Working Group 10: New Civil Society Spaces and their Limits in the Global South

Eija Ranta, University of Helsinki (
Wolfram Schaffar (
Tiina Kontinen, University of Jyväskylä (

Citizens’ activism and civil society spaces are increasingly challenged, and the limits of liberal democracy are tested in many parts of the world. Restricting the allocation of funds to non-governmental organizations (NGOs), silencing activists, journalists and researchers through legislative changes, and co-opting labor unions, peasant organizations and indigenous movements to governing regimes are examples of the pressure exerted on the freedoms of civil society in the global South, and increasingly also in the global North. Increasing authoritarianism, intensifying global extractivism, and changing landscape of the global development architecture – the latter referring to the expansion of the role of private sector in development cooperation and the influence of the resource rush by the emerging economies, such as China, India and Brazil – challenge our contemporary definitions and understandings of what civil society is and does, and how we can do research on it. Furthermore, spaces of civil society are not increasingly challenged solely by state and corporate actors, but also by such groups as ethnonationalists, pro-government shock-troops, and internet trolls that act ‘inside’ and as part of civil society. State-society-corporate -boundaries have become very blurred and perplex.

This working group seeks papers that address in a critical and interdisciplinary ways plural forms and practices of civil society and its multiple articulations with state and corporate actors in the face of increasing authoritarianism, global extractivism, and changing global development architecture. It explores both the mechanisms and processes through which spaces for civil society are being shrank worldwide, and new possibilities for the emergence and development of new transformative alternatives and autonomous activism. The working group is interested in the new theoretical and conceptual elaborations and rethinking of the concepts of civil society, citizenship, activism, autonomy, self-determination, and transformative alternatives.

First session presenters: 

1. Citizenship practices in civil society spaces from perspective of philosophical pragmatism. Tiina Kontinen, Academy of Finland Research Fellow, University of Jyväskylä and Katariina Holma, Professor, University of Oulu.

Both strengthening civil society and supporting active citizenship have been central in development agendas. Approaches such as citizens’ engagement, civic driven change, and social accountability aim at supporting active role of citizens to demand for state accountability and claim for a well-functioning civic space. At the same time, scholars have posed a question of why citizens in many countries of global south, despite interventions, do not become active and are reluctant to strive for transformative development. This “failure” has been attributed, for instance, to the promotion of an idea of liberal, free, individual (male) citizen alien to the lived experiences in contexts in which the civic habitus revolves around alignment to authorities, and to ignoring the existing power relations in the context of interventions. In this paper, we reflect on how philosophical pragmatism contributes to the conceptualization of citizenship and especially for the idea of learning into citizenship. It first reviews conceptualizations that have moved from citizenship as a status of individual vis-á-vis a state towards a variety of ideas of experienced and practiced citizenship related to identities and politics of belonging, which, in many ways, redefine the local/global connections, and challenge the eurocentric figure of a liberal individual. Further, the chapter reviews conceptualizations of learning such as critical and transformative learning often attached to evolvement of a competent and critical citizen. As a supplement for such prevalent ideas of learning in development studies, we discuss pragmatist option that captures incremental rather than transformative processes of learning. In conclusion, the chapter articulates a broad idea of growth into citizenship that combines experienced citizenship and learning as reformulation of habits with a process of democratic inquiry, and argues for a notion of citizenship practices through which certain kind of habits are formulated. It further presents reflections on the possibilities of such learning in semi-authoritarian states, in which the civic space is limited. The presentation is based on a book chapter draft for an edited volume on the findings of a research project “Growth into citizenship in civil society encounters” funded by the Academy of Finland 2015-2019.

2. Transformative Practices? Resisting Evictions in Lisbon, Portugal. Saila Saaristo, PhD Candidate, University of Helsinki,

This presentation draws from an on-going PhD research on forced evictions and resistance of evictions in the city of Lisbon, Portugal. The focus is on women, mostly single mothers who are squatting in a social housing unit, receiving an eviction order to vacate the housing unit, and on social movement actors who seek to support their struggle for the right to housing. The objectives of the study are 1) to uncover some of the historical and systemic patterns of reproduction of inequalities that contribute to the exclusion of some groups of population from the right to housing; and 2) to identify and analyze transformative every day and spatial practices of resistance (e.g. Lefebvre, 2012) of subaltern residents of the city, as well as of social movements that support their cause. Here, the research project examines the forms of resistance of today; what the victories and failures there has been, asking up to what extent the practices of resistance are transformative to the existing conditions of social life. The research project seeks dialogue on experiences and research on struggles for the right to housing in the global South and the global North (Auyero, 2011), using the idea of “South in the North” (Cox, Nilsen and Pleyers, 2017). In a previous study (Saaristo, 2015), the author analyzed dynamics and structures of oppression and marginalization of favela residents in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, as well as forms of agency that members of favela residents’ associations have used to respond to the changing situation. After moving to Lisbon, she started to notice how, obvious differences notwithstanding, similar dynamics are present in this city, in which the self-constructed and resettlement neighbourhoods are segregated and their residents are stigmatized in the media (Alves, 2016) and neglected in state and city policies. Exclusion and segregation also present strong ethnic characteristics as most of the residents of these neighbourhoods are either immigrants from Portuguese ex-colonies, their descendants or belong to the Roma minority. It is thus interesting to look at these dynamics also through the lens of possible continuation of colonial relations in the North. In addition, the struggle for the right to housing in social housing neighbourhoods is strongly gendered. It has been noted that eviction causes disproportionate hardship for women, as they are most likely charged with taking care of her children and the family before, during and after the eviction, as well as providing a sense of stability at home, and women are also prone to types of eviction that men tend not to face, as is the case of evictions because of domestic violence (COHRE 2008: 39-40). The presentation will thus argue that when studying eviction practices and resistance to evictions, it is imperative, in addition to looking at class and state practices, pay attention to the role gender, ethnicity, and other specific conditions, such as age and family composition.

3. Civil Society as an Avenue for Promoting Citizens’ Engagement: Sikika’s Social Accountability Monitoring Approach in Kondoa, Tanzania. Ajali Nguyahambi (University of Jyvaskyla, Finland) and Haji Chang’a (University of Dodoma, Tanzania).

The arena of civil society have continued to provide an important opportunity for people’s participation, especially in the context where spaces for citizen’s participation are constrained. In sub-Saharan Africa, plurality of development interventions by civil society organizations considers social accountability initiatives as useful approach towards building accountability that relies on civic engagement. In this regard, civil society organizations across the content have widely adopted the approach as mechanism that allows ordinary citizens to participate directly or indirectly in demanding accountability from policy makers, service providers and program managers. However, organizational and institutional challenges contribute to inhibit social accountability initiatives from being beneficial despite the existing potentials towards improving civic engagement. This prompted the discussions contained in the present paper that examine the manner in which civil society organizations, who employ social accountability monitoring, enable or inhibit realization of civic rights and duties among the community members involved in implementation of those programmes. We focus on the implementation processes in an attempt to promote civic engagement that aims at encouraging accountability among service providers. Using Sikika’s social accountability monitoring programme in Kondoa district – Tanzania, the paper examines how the organizations facilitated to reinforce accountability among service providers on one hand, and cultivate realization of civic duties and rights among members of local communities on the other hand. While research on social accountability monitoring in Tanzania focuses on implementation challenges and roles of different actors, this paper focuses on the ways in which mutual learning takes place during interaction between Sikika and local communities. Therefore, we analyze how social accountability monitoring can provide meaningful civic engagement that allow local communities to recognize and adopt new practices. In the end, we concludes that, social accountability initiatives have to motivate people to reflect on their conventional habits and practices towards realization of citizenship duties and rights, as well as the obstacles for the expected change.

4. Right to create rights. Neoliberalism, international cooperation and the space for democratic participation in Cambodia. Anna Salmivaara, PhD candidate, University of Helsinki.

Concern for human rights and civil society space has been growing in the midst of increasing authoritarianism and/or intensifying neoliberalism in societies around the globe. This has led to demands for increased international support to human rights defenders. In this situation, it is interesting to analyse the experiences gained in contexts such as that of Cambodia, where the international community has for decades promoted a combination of economic liberalization, democracy and human rights. The main motor of growth in Cambodia has been the textile industry, where workers’ rights are guaranteed by transnational forms of labour rights governance and linked with corporate social responsibility. Supported by transnational solidarity networks – development and human rights NGOs and trade union organizations –independent trade unions have gained strength and assumed the role of the most important social movement opposing the government with claims for social justice. However, recent years have seen Cambodia turn to open authoritarianism, with legal repression aimed at independent unions and other social movements while strengthening of government-controlled “yellow” unions, inspired by the example of China and Vietnam. This papers analyses this process and the recent backlash, focusing on the interplay of human and labor rights discourses, neoliberal economic policy and international development cooperation. Based on data collected in Cambodia during 13 months of ethnographically oriented fieldwork in 2016 and 2017, the paper focuses on the notion of freedom of association and the way it has been understood and promoted in Cambodia. The analysis suggests that the “rights-based” strategies of international actors – including transnational human rights and trade union organizations – often integrate depoliticized notions of rights that can contribute to weakening radical forms of activism in the Global South.

Second session presenters: 

1. Shrinking economic space of a faith-based organization: Pentecostal moral economy of corruption in Tanzania. Päivi Hasu, University of Jyväskylä.

This paper examines the shrinking operational space of civil society organizations through a case study of economy, income generating activities and corruption affecting the functioning of a Tanzanian Pentecostal faith-based organization (FBO). Rather than drawing simply from an etic definition of corruption as “the misuse of an organizational position or authority for personal gain”, this paper attempts to include the emic perspective of a locally negotiated moral universe and discourse on a transgression. The paper combines two approaches to corruption, namely the study of corruption at the level of an organization and the study of corruption in a specific cultural and faith context. The first approach tries to answer such questions as what are the organizational prerequisites and consequences of corruption, what are the processes and actions through which corruption appears and is maintained, and how does the organization manage the case through its norms and actions? These questions relate to the arrangement and practices of both spiritual and financial autonomy and self-determination of the faith-based organization at the local level. The second approach discusses such questions as how do faith-related factors affect corruption in this organization and how does the faith setting produce a discourse of moral economy and the nature of moral transgression? This polyphonic case study examines a Pentecostal faith-based organization engaged in development projects in partnership with a Finnish FBO in Tanzania. Drawing from anthropological approaches and research methods, this paper investigates the causes and consequences of corruption as well as discursive practices as they take place and make sense in a particular Pentecostal faith context. Through a detailed ethnographic study, this perspective attempts to provide insights into the different meanings that corruption can have in different cultural and social circumstances. The data that is a by-product of a different kind of study and fieldwork consisting of both observational and discursive information such as interviews and free speech as well as “facts” such as auditing reports and calculations by the financial controller of the organization in question.

2. Development interventions in authoritarian regimes: insights from forestry interventions and civil society participation in Laos. Sabaheta Ramcilovik-Suominen, Luonnonvarakeskus.

The EU Forest Law Enforcement Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan is designed to tackle production of illegally harvested timber in the partner countries and its export to the EU member states. It requires strong participation of CSOs as a prerequisite for negotiation and implementation of its Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA). As a result, the so-called FLEGT CSO Network was established in the FLEGT VPA policy process. The Network is funded by the EU, facilitated by the western development partners, but under auspices of the central state agencies. In this lecture, I present the process of formation and the role of the FLEGT CSO Network, as well as the latest legal instruments which tighten the freedom of the CSOs registration and operation. These legal developments go against the EU principles of CSO participation. This results in a new and a self-contradictory phenomenon of ‘state regulated participation of non-state actors’. However, operating in one of the few single-party ruling states remaining in the world, characterized by strong communist doctrine and highly regulated daily practices, with minimal involvement of non-state actors, the western development partners find themselves between two unappealing choices – to compromise their development principles, or to leave the country. These choices become especially evident, with the increased presence and influence of Chinese investment and development aid in the country.

3. Facebook-based vigilante groups in Thailand and the Philippines and the global rise of new authoritarianism. Dr. Wolfram Schaffar, University of Passau.

Thailand and the Philippines are two prominent examples of the decline of democracy in Southeast Asia. Despite the difference how the current governments came to power – Rodrigo Duterte was elected president of the Philippines and enjoys high popular support, whereas Prayuth became the Prime Minister of Thailand by a coup d’état and has to fear elections – there are also striking similarities. One is the role of the middle class and political mobilization in the internet for the rise and the consolidation of the authoritarian regimes. In our presentation, we will discuss Facebook groups which support the present regimes in Thailand and the Philippines. Often these groups have a self-identification as vigilante groups which are organized around a specific issue – such as the Rubbish Collector Organization in Thailand, which propagates to protect the monarchy, or various Philippine groups using the acronym DDS (Duterte Defence Squad, Duterte Diehard Supporters) which goes back to the Davao Death Squad vigilante group. Another common feature is the transnational character of these groups, the base of which often consists of overseas Thai or Philippino/as. The paper presents work in progress of a comparative research, where we look into Facebook groups of different ethnic communities (focusing on Thai, Philippines, with a comparison to Myanmar and Turkish communities) in countries such as Germany, Austria, Belgium, Netherlands and the UK. The data consists of a) a documentation and analysis of selected internet campaigns, and b) in-depth biographical interviews and group interviews with activists who engaged in these campaigns. In our paper, we will present a first comparative analysis of our empirical research on Thai and Philippines Facebook-based groups. Our focus is on transnational aspects: the constitutive role of the diasporic situation of the activists for their self-identification and their ideological orientation, the transnational scope of the groups’ activities, and the emergence of an inter- and transnational movement in support of authoritarianism.

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