9 July 2015 – UN Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai has co-authored an essay with Community of Democracies Secretary General Maria Leissner comparing the ability of business and civil society to access resources worldwide.
The piece appears in CIVICUS’s 2015 “State of Civil Society Report,” and previews one of the issues that the Special Rapporteur will explore in his upcoming report to the UN General Assemblyin October 2015.
“At first glance, the business and civil society sectors may seem strange bedfellows for comparison. Conventional wisdom tells us that these two entities are distinct, warranting separate rules and treatment,” Kiai and Leissner write. “But beyond their dissimilar profit motives, just how different are businesses and civil society? And how differently should governments treat them?”
The essay cites a number of examples where several governments go to much greater lengths to create a conducive environment for business investment, while virtually shutting off similar funding for civil society.
Ethiopia, for example, has actively encouraged foreign investment in its business sector over the past seven years, leading to an economic boom. The country is now creating millionaires faster than any country on earth, while gross domestic product growth has averaged 39% a year, according to one source. At the same time, it enacted a law prohibiting domestic civil society organisations (CSOs) working in certain rights-based areas, from receiving more than 10% of their funding from foreign sources. This has led to a collapse in that sector, with most rights-focused NGOs closing or drastically downsizing.
The essay highlights a similar divergence of treatment for business and civil society in Egypt, Russia, and India, among others.
Kiai and Leissner conclude that sectoral differences in funding restrictions often “boil down to the perceived threats and benefits from each sector. In short, it’s political,” they write. “Restrictions against the non-profit sector might be cloaked in terms of national security and good governance, but few pass muster under close scrutiny. They tend instead to be signs of a ruling government’s weakness – an attempt to assert control, reduce public criticism, consolidate power or hoard the benefits of economic development.”
The way forward, Kiai and Leissner argue, is a more level playing field across the board.
“Businesses and civil society – in all of its incarnations – actually do have a strong convergence of interests when it comes to levelling the playing field,” they write. “The rule of law is preferable to the rule of power. Predictability trumps disorder. Fairness is better than corruption. These statements ring as true for business as they do for civil society. Stable, balanced environments are better for everyone, whether they be a multinational corporation, a grassroots activist group, or a major international CSO working on health issues.”
A direct link to the piece full piece is available here (PDF format).
The homepage for the CIVICUS State of Civil Society 2015 report is available here. All guest essays in the report can be found on this page.