Global civil society after September 11: some disquieting trends
By Dr Gopakumar Krishnan Thampi, Transparency International
The geo-political landscape has altered dramatically since September 2001, and new constellations of alliances and coalitions have formed. Arguably, there is a consensus among most nations today around the need to seriously tackle the issue of terrorism and related vices such as money laundering and illegal arms trafficking. The fight against terror has also had a major impact on the fight against corruption.
Post-September 11, we are seeing a renewed interest in many countries in international instruments such as the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention and in reviewing banking secrecy laws. Interestingly, a major beneficiary of the ongoing international anti-terror effort has been the state. If the 1990s were the decade of civil society, characterised by the retreat of the state, the new millennium is witnessing a massive resurgence of the state. This new and, in many ways, unexpected development threatens to upset the delicate balance between an effective state and a proactive civil society.
For one thing, the terrorist attack has brought back the paranoia of secrecy. Many NGOs working on environmental issues are already complaining that critical information has started disappearing from public websites, under the guise of protecting sensitive information. Debates on right to information in many countries are likely to remain stalled as many recalcitrant states are latching on to this new "window of opportunity" to deny the public access to critical public information. In South Asia, parliamentary debates on this theme seem to have disappeared from the screen.
Another alarming trend is the shrinking of the political space available for effective civil society voices. With governments on a heightened security alert, any form of dissent is likely to be construed as "illegal and unlawful". A recent update from Human Rights Watch 1) reveals how civic rights are being undermined and political oppositions repressed under the banner of the "war on terror". A belligerent "surveillance state" with no proper checks and balances is highly likely to undermine the very essence of democracy. As political space around global themes and institutions is shrinking, and NGOs and the public are denied access, activists fear that issues like corruption might disappear from the agenda again. A recent communiqué from the Bretton Woods Project informs that access has already been denied to NGOs to preparatory committees of the UN Conference on Financing for Development 2).
Foreign aid is yet another issue that needs to be closely monitored. Thanks to the concerted efforts of institutions like Transparency International, transparency in foreign aid is a major pillar in the anti-corruption framework of many bilateral and multilateral aid agencies. However, a recent briefing by the think-tank Oxford Analytica 3) warns that in future "development assistance motivated by ideological and geopolitical considerations" may very well dictate foreign aid policies.
There are three specific areas in which civil society institutions can make a significant impact on anti-corruption work: influencing public policy and decision making; enhancing state performance and accountability, for instance by monitoring public bidding processes; and enforcing social justice, rights and the rule of law. The state, in turn, should facilitate stronger civil society involvement by opening up a sphere for autonomous activities, creating favourable institutional structures and developing active policies in support of civil society.
The fight against corruption requires a vibrant relationship between state and civil society. All concerned must ensure that this milieu is preserved and that the anti-corruption agenda does not get hidden away in opaque enclaves of secrecy. Allowing that to happen would be a disastrous step backwards.
1. See: http://www.hrw.org/campaigns/september11/opportunismwatch.htm
2. 'Crisis or opportunity? The international financial institutions and civil society in a new political context'. Bretton Woods Project, 2002. For more, see http://www.brettonwoodsproject.org/topic/reform/25crisisandopportunity.htm
3. Quoted in 2.
Dr Gopakumar Krishnan Thampi er Programme Manager i Asia-Pacific Department i Transparency International og tidligere Senior Research Officer at the Public Affairs Centre, Bangalore, India.