Democracy and Civil Society – A Shrinking Space?

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Mar 21, 2018
by Sarah Sexton
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Democracy and Civil Society – A Shrinking Space?

Independent member of the UK House of Lords delivers fourth Palliser Lecture on “Democracy and Civil Society – A Shrinking Space?” Baroness Usha Prashar delivered the fourth Palliser Lecture

“It is not an exaggeration to say that liberal democracy is in a desperate state,” said Baroness Usha Prashar, speaking at Salzburg Global Seminar’s fourth Palliser Lecture.

The audience, made up of Salzburg Global Fellows, board members, and supporters, gathered in London on March 16 would likely have agreed with the crossbench member of the House of Lords.

Baroness Prashar, one of the UK’s most experienced policy advisors, pointed to the election of US President Donald Trump and Central Europe’s populist revolt against the European Union as evidence of a shift toward “illiberal democracies.” 

In her lecture, titled “Democracy and Civil Society – A Shrinking Space?”, Prashar said: “Political regimes may be based on electoral politics, but the rule of law, minority rights, freedom of the press, and other liberal protections are in danger.” 

Download and read the full lecture lecture transcript 

Prashar warned against dismissing such events as temporary outpourings of populism. “We must not hunker down and think this is an aberration which will pass... Freedoms once lost are difficult to regain. We must understand causes and develop strategies to respond to them.”

Prashar underscored the importance of democracy not only to ensure free elections, but also to protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority and to value dissent, dialogue, and participation. 

Such democracy, Prashar said, depends on lively civil society. Civil society organizations must have the space and the ability to speak out, organize, and act together to fulfill their roles, be it as promoters of democracy, a watchdog holding authorities to account, a humanitarian actor, a partner in implementing government policy, or a catalyst for development. 

Prashar reflected on the program series she launched with Salzburg Global Seminar in the early 1990s around civil society and democracy. As oppressive regimes collapsed and Cold War-era bipolarity faded, the role of non-governmental organizations and civil society was seen as crucial in building new emerging democracies. 

“It was at that time that Civicus: World Alliance for Citizen Participation was founded,” Prashar said. “Its first Secretary General, Miklos Marschall, was an active participant in this program, and I am pleased that the current Secretary General, Danny Sriskandarajah, is here tonight.” 

Marschall attended one of Salzburg Global’s first sessions on the role of NGOs as a young lecturer from Hungary. He became an early advocate of the third sector and credits Salzburg Global as being “directly responsible for the introduction and establishment of NGOs in Central and East Europe.”


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As the state-dominated regimes of communist Eastern Europe receded, civil society organizations emerged as a powerful and influential force on the world stage, according to Prashar, influencing public opinion and effectively harnessing the communication revolution to expand their reach. In the 2000s, for example, the world witnessed a surge in the mobilizing power of civil society and the impact of digital campaigning as the uprisings unfolded across the Middle East and North Africa in 2011. 

“Now the gains of the 1990s and 2000s appear to be under threat or are being reversed,” lamented Prashar. “Disillusionment with politics is rife, and many democracies are sliding toward autocracy.” 

Institutions of democratic systems have come to be seen as dysfunctional, Prashar said, pointing to political gridlock, ideological polarization, and gerrymandering in the United States as an example. 

Prashar suggested the consequences of capitalism and financial downturns have led to a crisis of inequality – manifesting in decreasing social mobility and diverging economic fortunes – which has compounded public disillusionment and spurred support for anti-establishment parties. 

“To me, this is a wake-up call,” Prashar said. “Concern and outrage is not enough. We must understand the causes and develop strategies to respond to them.” 

Prashar offered some examples of positive developments in civil society, including increasing public scrutiny toward technology platforms that spread extremist or false content with no regard for public interest. 

She referred to a trust barometer produced by Edelman that recorded a recent plunge in trust for social media and an increase in public support for more traditional media. 

“Citizens are also organizing and mobilizing in new and creative ways to defend civic freedoms, fight for social justice and equality, and to push back populism,” Prashar said, noting that civil society had advocated successfully for progressive new laws on access to information, protection of human rights, and women’s and LGBT rights. 

Prashar highlighted the viral #MeToo Movement as an example of a campaign that harnessed the power of social media to give voice to the voiceless, shape awareness around a global issue, and spur a broader dialogue around power and wealth imbalances. 

Social media has the power to change opinion, policy, and even legislation, but this power must be used responsibly.  

Given the gravity of present threats to civil society and democracy, Prashar called for courage and leadership rooted in the civic values of human equality, social justice, and pluralism. She also challenged civil society organizations to be agents of change by building alliances with businesses, academia, media, and other partners on issues such as rule of law, freedom of expression, and inequality. 

“The answers will come from collaboration between sectors – not just nationally but internationally – with one thing in common: concern for humanity and public interest,” Prashar concluded.

This was the fourth lecture to be held in memory of the Rt Hon Sir Michael Palliser GCMG, who died in 2012. Sir Michael had a long and distinguished career in the British Diplomatic Service, served as Vice Chair of the Board of Salzburg Global Seminar, and was a founding trustee of the London-based 21st Century Trust, which now works exclusively with Salzburg Global. 

Prashar said Salzburg Global Seminar has provided a base for such creative thinking, intercultural exchange, and collaboration between sectors and countries for 70 years.

“It is institutions such as Salzburg Global Seminar, the dedication of individuals like Sir Michael, and the indomitable human spirit which make this a hopeful world.” 


The fourth Palliser Lecture entitled “Democracy and Civil Society – A Shrinking Space?” was delivered by the Rt Hon the Baroness Usha Prashar on March 16, 2018 at the Grange St. Paul's Hotel in London, UK.