Following the introduction of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals in 2014 many questioned how such ambitious goals could be met by 2030. The SDGs address, among other developmental issues, the eradication of poverty, hunger and income inequality. In Asia, civil society demonstrates that it can bridge the gap between these lofty goals and their eventual success. According to Nicholas Booth and Beniam Gebrezghi, it is “Precisely because of civil society’s role in representing the interests of the poorest, most marginalized and excluded groups, [that it] seems more urgent than ever before in every aspect of a new agenda which seeks to ensure no one is left behind.”
Over the last 30 years there has been dramatic growth in Asian civil society. Today, the United Nations Development Programme works closely with local civil society organizations on a variety of development projects. In the wake of Japan’s triple disaster in March of 2011 (the earthquake, along with the resulting tsunami and nuclear disaster) for example, civil society organizations played a crucial role in reconstruction and community development efforts. Nicholas Booth and Beniam Gebrezghi again point out: “These civil society groups worked side-by-side with local communities, educators, businesses, local governments, and national governments to help the victims and to get Japan back on its feet.”
More recently, civil society helped rebuild Nepal after the country was devastated by an earthquake in April 2015. With the Nepalese government unable to conduct proper disaster relief, the people of Nepal turned to one another. In June, our blog focused on Nepal and its efforts to rebuild with the aid of international philanthropy. Using Twitter and Facebook, Nepalese citizens were able to arrange rescues, deliver supplies and provide shelter. According to Christian Science Monitor, “Nepal’s response to the [earthquake] was helped by an increase in the number of civil society groups since the introduction of multiparty democracy in the 1990s.” In response, Google has brought back “Person Finder,” a system used after Haiti’s 2010 earthquake to check social media for possible updates on missing persons. Locally based initiatives including Tomnod, a program designed to crowdsource images of structural damage, provided first responders with valuable information.
While civil society is filling the gaps left by other sectors, there is still much that Asian governments can do to encourage third sector growth. China, Nepal and Japan have seen an increase in civil society registrations, but CSOs in other Asian countries are combating increasingly restrictive policies. In Laos, the Ministry of Home Affairs has amended the decree on nonprofit associations (NPAs) and foundations by adding the requirement that groups must notify or obtain permission from the government for funding that they receive from foreign sources. This new policy, which echoes Russia’s infamous “Foreign Agent Law,” can lead to funding delays of up to 18 months and pose significant operational difficulties for programs funded by international philanthropy. The Laotian government’s crackdown on civil society has been downright hostile. John Sifton, Asia Advocacy director of the Human Rights Watch explained the situation, “If a human rights defender like Aung Sang Suu Kyi were to stand up in Laos and speak out against authoritarian rule, she would be immediately arrested.”
These restrictions are, unfortunately, not limited to Laos. In Singapore’s recent elections, the People’s Action Party (PAP) retained its majority in parliament, a position that it is held since 1959. The PAP, positioned as a center right party, has a reputation for restricting the actions of free speech within the city. In March 2015 Amos Yee, a teenager responsible for a video that criticized a former Singapore leader was arrested. Yee was sentenced to 18 months of “reformative training.” Amnesty International was quick to respond: “According to the Office of the UN Commissioner on Human Rights, reformative training is ‘akin to detention and usually applied to juvenile offenders involved in serious crimes’ and was referred to in a recent Singapore district court decision as ‘incarcerative in nature and should be imposed cautiously’.” Limits on free speech have a direct and negative impact on many civil organizations whose intrinsic goals of aiding society often conflict with official government policy.
Without the assistance of civil society organizations, the Sustainable Development Goals laid out by the UN cannot be met by 2030. If Asia’s leaders want to see these goals met, the restrictions on civil society organizations must be eliminated. Asian countries have both the organizational capacity and financial resources to help combat poverty, hunger and inequality, but will they be able to step up to the challenge?