Civic organisations to stand up together for democracy

Published: 6 February 2020

I see a positive change in the way civic organisations are working together in the Czech Republic,” – Petr Lebeda, founder and director of Glopolis,

Experience tells us that cooperation and mutual trust between organisations of active citizens makes democracy stronger. To date there has been a lack of support for cooperation between networks of Czech civil society organisations working towards a healthy democracy and civic space. NeoN, a new, decentralised network, is helping to develop platforms and solidarity across the sector. It does so by coordinating working groups on crucial topics such as justice and migration, as well as knowledge groups of joint advocacy, communication and fundraising. Civitates provides funding to NeoN for its work in defending democratic principles and civil society.

Petr Lebeda is the founder of the global sustainable development thinktank Glopolis. He also took the initiative for NeoN.

What is the current socio-political climate in the Czech Republic?
While the situation for most civil society organisations has not worsened significantly over the past year, there are efforts and proposals on a monthly basis that try to undermine the system of justice, the independence of the public media or funding for CSOs. But these are smaller, less visible day-to-day fights, rather than big battles.

What do proponents of democracy do to counteract these tactics?
There are a number of useful joint efforts at the grassroot level, for instance the Million Moments for Democracy movement and at the regional level, such as the ‘pact of free cities’ in which mayors (of Budapest, Warsaw, Bratislava and Prague) came together to stand up for democracy. Most of these efforts, though, are to keep up the status quo under pressure from populists.

The public perception of the civic sector is crucial for its legitimacy and influence. You recently carried out research to know more about how people in the Czech Republic think about civil society organisations. What has come out of this research?
We have found that that there is no such thing as a civic sector in the minds of people; they just don’t see the diverse civic organisations as one distinct group of society, like businesses. Interestingly, despite highly critical views of advocacy CSOs and ‘political’ watchdogs, many of the opponents of civil society are also opponents of the establishment. We therefore need to show that our work is a practical, bottom-up activity to hold accountable those in power.

How does NeoN work?
NeoN is an infrastructure of cooperation for the civic sector: we are like a railway system that makes the different trains ride more smoothly and effectively. We connect the dots and facilitate fruitful interaction, but joint actions are always initiated and led by our members. This allows for flexible coalition building and quick reactions: not everybody has to sign off, and every member can decide whether or not they’d like to participate.

What has NeoN achieved so far?
NeoN has built a working group that successfully defends media of public service and another one that responds to cross-cutting challenges to civic space (such as limiting CSO independence, access to public funding, foreign funding or lobbying regulations), which are generally not addressed by individual organisations. Based on the research that we carried out, NeoN has also facilitated reflection of how CSOs communicate to the public. Last but not least, members are launching a country-wide network to reach out of the bubble of progressive policy CSO’s, and inform and gather inputs from other societal groups in order to legitimate pluralist democracy and mobilize much larger support in case of possible breach of democratic principles.

What is your dream for the Czech Republic?
My dream is that we will create a society in which people are really capable of listening to each other and taking each other’s views seriously despite major divides. A society that will be capable of including diverse worldviews without hate or condescension. And that we will be able to move ahead within the European Union as a core facilitator of such integral approach.