Insights and Analysis

Civil Society Organizations in Asia Press for More Open Environment

September 24, 2014

By Barbara Smith, Kim McQuay

Indonesians have spoken out about a contentious bill to be voted on today that would eliminate direct elections for local mayors and district heads. Leading the charge against the bill, tabled just a month before President-elect Joko Widodo assumes office, is Indonesia’s dynamic civil society. Having played a significant role in promoting the integrity of the 2014 presidential election, Indonesian civil society organizations (CSOs) are confidently taking center-stage once again.

Across Asia, civil society organizations (CSOs) have long played a vital role in social, political, and economic development, spanning social service delivery and poverty reduction initiatives to watchdog functions that include election observation, upholding human rights, and checking abuses in public decision-making authority and resource allocation. CSOs have likewise made significant contributions to social development, the debate on governance reform, and opportunities to tap new technologies for social good. For example, in Pakistan CSOs have played an important role in promoting electoral reform, while in Indonesia they have driven innovation in using smart phone and SMS technology to promote civic and voter education. In Hong Kong and Singapore, CSOs are tapping new resources through the creation of alternative mechanisms for the private sector to join forces with civil society in addressing critical issues and to demonstrate corporate social responsibility.

As economic and political shifts reshape countries across Asia, CSOs are confronting both opportunities and challenges, including resource constraints, restrictions on their ability to implement programs, and legal and regulatory impediments that constrain effective operations. These challenges are exacerbated by limited opportunities for CSOs to engage with prospective regional and global partners or to benefit from the experience of CSOs in other parts of Asia and the global arena that are grappling with similar challenges in different working environments. Opportunities are often limited because of lack of funding for engagement of this kind, restrictions on ability to travel, or simply a lack of awareness about regional networks. This combination of constraints leaves CSOs with limited exposure to alternative approaches such as use of open data platforms for advocacy, access to alternative fundraising mechanisms, and practical lessons learned by counterparts in facing similar challenges that can be adapted for application in other contexts. In response, development partners and international non-governmental organizations are helping to connect Asian CSOs to facilitate the exchange of best practices, develop innovative partnerships, leverage information, tools, and technologies, and learn from the experience of dynamic CSO leaders.

On Sept. 8-10, 2014, some 150 representatives from South, Southeast, and Northeast Asia convened in Jakarta for an “Asia Regional Civil Society Experience Summit,” co-hosted by The Indonesia Ministry of Foreign Affairs, USAID, UNDP, Kemitraan (Partnership for Governance Reform), and The Asia Foundation. The Summit was held in part as a response to the “Stand with Civil Society” initiative that emerged from the 2013 United Nations General Assembly roundtable chaired by President Barack Obama and UN Deputy Secretary General Jan Eliasson. It was further motivated by recognition of the increased pressures facing civil society in Asia in the context of the increased regulatory and resource environments in which CSOs operate.

On Sept. 8-10, 2014, some 150 representatives from South, Southeast, and Northeast Asia convened in Jakarta for an "Asia Regional Civil Society Experience Summit."

On Sept. 8-10, 2014, some 150 representatives from South, Southeast, and Northeast Asia convened in Jakarta for an “Asia Regional Civil Society Experience Summit.”

The Summit served as a forum for CSO leaders, development professionals, leading academics, members of the private sector, and non-traditional partners to explore the challenges and opportunities facing civil society in Asia. It provided a unique opportunity for individuals from different backgrounds to discuss the changing political, economic, social, and environmental landscape in which CSOs operate and the broader global landscape. Through a combination of panel sessions, smaller group discussion and exercises, and informal networking between sessions, participants shared common perspectives and tackled issues related to the legal and enabling environment for civil society, challenges to freedom of expression, association, and assembly, regional cooperation, the role and potential of technology in the work of CSOs, financial and institutional sustainability, and partnerships with government and the private sector. In their opening statements, Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa affirmed the importance of civil society to human rights and democracy, while U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Robert Blake underscored U.S. support to civil society.

In addition, participants candidly discussed issues related to the corollary responsibilities of CSOs, including institutional accountability, professionalism, and leadership succession. Creative solutions to these challenges pioneered in different parts of Asia were highlighted by speakers and panelists representing CSOs, development partners, and specialty organizations that work closely with CSOs in exploring partnership innovations, cutting-edge impact investing and social ventures, and developing and utilizing new technologies to define problems and refine CSO responses and solutions.

Over the course of the Summit, CSO participants developed a statement calling on civil society, governments, and the international community to take action to address the key challenges facing CSOs in Asia. In particular, the statement highlights the need for a more open enabling environment free from legal, social, or economic impediments; an inclusive model for partnerships with a broad range of groups, including the private sector; increased networking and utilization of technologies, data, and information; and innovative ways to maximize technical, financial, and institutional support to civil society. The principles of the statement will be communicated by Asian civil society leaders at various high-level civil society events attended by world leaders in New York this month, in conjunction with the 2014 United Nations General Assembly. The statement also appeals to development partners, governments, and the international community to ensure continued financial and political commitments to civil society.

On Tuesday at the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual conference, Obama unveiled a new presidential memorandum aimed at strengthening citizen movements that push for freer, more open societies. The announcement was welcome news on the heels of the Summit, adding to the momentum on which Asian CSOs will draw in moving forward.

Barbara Smith is The Asia Foundation’s senior director for Governance and Law and Kim McQuay is the Foundation’s country representative in Thailand. They can be reached at [email protected] and [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.


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