International Democracy Day: Space for Civil Society
Democracy Day this year is being commemorated internationally on 15 September. This year, the United Nations has chosen the theme “Space for Civil Society” to mark the contributions of civil society.
The UN states that globally, the role of civil society has never been more important than this year. As the world prepares to implement a new development agenda, agreed to by all the world’s governments, the space for civil society activists and organisations in a number of countries in every continent is shrinking — or even closing — as some governments have adopted restrictions that limit the ability of NGOs to work or to receive funding.
This year’s democracy day theme is a reminder to governments everywhere that the hallmark of successful and stable democracies is the presence of a strong and freely operating civil society whereby government and civil society work together for common goals and, at the same time, civil society helps keep government accountable.
Here in Bhutan, the CSOs are joining the University and UN system in commemorating the day at the Samtse College of Education.
In the meantime, the CSOs are taking stock of their own position in Bhutan in light of the findings of a capacity building needs assessment study. A series of consultations were held with CSOs for the study.
A report on the findings of the study is included here:
A capacity building needs assessment for civil society organistions (CSOs) in Bhutan found that there is “passionate leadership”, diversity and motivation among the CSOs. However, the study pointed out the need for partnership, networking and planning.
The study not only analysed institutional opportunities and challenges for the CSOs, but also made a number of recommendations for the growth and development of civil society in Bhutan.
The study found that the CSOs believe in their work. They described themselves as “need driven” with “committed leadership” and as having the ability to “do more with less” to complement the government’s efforts in providing services and reaching the unreached.
The study recommends amendment of the Civil Society Organisations Act of Bhutan 2007 (CSO Act 2007). The study also recommends a strong partnership among the CSOs and with other institutions. The study terms it as “co-opetion” (cooperation+competition), underling the need for cooperation even as the CSOs compete. As part of co-opetion, the study says a few leaders in civil society need to take responsibility for the overall growth of the CSOs.
CSOs’ engagement with academia, the study says, would help convert the CSOs’ activities into knowledge.
There is “poor visibility of impact CSOs make” and no “systematic strategy of using a supportive media to build brand visibility”, the study points out.
Bhutan today has 47 registered CSOs, 35 Public Benefit Organisations (PBOs) and 12 Mutual Benefit Organisations (MBOs). PBOs aim to benefit a section of society or society as a whole while MBOs seek to protect and advance the interests of their members and supporters. CSOs were first formally registered in Bhutan in 2008 after the enactment of the CSO Act 2007 by Parliament.
The major concerns for the CSOs, the study points out, include resource constraints, poor recognition by the government and society, poor networking within civil society, restricted and limited space, and a lack of independent Civil Society Organisations Authority.
When 26 respondents were asked to describe their growth using a metaphor of a plant, seven described themselves as being in the early growth stage, 11 as being in the budding stage and eight described themselves as having reached the flowering stage. Gagan Sethi, the consultant who conducted the assessment, described the growth of CSOs “from a tree to a forest to an ecosystem”, underlining the principles of inter-dependency, diversity, differentiation and mutuality, among others. He said civil society should be a diverse ecosystem.
Mr Sethi described the civil society in Bhutan as diverse and healthy in a presentation of the findings to a group of civil society representatives on 4 September. However, the study found the Bhutanese civil society to be “extremely Thimphu-centric”. “Remote areas representing civil society formation is still weak,” it says, adding that there is “no nurturing and incubating strategies for the growth of CSOs in remote areas”.
The study recommends that in the long-term, civil society in Bhutan needs to build a sharper identity and move from project-based activities to long-term thinking about its impact and outcomes. The study also underlined the need for clear categories within civil society, which is to categorise the CSOs according to the work they do such as caregiving, governance and environment, and livelihood and empowerment.
At the presentation of the findings of the study in Thimphu, Meenakshi Rai (PhD), RENEW’s director of community outreach, said that the study was the first step towards finding a guiding principle for the CSOs in Bhutan. Tashi Namgay, the executive director of Bhutan Kidney Foundation, said that for the growth of civil society in Bhutan, the CSOs should come together as often as possible and CSO meetings should be adequately represented.
The needs assessment study was funded by Helvetas-Bhutan and facilitated by the Bhutan Centre for Media and Democracy.