Civil Society in State of Emergency Amid Global Rise in Populism

A new report highlights the overall situation of civil society and the issues it is facing due to the worldwide rise of populism. It calls for more cooperation and networking among civil rights organizations.
The latest Civil Society Report by CIVICUS, an international network of civil rights organizations, reveals a state of emergency for citizens and NGOs.

Populism on the rise

Only 3 percent of world's population actually live in countries where civic space is completely free and open. More than 106 countries have some sort of limit or restriction on civil rights. Such restrictions can be due to legislation, but in some cases restrictions are imposed because of citizen demonstrations or violence.

The main reason for an increase in the limits imposed on organizations involved in safeguarding civil rights is to be found in the current crisis of democracy, which is showing itself even in Europe. Populist parties are getting more support, strengthening their positions in countries like Hungary and Poland.


The spread of these populist waves has also resulted in an increase in distrust towards NGOs, which have been targeted by the media and by government institutions. Perhaps the most notable current example is with regard to organizations working on search-and-rescue activities in the Mediterranean.

Populists also increase citizens' anger over a perceived lack of representation by the institutions. It is often the case that they associate NGOs with public institutions instead of seeing them as independent promoters of citizens' rights.

The same is true in an international context: populist parties usually do not have consideration for international institutions, while organizations for civil rights are used to work transnationally for the purpose of fostering human rights.

An opportunity for civil society

But the rise of populism does leave many disappointed, and civil society needs to tap into this disappointment through better forms of representation and show that civil society organizations are indeed capable of actually providing for citizens' needs, rights and liberties.

In order to survive, civil society organizations need to cooperate with bodies from different sectors and create networks, like CIVICUS itself, where knowledge can be shared and good practices exchanged.