Dr. Tomicah Tillemann – “Global Civil Society in the 21st Century” (transcript)

March 13, 2014

Senior Advisor for Civil Society and Emerging Democracies to the Secretary of State of the United States of America Dr Tomicah Tillemann
Senior Advisor for Civil Society and Emerging Democracies to the Secretary of State of the United States of America Dr Tomicah Tillemann

The following text is a transcript of Dr Tomicah Tillemann’s lecture on “Global Civil Society in the 21st Century” delivered on 13 March 2014 in Budapest, Hungary.

The forces that are transforming the political landscape are extraordinary and unprecedented.

The spread of new communication and networking technologies is rapidly redefining the social impact and social compact of countries. There was a time not that long ago when government accountability was measured by the metrics of multi-year election cycles and the annual reports of international organizations and civil society groups. Today, access to tweets, blog, mobile phone and search engines is for the first time allowing citizens to demand information and accountability in real time, often on a minute-by-minute basis. These tools are making it easier for people to come together and take action when they have concerns and have worries that public institutions are not serving the common good.

As result of these new dynamics we are experiencing a profound shift in the center of gravity of our societies. Voices outside of government, particularly in civil society, are emerging as powerful catalysts for change. The idea of civic action prompting political reform and change is certainly not new and has played a profound role in shaping Hungary and the broader region. When we look back at the changes that swept this neighborhood 25 years ago, some of the first organized civil society action in Central Europe took place in Hungary in response to the proposed construction of the Nagymaros Dams. Many of the demonstrators who have filled streets around the world in recent years have taken inspiration and instruction from the brave activists who preceded them in Central Europe.

Today technology is making it dramatically easier and cheaper for citizens to come together around common goals and take common action to serve the common good. As citizens demand more from their governments they have more tools than ever to measure the performance of those in power.

This raises a very important question: How does the world respond to these changes? This question affects everyone, but particularly those who serve in government. There are some leaders around the world who are continuing to try and ignore the impact of these trends by clinging to an unsustainable status quo. This has been seen in a number of countries around the world in recent weeks. Others have attempted, usually unsuccessfully, to suppress these dynamics or silence those in civil society who try to harness to the tools of the 21st century on behalf of change.

Perhaps predictably many governments are uneasy about facing the increased criticism of those in civil society and the media who advocate on behalf of greater transparency and accountability. In the last few years alone, over fifty governments around the world have imposed new restrictions on civil society.

President Obama and Secretary Kerry have both identified this trend as a major concern not only for the United States but for those who care about human rights and democracy everywhere.

The United States, together with many of its partners, has launched an unprecedented global effort to push back against the phenomenon of closing civic space. This campaign is really focused on three major streams of action.

First, we’ve been working in partnership with initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership to improve the domestic ecosystem for civil society around the world. The Open Government Partnership, as some of you may know, is a network of nations that come together to advance the common good through transparency, good governance and the engagement of civil society.

Our second stream is to take action when countries threaten civil society either through legal measures or by other means. I just came from a meeting of the Community of Democracies yesterday in Geneva. This was front and center on the agenda. We are working through the Community of Democracies to come together and apply diplomatic leverage in instances when civil society is under threat.

We’re also working to develop new tools to support the work of civil society and organizations, which is an important opportunity that is easier now in many ways than it has ever been before.

It’s also critical to recognize – and this is no secret – some actions in Hungary have contributed to the broader concerns that we’ve been talking about. We’ve been troubled by a number of measures that have had the effect of limiting civic space and have placed restraints on the media. In some cases the Hungarian government has taken action to address these concerns which we welcome and appreciate. In other cases they have not. But these issues are simultaneously global, and it’s important to keep that in mind.

It’s important to recognize that there are many many individuals in Hungary, and around the world, in government and out of government, that are taking an important approach and trying to use these tools to empower citizens, and give them an opportunity to express their views and the concerns they have.

Now, again, we understand – and as one who works in government and works with civil society, I can speak from experience on this – that it’s often times very difficult for governments to engage with civil society. It’s not easy to hear criticism, it is often times a very frustrating exercise for us to go through the consultations that are required to form broadly based policies that have a foundation in the voices of a broad spectrum of a nation’s people. But we also understand that there are tremendous benefits from going through this work. Just as a good coach working with a talented athlete, or a dedicated university professor teaching a class, civil society and a free press can encourage better performance from governments. Just as outstanding athletes and smart students appreciate tough effective coaches and instructors, governments that want to perform to a higher standard will benefit by seeking advice from a vibrant and open civil society.

We’ve certainly experienced this in the United States, and in recent years we’ve launched a variety of dialogues that have been designed to open up channels of communication regarding our own policies. We’ve been able to make some very important changes in the way we do business as a result of these conversations. We’ve recognized a number of instances where we had policies which were outdated and that needed to be modified, and areas where we lacked capabilities in our government that we needed to develop. We would have never come to these conclusions on our own, so we are simultaneously worrying about how this process of engagement with civil society works along with many others around the world. The State Department has many centuries of practices when it comes to engaging other governments, and we like to think that we’re pretty good at it. But we have much less practice when it comes to how we engage non-state actors, and this is a common challenge to governments around the world who seek to address the realities of these dynamics we’re talking about today.

For this reason, again, we see a critical need to support civil society, to provide leaders in the civic sector, in the media, with the tools that they need in order to build self-sustaining organizations that can help encourage greater transparency and accountability and generate public participation to address grievances, or push for mechanisms to ensure the protection of minorities or other groups that are affected either by intolerance, be it anti-semitism or anti-Roma sentiments, or any other form of prejudice, or in other cases and in other countries, government actions that would inhibit the ability of certain minority groups to live out their lives in peace and realize their own potential.

So this is simultaneously the best of times and the worst of times for civil society. It is a moment when civic organizations around the world face unprecedented opportunities and have access to unprecedented tools that are enabling them to come together and serve as a force for good both within their countries and across borders on issues of global concern. But this is also a moment when too many governments are seeking to push back against that trend and restrict the ability of civic organizations to engage in the vital role that they play in our democracies.

So let me conclude where I began with these three extraordinary trends. The fact that we are witnessing a seismic shift in the way citizens relate to governments. The fact that in too many instances governments are grappling with how to respond to that, and are struggling to come up with an interface between institutions of power and citizens that allow for the effective exchange of ideas from citizens into policy. And finally, the fact that the success of all of our nations in the long run will be a function of how we deal with these trends. The stakes are very high.