Cambodia, Burundi, India and the rest. Organisations that are saying uncomfortable things and making life difficult for the ruling party and elites are smeared as unpatriotic and politically motivated, So Chris Grayling accused charities of being party politically motivated, run by former Labour special advisers, and in cahoots with the left wing BBC in order to thwart the deficit reduction programme so necessary for the nation. George Osborne said much the same thing albeit in much less crude language. Legislation has been brought in to curb use of judicial review and legal aid and restrict lobbying. The Charity Commission Chair has issued warnings about the vaguely defined “politicisation” of charities. Another Charity Commission Board member warns that the weather is changing for campaigning by charities and tells them to stick to their knitting. The Minister for Civil Society (Brooks Newmark) then uses the same phrase, construing “knitting” as “helping people” as distinct from entering the political realm. The threat to revise the Commission’s guidance on political activity by charities is mooted and hangs in the air. All this is really very familiar to civil society in countries where Greenpeace is allegedly trying to damage India’s economic miracle and its future, where ActionAid Tanzania is allegedly spoiling much needed commercial development, where Cambodian organisations are pushing a “foreign” agenda against the interests of the Cambodian people. Smear, threaten, restrain and repress: that’s the formula, and the UK authorities have started to model it since 2012: a relatively gentle version, compared with some, but unmistakeably from the same stable. That is how many in international civil society see it. Tinpot Governments and their cronies round the world: rejoice! No moral superiority from the UK authorities now. We are all in this together!

It is an irony in the year of celebrating Magna Carta and the development of  our hard won freedoms that in international civil society the regulatory authorities of the UK are jokingly known as “the knitting people”. It is a blow to UK soft power and respect amongst all those upholding the fight for justice and the interests of poor and marginalised people. It is sad and, I find, shameful that it should be so.


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