Commentary: Civil society is critical to democracy at home and abroad

August 19, 2021 3:40 am
Displaced Afghans reach out for aid from a local Muslim organization at a makeshift IDP camp on Aug. 10 in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Displaced Afghans reach out for aid from a local Muslim organization at a makeshift IDP camp on Aug. 10, 2021 in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Paula Bronstein | Getty Images)

American diplomats talk frequently about the critical role of “civil society.” Specifically, the importance of civil society in maintaining and promoting a robust and vibrant democracy. 

And yet, I rarely hear about “civil society” here at home. We refer to “nonprofits,” but more as an informative description of an individual organization than as a reference to the combination of organizations at the forefront of protecting human rights and democracy. 

We need civil society just as strongly here as we do abroad. Specifically, we need to think of civil society here at home like we do abroad, as a core stakeholder, and ingredient, in the legitimacy and endurance of our democracy. 

In the wake of what is unfolding in Afghanistan, President Joe Biden has reiterated that “human rights must be at the center of our foreign policy.” 

What we call human rights abroad are what we call civil rights at home. They are the same thing. We are talking about such core rights as free speech, the right to assemble, voting rights, a free press, the rights of LGBTQ people and marginalized communities, and many more. 

To protect human rights is to protect civil society, abroad and at home. 

I’ve worked in countries that call themselves democracies, but one of the dispositive facts that they are something lesser than is the absence of civil society. Human rights activists are actively persecuted, forcing them to either operate in secret or, more likely, operate in exile. 

During my time with the U.S. State Department, one of the issues I worked on was supporting civil society in countries where democracy was on the ropes. Even in a country where democracy was hard to see at times, we had hope if there was a vibrant civil society. Alternatively, we feared the erosion of democracy in those countries where governments began to speak against, target, and imprison civil society members.  

I am grateful every day for the vibrancy of our civil society, including right here in New Hampshire. As much as we look to our respective political parties and elected officials to represent us, it is often civil society organizations that are most in touch with and representative of our communities. 

Civil society organizations, I would argue, represent the public even more than elected officials. They fight for the rights of the people – often against the government.

Political parties either represent government or are striving to become the government. This can make a political party’s interest in checking and reforming government power tenuous. Civil society represents the people, only the people, and always the people. 

This can make civil society the most devoted to and effective at holding government accountable and the most effective change agent for the betterment of the collective. 

This is also why countries that either are authoritarian or are witnessing a rise in authoritarianism see a corresponding decline in civil society. Because authoritarian governments target the voices and advocates of “the people.” 

We’ve seen this in countries like Russia and China, but also with Poland’s and Hungary’s rising authoritarian regimes, and in countries some think of as democracies, like Rwanda. 

In these early days of the fall of Afghanistan’s government, already the Taliban is targeting journalists and activists, particularly female activists. These citizens have voices, they have influence with the public, and they have information. All things that authoritarian regimes do not tolerate. 

Right now, the calls are for the U.S. government to evacuate Afghan allies, women, activists, and journalists. Eventually, the evacuations will cease. Then the question is how do we help protect what remains of the space in which civil society operates?

I have a litany of emotions when I see the pictures of what is unfolding in Afghanistan. One of my foremost concerns is how we support civil society in this new reality. As extreme as the situation is right now, it is one thing for the government to fall; it is another degree of alarm for civil society to be silenced, exiled, and killed. 

As we grapple with what this means for the Afghan people, particularly for Afghan women, girls, and journalists, I also am reminded of just how grateful – and lucky – I am to live in a country with a vibrant civil society. 

The U.S. government absolutely has a role, a prominent role, in protecting democracy at home and working with our allies in promoting it abroad. Governments, however, cannot do this alone. Civil society must be at the forefront of protecting democracy and opposing authoritarianism, including the threat of it here at home. 

Think of the last few years here in the United States. It is civil society that filed lawsuits against the government. Mobilized and registered voters. Spoke out on every available forum about threats to the legitimacy of our democracy, including when the previous administration directed its ire at members of our civil society. 

You don’t have to support the mission of any particular civil society organization to be grateful that such an organization can exist. The vibrancy of our civil society is one of our democracy’s greatest assets. 

If voters are upset by something that their federal or state government is doing, absolutely speak out and contact elected officials. But, just as important, connect with, support, and join a civil society organization. We are power in numbers. Not just the number of people who support a single organization, but the number of people collectively engaged in civil society. 

We have checks and balances in government. But ultimately, it is the people who are the check on government. And not just on Election Day. 

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