G8 leaders should support unions to fight global poverty


The euphoria and optimism of the last year’s Arab Spring has been lost.

That’s the conclusion of a major annual stocktake in The State of Civil Society 2013, published this week by the global federation of civil society organisations, CIVICUS.

The new report catalogues a litany of threats: from outright violence against civic leaders, to legal restrictions on civil society organisations and dramatic funding cuts.

The report includes a contribution from the ITUC, detailing the murder of 76 workers as a result of their trade union activities: including 56 deaths in Latin America alone. It tells of the prohibition from protest and the arrest of trade unionists in Swaziland. It also tells of the million migrant workers in Qatar, 94% of the country’s workforce, many of whom are building World Cup stadiums, that are denied union representation by law. And it tells of anti-union laws passed in Greece, amid the country’s national economic crisis.

As well as the massacre of mine workers at Marikana in South Africa, the report tells of police violence in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India, Egypt and Nepal. It details repression of strike action through mass dismissals, arrests and detention in Georgia, Kenya and Botswana.

The report also charts the rise of ‘Autocracy 2.0’: allowing freedom of expression online and via social media but rounding up, jailing and physically attacking people who dare to disagree. Elsewhere, restrictions to online content are estimated to have been imposed on 30 per cent of internet users across the globe, in 45 different countries.

The Association for Progressive Communications says their ‘acid test’ of internet freedom, has become whether people can express their sexuality online, or whether child protection laws are used to prosecute the LGBT community for simply being online.

The report shows that in countries such as Bahrain, Cambodia and Ethiopia, activists have been imprisoned for criticising the government. In Azerbaijan, Canada, Malaysia and Russia, regressive laws place new barriers to the right to peaceful assembly. In Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, new laws give the state power to declare a civil society organization unlawful. While Bangladesh and Russia are the latest countries wanting to restrict foreign funding of local civil society organisations.

In several wealthy international donor countries, such as Canada, the Netherlands and New Zealand, funding for civil society organisations that support international development has been cut. In Canada, the right-wing Harper government, who pulled Canada out of the Kyoto Agreement at the end of 2011, has targeted funding cuts on green groups and NGOs campaigning on climate change issues.

It is in this context that the UK will host the G8 in July.

And it is in this context that Britain’s Prime Minister is co-charing the High Level Panel which will recommend post-2015 development goals to the UN at the end of next month. Cameron has repeatedly spoken of ‘a golden thread’ guiding his view of development, but been criticised by MPs over just what he means.

With the UK announcing this week that it will end direct aid to South Africa, there has never been a greater need for trade unions and civil society to shine a light on the governments and business practices in countries who are generating vast wealth, but which also play host to the most inequality in the world. India is another country that Britain will no longer support via government-to-government budget support but combines the GDP growth rate of an economic powerhouse, with the highest number of people living in extreme poverty in the world.

Without transparency and accountability, the fight against global poverty will be fatally undermined by corruption and waste.

The G8’s global development strategy has to put the enabling environment for trade unionists and civil society activists at the heart of other ambitions, so that citizens feel empowered to shape the societies around them rather than live in fear of reprisals.