Director at CONCORD Europe
I am struck, again and again, by how governments of all colours and persuasions – but clearly some more than others – can question the role of civil society. And not just question our role, but actively undermine it. This is not a phenomenon that just happens ‘over there’ or in countries that are ‘less democratic’. No, it happens everywhere, including in European countries which would consider themselves staunch supporters of civil society. Allow me to embellish…
On 24 February 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine. Just as we thought, in Europe, that we were seeing a light at the end of the tunnel of a major crisis – the global COVID-19 pandemic – the next one struck us. The war in Ukraine has already had a global impact on millions of peoples’ lives, on already strained food systems, on energy supplies, and, very importantly for most Europeans, on the sense of security Europe has known for the past quarter of a century. The full geopolitical, economic and human impacts of Russia’s aggression are yet to be felt, but will surely not be short-lived.
However, what these two crises make crystal clear is the fundamental role of civil society in times of emergency.
Since the beginning of the war, 4.5 million Ukrainians have been displaced from their homes and fled to neighbouring countries. Poland, for example, has welcomed nearly 3 million refugees. This being the largest influx of refugees to the country since World War II, there was no time for top-down bureaucracy. Instead, it was civil society – with its agility, know-how and can-do attitude – that shouldered the response, without directives, white papers, or communications from governments. Hundreds of thousands of local civil society organisations and individual volunteers mobilised together in solidarity: serving hot tea at border crossings, offering meals and clothing, mothers parking prams at stations for women with young children, as well as providing essential services. While official coordination mechanisms were still being developed, civil society organised itself, setting up our own coordination mechanisms to offer an essential wave of bottom-up support. What’s more, being close to the people, civil society could meet the real needs of people.
It was the same during the Covid-19 pandemic, local civil society actors stayed the course and provided the crucial support that people and communities needed, working on the frontline of the emergency.
Despite this, civil society everywhere continues to be under threat whether through lack of funding, restrictive laws and policies, harassment or outright violence. The most recent example of the undermining of civil society comes as we grapple with the war in Ukraine. We have been hearing of European governments, like Sweden and Italy, as well as the European Commission stopping funding, shifting funding and even recalling funding that was intended for civil society and its crucial work around the world. While it may not be openly stated, the changes are clearly linked to the need to ‘create’ funding to deal with the war in Ukraine, including the influx of Ukrainian refugees. And yet we know – based on examples like the financial crisis of 2008-9, that money can certainly be found when governments want to. So why cut funding from the very actors that support crisis response, resilience and recovery?
Isn’t this yet another example of a short-sighted response that will backfire in the longer term?
It seems that governments feel they can take a ‘pick and mix’ approach, funding what doesn’t challenge them too much, when they see fit. But, civil society is a package deal which helps to ensure that societies are just, equal, sustainable and vibrant. And there is an ever-growing need to protect it – in every country – with supportive policies as well as stronger, more flexible funding. Since actions speak louder than words, the EU and its Member States should reflect carefully on the ever-growing number and variety of crises. Who will be there to pick up the pieces?