Yannicke Goris
Saskia Hollander
Publication Date
June 26, 2017

The Broker

"What all of the examples in this report share is passion, resilience, a desire to make the world better and, above all, a contagious energy. Be it online or offline, large or small, global or local, all initiatives covered in this book are the outcome of people's creativity and strength in the face of obstacles that limit their freedoms in some way."

Every year, CIVICUS, the World Alliance for Citizen Participation, publishes the State of Civil Society report, which maps the many ways and places in which our civic space - the arena in which civil society operates - is under attack. Partos, the Dutch membership body for development organisations, is dedicated to supporting civil society to better harness civic space and to exert its creative power for the public good. Partos' innovation programme, The Spindle, focuses on identifying and analysing new trends and approaches in activism by civil society. From Partos & The Spindle, in cooperation with The Broker and CIVICUS, this report looks at the creative and inspiring ways people around the world are responding to forces that threaten their rights and freedoms.

The opening section of the report introduces the concept of civic space, the boundaries of which are defined by three fundamental rights: the right to association, the right to peaceful assembly, and the right to freedom of expression. As CIVICUS has documented, threats to civic space have taken a multitude of forms, including legislation restricting the rights and freedoms of civil society organisations (CSOs); bans on public demonstrations; smear campaigns and verbal attacks; the detention, disappearance, or even killing of activists; and restrictions on online freedom of expression and access to information. This report aims to monitor civil society's actions and tactics in the face of such a "shrinking civic space" and to celebrate their creative and spirited initiatives.

As a fulcrum and launching point, the report shares a case study of The Standing March, in which "artivists" used their skill and creativity to protest when protesting in traditional ways was forbidden. Specifically, when planned protests by environmental groups at the 2015 Climate Conference (COP 21) in Paris, France, were banned after November 2015 terrorist attacks, French artist JR and United States (US)-based film director Darren Aronofs created a video installation showing the faces of over 500 people from all over the world projected on the massive façade of the Assemblée Nationale building in Paris. These separate images were combined to create a representation of humanity - a crowd of people standing united to save their shared planet. Even though people were not allowed to be physically present, JR and Aronofsky managed to make a clear statement to the 25,000 officials gathered for the COP21. "It symbolizes that people are watching, and everyone on this building, and everyone in the world is watching to see what our diplomats do", explained Aronofsky. After its initial showing, the art piece was project at different locations throughout Paris during the conference. Thanks to social media, it attracted attention not only from passers-by in the streets, but also from people all over the world.

Each chapter in the report explores one of eight tactics for (or instruments of) civic action, including its purpose and various forms, as well as many examples, including one in-depth example for each. The eight chapters focus on:

  • Visual arts - Repressive regimes can spark creativity and make people who would not usually consider themselves artists seek ways to communicate that evade censorship.
  • Crowdsourcing - One of the best known forms is citizen journalism: the participation of amateur reporters or regular citizens in the process of collecting, reportin,g and disseminating news outside mainstream media institutions. In areas where professional journalists cannot work freely, either because of violent conflict or political pressure and censorship, crowdsourcing has proven to be particularly valuable.
  • Humour and public shaming - Public shaming, whether seen as humorous or not, can be a highly effective tool for civic actors. It communicates group norms and elevates the status of those conforming to those norms; it punishes norm violators and, as such, can undermine the status of those in power; and it can also draw attention to controversial issues that may otherwise remain unchallenged.
  • Transparency and fact-checking - In recent years, people all over the world have taken to the streets to fight corruption and demand transparency from their governments and leading corporations. In addition to these traditional forms of protests, numerous alternatives have emerged with the aim to improve transparency and check the claims made by those in power.
  • Social media - Social media is particularly suitable for ad hoc activism and the establishment of large networks in a short amount of time.
  • Education - Apart from "regular" education in schools, there is another type of education that takes place outside the classroom. This includes peer learning, learning from other cultures, and learning through experience. In this type of education, CSOs have proven to be particularly valuable, because outside the classroom it is often up to civil society to create spaces - be they virtual or actual - that allow for safe and constructive learning.
  • Music, dance, and theatre - Music, dance, and theatre are not only used for civic activism in the form of public performances. These art expressions have proven to be particularly suitable for the more hidden or - sometimes literally - underground types of rebellion.
  • Protection - Outside the digital realm, providing protection to human rights defenders is also a major field of work for CSOs. Programmes include provision of emergency funds, protective fellowships, training opportunities, and guidelines for protection methods.

Another chapter looks at the many barriers to civic action, starting with structural barriers, such as globalisation. It then describes a number of practical measures and mechanisms (by agents), which form immediate and, at times, dramatic barriers for civil society. These include (counter)terrorism, legal and financial barriers and limitations, censorship and fake news, and bureaucracy and corruption.

In conclusion, it is noted here that network organisations like CIVICUS, Partos (including The Spindle), and The Broker can play a role in showcasing examples of civic action and in offering a platform in which organisations can learn from one another. As such, this report is meant to serve as a kick-start for other crowdsourcing and joint-learning efforts, both online and offline, aimed at exchanging experiences and assimilating new ideas to more effectively defend and expand civic space. "Civil society must be creative and innovative at all times and adaptive to changing circumstances, in order to keep civic action alive."


The Spindle website, August 7 2017.