Challenges and Opportunities facing Civil Society Organisations in the Digital Age

The digital age is something that came like a storm and swept us off our feet. We engaged with it, we coexist in it and those who don’t will eventually be forced to do the same. Known as the Digital Revolution, this is the era that brings to life everything digital and continues to change over time as new technologies, user devices, methods of interaction with other humans and devices enter the domain of research, development and market launch. Let’s get one thing straight though, we have not yet seen the best of the digital age and I must commend and say more is yet to come.

So the big question is, with all the systematics that the digital age has put in place, how have we been able to use the wealth of data produced through all these technology advancements for good? Are we using it effectively and more so are the Civil Society Organisations using it to their best advantage?

What are Civil Societies?

If you can understand what it does, then you can understand what Civil Society really is. Over time, definitions of civil society have changed but in short, it is a collection of non-governmental organizations and institutions that serve the interests citizens. Civil society includes the family and the private sphere, referred to as the “third sector” of society, distinct from government and business. Civil society today includes a diverse range of organized and unorganized groups, as new civil society actors blur the boundaries between sectors and experiment with new organizational forms. Civil society is dynamic, vibrant and influential, but is also selectively restricted. However with the digital age, they might be taking a rather new trend.

Civil Society can be:

- NGOs, non-profit organizations and civil society organizations (CSOs) that have an organized structure or activity, and are typically registered entities and groups

− Online groups and activities including social media communities that can be “organized” but do not necessarily have physical,legal or financial structures

− Social movements of collective action and/or identity, which can be online or physical

− Religious leaders, faith communities, and faith-based organizations

− Labour unions and labour organizations representing workers

− Social entrepreneurs employing innovative and/or market oriented approaches for social and environmental outcomes

− Grassroots associations and activities at local level

− Cooperatives owned and democratically controlled by their members

Technology, geopolitics and the markets have created opportunities and pressures, spurring the creation of millions of civil society organizations around the world, giving rise to exciting models for citizen expression both online and offline, and generating increasing involvement in global governance processes.

An explosion in the number of registrations of civil society organizations (CSOs) has been noted, including a significant increase in activity in developing and emerging economies.

Although under-resourced in comparison to business and government, funding for civil society activities has grown substantially in specific areas with support from major foundations and tailored funds.

What has the Digital Age put on the table for these Civil Society Organisations?

The digital age has helped a great deal in growing civil society organisations all around the world and because we are still getting fully accustomed to the whole digital age as Uganda and Africa at large, we are slowly and surely getting there. There are many civil society organisations exhibiting an energetic voice in promoting the principles of fair and equitable economic development, gender equality and human rights.

On top of the pyramid today, social media has been the mark to help us citizens voice out our opinions and needs. Today, the power of social media has given us the leverage to put our leaders to task and demand of better service delivery from them. If anything is to go by, many changes have come to life with the iconic power of social media.

However, the community faces ever-tightening restrictions. Whether via strict media oversight or burdensome regulatory hurdles for CSOs, governments in numerous countries are restricting the space for civil society — particularly in the arena of advancing human rights or democratic principles. People have suffered prejudice at the hands of the government and are getting frustrated in the quest for fighting for their right.

Steps to suppress or curb civil society freedoms include limiting access to national and foreign funding, erecting barriers to mobile communications, and applying onerous, arbitrary or poorly administrated registration processes. Beyond steps taken by specific national governments, international civil society leaders have identified a more general decline in funding available for advocacy, rights-based activities, or “causes that challenge the status quo”.

Many of these measures may not constitute overt acts such as bans. However, civil society leaders say the implications of these more subtly administered restrictions extend beyond specific activities to hinder the development of democratic governance, accountability and stability over the long term. There are implications too, for the willingness of the private sector to engage in social responsibility programmes, in particular in partnership with civil society organizations. In regions where there is a risk, this could be perceived as a threat to the state.

While the digital wave crashes over us, we must be aware of the limited contexts in which CSOs continue to struggle and work under. Although governments have come in to try and block and intimidate a few social media vocalists, there has been tremendous response at how the civil society has used this tool to better themselves. We must continue to search for similar tools to advance the growing needs of citizens, especially in developing countries.

Credits: The World Economic Forum

Written by Enywaru Pius.

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