Civil society across Asia is flowering but fragile

The proliferation of civil society organizations (CSOs) throughout Asia is having a significant impact on relations between the state and citizens, on the institutions of the state and on prevailing norms and values. At a recent conference organized by Akihiro Ogawa, professor of Japanese studies at the University of Melbourne, scholars from around the region gathered to assess civil society and the forces that support and threaten it. This gathering testifies to the expansion and deepening of civil society across Asia. While the flowering of civil society across the region is undeniable, the gains that have been made are fragile.

In recent decades the range of Asian CSOs has expanded rapidly, and their concerns now run the gamut from welfare, the environment, refugees, legal services and gender to counseling, trafficking, entrepreneurship, education and beyond. Most of these nongovernmental groups are small, understaffed and underfunded, but they persist because they must, and draw on the passion of the committed. There is no shortage of needs and public demands for the various activities CSOs engage in, yet they are also constrained by regulatory hurdles and wary, intolerant governments.

From Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka to Cambodia and Vietnam, illiberal democracies and authoritarian governments are targeting foreign funding because they suspect that CSOs are agents of globalization spreading Western values, ideologies and practices. These suspicions are fueled by concerns that CSOs are undermining and discrediting the state by engaging in advocacy for people and causes that have been marginalized and mistreated — for example, to further human rights, and on behalf of LGBT people or ethnic and religious minorities. By empowering people, CSOs challenge and subvert the state’s monopoly on power.

There are two major trends influencing the 21st century operating environment for CSOs in Asia: the spread of neoliberal economic policies and the rise and consolidation of illiberal democracies. Neoliberal economic reforms are varied, but they usually involve reducing the role of the state and cutting taxes and government budgets. The impact on vulnerable people in society can be catastrophic as programs aimed at mitigating poverty, improving living standards and addressing health and educational problems are slashed. Such reforms create a niche for CSOs as they respond to what is effectively an outsourcing of government services.

Problematically, neoliberal reforms tend to accentuate disparities and polarize society. Across the globe we are witnessing the marginalized respond to the broken promises of globalization and the gloomy omens they face. Pankaj Mishra, in “The Age of Anger: A History of the Present” (2017), captures the zeitgeist, explaining how the neoliberal democratic model is under siege because it is not delivering. The internet enables widespread awareness of what only some can attain. Envy, disappointment and…

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