Section 1: Objectives
For an activist, civic environment and its possibilities are central to strategizing. Countries offer different levels of freedom for civic organizing. Understanding your political environment and its openings for civic action will help you adapt your objectives to the realities of your situation. This step is essential to understanding what will be possible (and what may not be) given the nature of your political, cultural and social institutions.
In this supplement you will:
Section 2: Activist Interviews
In Tavaana’s interview with Ivan Marovic, Marovic discusses the civic and political environment in which the Otpor movement operated, and how the movement managed to succeed within these limitations:
Living in Serbia under Milošević was very nasty…Milošević used very brutal methods in order to keep the opposition in check. So he wouldn’t even refrain from murdering people. And we had death squads organized by the secret police, that were eliminating people like, for instance, Slavko Ćuruvija, who was the editor of the biggest newspaper, who dared to write something against the government. Or even Stambolić, who was the president before Milošević, and Milošević was afraid that he may come back to politics, so he decided to eliminate him.
So it was really difficult to have any kind of political organization in Serbia because of these reasons, and this is why we decided not to go for a classic organization, but to go for a movement which doesn’t have a clear leadership, where a leader cannot be singled out and shot or eliminated. And this is why we made a movement which was pretty much horizontal, dispersed, and without any visible leadership.
Tavaana’s interview with student activist Morteza Eslahchi describes the atmosphere on Iranian university campuses as follows:
With Ahmadinejad’s first term as president, the atmosphere became much more repressive, and the state, from the very beginning, did its best to neutralize all independent student institutions. The state withdrew legal licenses for various organizations, thus preventing them from continuing their activities, and we found ourselves struggling for survival. Our publications’ licenses were revoked. The authorities refused us permission to hold our gatherings and carry out our programs.
To put it briefly, the atmosphere was suddenly turned upside down, no one could do anything anymore, and all we could do was to fight back in order to keep the state away from the universities and maintain a certain margin of action, preventing the authorities from establishing a dead and glacial atmosphere on campuses.…We achieved a certain degree of success, meaning that although all Islamic student associations and the Office for the Consolidation of Unity (Daftare Tahkim Vahdat) were officially shut down in a severely repressive campaign, all known figures of these organizations were still present on the campuses and could, somehow, continue their activities, even if it was to a lesser extent. These figures continued their critical engagement against the authorities, trying to accomplish what they could in this regard.
While reviewing these examples, consider the following questions:
Section 3: Institutional Channels for Activism
As an activist, you operate within the context of a set of laws and state institutions that determine how decisions that affect society are made, and what role citizens can play in influencing those decisions.
Below is an overview of the major institutional channels through which governmental policy may be shaped.
Institutional channels of the state:
Other institutional channels
Section 4: Why the Civic Environment Matters
Opportunities and constraints for activists are largely a function of which institutional channels exist through which citizens can express their views and influence the government. It is important for activists to understand how much freedom they have to operate within their country’s laws, and how responsive their governments are to citizens’ concerns and criticism. Activists must continually take the pulse of their country’s politics, their government’s willingness to respond to citizens’ concerns and criticism, and the strength and dynamics of their civil society. They must be sensitive to the reception of their values in society.
When a government is accountable to the people, it is highly motivated to serve their needs and demands for better livelihoods. In such a political context, activism campaigns can more readily influence government policy.
In countries where institutional mechanisms for people to air their grievances to the government are limited, activism is, of course, more challenging. Nevertheless, people in any political context can successfully advocate for positive change. Social change is not always dependent on government policy, and progressive social change is possible even in the most repressive of political environments.
In these repressive regime contexts, the strategies for civic mobilization, awareness raising, and legal reform will be different. Much thought needs to be given to protection mechanisms for leading advocates, and the cultivation of allies and national and international solidarity networks is significantly more important for activism in repressive countries.
Methodology for Evaluating Your Civic Freedoms
To determine how much freedom you have to operate as an activist, and which institutional channels to use, you need to comprehend the building blocks of freedom. What are the freedoms and institutions that enable ordinary citizens to influence how their countries are run?
A number of international organizations have developed methodologies for evaluating the level of civil and political liberties in any country. One authoritative methodology comes from Freedom House, an American nongovernmental organization that has authored a survey of freedom for every country in the world since 1972. They use a survey of questions to rank countries as free, partly-free and not-free.
Click on the link below to view their survey questions, which you can use to assess your own country’s civic environment.
Section 5: Activism in Different Environments
Please read these Tavaana case studies as examples of activism movements in not-free, partly-free and free countries.
Movements in Not-Free Countries
Movements in Partly-Free Countries
Movements in Free Countries
As you read these examples, ask yourself the following questions:
Section 6: Freedom of Expression and Association
A country's levels of freedom of expression and freedom of association may be the most critical freedoms in determining how easy it is for civil society activists to build movements and mobilize the citizenry. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, is the fullest expression of the equality and dignity of all human beings.
The UDHR provides the following statements of the freedom of expression and freedom of association to which all human beings are entitled:
Freedom of Expression – Article 19
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Freedom of Association – Article 20
1. Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
2. No one may be compelled to belong to an association.
Although the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is universal in its principles, certainly not all people enjoy these rights. As you consider how to proceed as an activist, you may find it useful to start by examining more closely the limits to your freedom, particularly for expression and of association. Consider the following questions:
Freedom of Expression
Freedom of Association
Section 7: Deciding Which Channels to Use
By analyzing your country’s institutional channels for activism, you can determine which channel offers you the greatest likelihood of success and which ones may not be worth pursuing. You can use the general questions below to help you, or if you have time, use a more detailed methodology such as the Freedom House Survey or other surveys in the Resources section of the course. The questions below are taken from the 2005 Freedom House methodology.
A. Electoral Process
B. Political Pluralism and Participation
C. Functioning of Government
Additional discretionary Political Rights questions:
A. For traditional monarchies that have no parties or electoral process, does the system provide for consultation with the people, encourage discussion of policy, and allow the right to petition the ruler?
B. Is the government or occupying power deliberately changing the ethnic composition of a country or territory so as to destroy a culture or tip the political balance in favor of another group?
D. Freedom of Expression and Belief
E. Associational and Organizational Rights
F. Rule of Law
G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights
When you have completed your analysis, record your decisions in your activism plan template, where you will identify which institutional channels you will use, and which ones you won’t. You may also need to modify your goals and objectives to take into account what is politically feasible.
Section 8: Summary Questions
As you fill out and complete the Civic Environment section of your personal activism plan, consider the following questions: