Attacks on Civil Society, M&E, and Democracy

November 25, 2019

by Sonny Africa

Statement delivered by IBON Foundation, representing the Reality of Aid-Asia Pacific, in the closing panel of the 8th Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) Forum organized by the M&E Network Philippines and NEDA, with support from UNDP in the Philippines (November 19 and 20, 2019)

We are varied stakeholders from government, development partners, civil society, academe and the private sector. Since yesterday we have been challenged to reflect on how to locate and improve our practices within the larger monitoring and evaluation (M&E) ecosystem.

The theme of this 8th M&E Forum of putting “We” in M&E is clear and very welcome. We want to stand united to strengthen national capacity for evidence-based decision-making. The last two days have involved rich discussion on how to improve our tools for M&E. These are very important for our varied efforts to achieve development.

If only improving tools was the only thing that mattered. This closing panel is the appropriate time to raise a disturbing governance-related trend that compromises not just the tools we have been talking about but the very development we all aspire to.

From “We” in M&E there is increasingly an “Us” in M&E. This is because, in the Philippines and elsewhere in the world, the alarming adverse trend in governance is: “If you’re not with us, then you’re against us”.

The ecosystem analogy is very appropriate. In high school, we are taught that biodiversity plays an important role in the functioning of every ecosystem. Ecosystem processes are driven by the abundance of species, by the individual characteristics of species, and by the number of each species. The dynamism of ecosystems comes from constant disturbances including from the different species interacting.

Yet in governance today and in our M&E ecosystems, our biggest challenge is increasing official hostility to diversity. In particular, the political climate is becoming more and more hostile to civil society organizations (CSOs).

It is widely recognized that civil society has a key role in meeting the ambitious sustainable development goals (SDGs). Yet the trend globally and, unfortunately, even nationally, is that civil society space is shrinking.

Today, civil society space is closing or under attack in 111 of 196 countries surveyed around the world by Civicus. Freedom of association, freedom of assembly, and freedom of expression is under attack in essentially six out of 10 countries worldwide. It is outright closed in 20 countries including Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, and others. It is under attack in 91 countries such as the Philippines, in nearby Indonesia, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Brunei, in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and in so many others.

The Reality of Aid (RoA) network has 172 member organizations including over 40 international, global and regional networks of NGOs and CSOs and 21 development cooperation agencies from donor countries of the OECD, Europe, Americas, Africa and the in the Asia Pacific. RoA member organizations here in the Philippines, such as IBON Foundation, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia and South Asia are among those under attack.

Sadly, governments themselves are behind these. In too many countries around the world, Rightist populist leaders have come to power and use the vast material and coercive resources of government to promote self-serving interpretations of the ‘national interest’. They have attacked a wide range of CSOs from human rights defenders to humanitarian responders.

Increasingly, civil society is working in an atmosphere of fear and violence or, at the very least, of suffocating legal and regulatory mechanisms. Attacks on civil society impede the proper functioning of democracy.

Some final thoughts. We give such importance to M&E systems because we know that information is power.

Yet power is nothing without control. When it comes to information, the most important control we have to make sense of a potential glut of information is context and perspective. Civil society exists in the M&E ecosystem not just to add to the information available but also to contribute its understanding of the development context and its own perspective of development issues.

Critical civil society is particularly important to add to the diversity of views of development stakeholders and contribute to a more nuanced understanding of the social problems we face. Multiple perspectives are not just democratic but essential to understanding development processes and progress.

And if information is power, unfortunately it is also true that disinformation is power. No development stakeholder has a monopoly on truth. Too often though, the powers-that-be dis-inform or misinform for narrow self-serving ends. By its institutional nature, civil society has historically proven to be an important source of critical views to check such disinformation or misinformation.

Lastly, as information is power then so too is denial of information disempowering. Governments have the responsibility to ensure that information flows freely even to those – or indeed perhaps especially to those – who may be coming from a different development experience and perspective.

The M&E ecosystem is not just about the enabling environment, institutional capacities and individual capacities. Real democracy here, as elsewhere in society, spells the difference between a desolate landscape and a lush, thriving environment. The most urgent challenge we face now is not our M&E tools needing sharpening, but the backsliding of democracy that threatens the very functioning not just of the M&E ecosystem, but of our societies. ###