Formal democratic institutions are unable to keep up with the modern world, which has resulted in mass protests, said a report released on Monday by Civicus, a global civil society alliance.
“In many countries around the world people see formal democratic processes and party politics as failing to address the issues they care about,” said its secretary general Dr Danny Sriskandarajah. “Instead these systems are seen to serve the interests of political and economic elites.”
The group’s 2014 State of Civil Society Report said local protests were growing in size and energy across the world because the international institutions that should be listening to them were not. “Many of our international institutions and processes are out of date, unaccountable and unable to address present-day challenges effectively,” it said.
These institutions risked becoming “irrelevant” if they did not change to allow citizens’ participation. Instead, they were platforms to promote the interests of big business and global capital, it said. The report used information gathered from 450 civil society representatives, and included contributions from 30 of the world’s leading experts on civil society.
The new era of protests – mainly started by the Arab Spring – were important in that they also happened in places that had democratic systems that seemed to be highly functional, such as Brazil and Turkey, it said. These are also countries which have seen economic growth.
The reasons for the protests were therefore on a much broader scale: people were unhappy with the structure of the global economic and democratic system. It highlighted the annual gathering of global political and economic leaders in Davos, Switzerland.
Philanthropist Dr Mo Ibrahim – founder of the Prize for Achievement in African Leadership – said in the report that this concentration of power and old ways of organising the world had to stop. “They governance structures and geographical locations reflect 20th century geopolitical power dynamics. These allow inequalities between nations to be played out and amplified when they should serve to bridge them.”
What unified the protests was the use of social media to organise, and the peaceful nature that they started with. In most cases a disproportionately heavy-handed response by governments led to their escalation. In Turkey social media was banned. In the Ukraine protesters were shot. All of this was part of a general move by governments to close down the civic sphere in response to the growth in citizen action, it said.
When people tried to take their troubles onto a larger platform they were thwarted by their lack of access to avenues to do this. International corporations and states controlled access to these and therefore got to influence their agendas. This was most obvious in bodies such as the United Nations, which were still based on voting blocks and privileges set up during the Cold War, it said.
This meant that global governance was disconnected from people, hence their need to use other platforms to get attention on their issues, it said. If they were to remain relevant these bodies needed a serious overhaul so that the voices of citizens would come to the fore, such as citizens’ panels and assemblies where people could say what they thought should happen in their countries, and in the world.
It criticised South Africa, and other emerging economies, for merely trying to get their own position on groups such as the United Nations Security Council. They had no interest in changing these bodies to suit the needs of their own citizens, it said.
In South Africa there are fewer legal limits to people protesting, but last year saw over 12 000 protests nationwide.
Lizette Lancaster of the Institute of Security Studies wrote in February that “according to the South African Police Service Incident Registration Information System (Iris), police officers were deployed to monitor a total of 12 399 crowd-related events [34 incidents a day, on average] between April 2012 and 2013”.
Research done by Jane Duncan of Rhodes University’s school of journalism and media studies, found that issues related to crime and the justice system were the most common reasons people gave for wanting to protest.