A Reflection on Civil Society, Despair, and Solidarity

A Reflection on Civil Society, Despair, and Solidarity

As someone who ended up working in the field of activism by chance, I often find myself in a constant battle with helplessness. I do not consider myself an activist; I do not deserve that honor.

But as I dabble, read, and learn about the struggles of activists, a feeling of righteous anger builds up inside me, demanding that I take action. I feel compelled to be more active and directly involve myself in their causes or join them en masse in the streets, with our voices screaming in defiance against the powers that be. I know that change is possible, as much as I know that the cards are constantly stacked against us.

I know that change is possible even though I am aware that our efforts usually end up in vain and that several of us will end up hurt or imprisoned. I know that change is possible even though the people standing beside me may pay the ultimate price and will never realise the fruits of their struggle. Even though I find myself paralyzed and in tears at the brutal truths, the harshness of the world, and the seeming futility of it all, I have to believe that change is possible.

I have to believe.

I am a coward who struggles to find the courage and determination to take direct action. I often feel overwhelmed by fear and doubt; I do not possess the mental fortitude and physical constitution to see things through. As a result, I find myself on the sidelines, observing from a place of relative safety and anonymity. All I have to offer are words, and I often wonder if they actually hold any real power or impact. But I have to believe.

A few days ago, I read the CIVICUS 2023 State of Civil Society Report, and as I scrolled through the pages on my screen, that same feeling of helplessness again began to wind itself into the back of my mind.

Fear, uncertainty, and despair were my constant companions as I delved into the many tragedies affecting the modern world. From the war in Ukraine and the countless other crises that it spawned, the grim situations and xenophobia faced by refugees from places such as Syria and Myanmar, the uncontrollable insurgency problem running rampant in several parts of Africa, to more general issues such as the regression of human rights and democratic values, the report tackles these and so much more. Each situation is presented with alarming detail and highlights its impact on countless lives, making it impossible to turn away and ignore.

Likewise, the document delves into the countless struggles faced by civil society as a whole and activists worldwide. In countries that are currently experiencing severe economic hardships, such as Ghana and Lebanon, protesters are met with violence from local police and other state forces. In Kazakhstan, the situation is much more dire; the government has condemned acts of protests as foreign-instigated terrorism and authorised lethal force. This has led to the deaths of around 200 people and the arrests and detention of countless others.

This pattern of repression is pervasive and has become much more common in every part of the world. Civil society is under constant threat from authoritarianism. Journalists, writers, activists, and even ordinary citizens are at even greater risk than before for the simple exercise of their fundamental human rights.

Authoritarian governments see civil society as a threat to their power. And they use everything at their disposal, such as the control of traditional and social media, to dictate the prevailing narrative and to spread disinformation, the arbitrary application of the law to convict individuals who cannot be indicted under usual circumstances, and the misuse of local security forces to stifle dissent.

The government’s actions over the past few months in Vietnam illustrate this grim reality. For instance, the recent decree regarding the controversial Cybersecurity Law compels social media platforms to locally store user data, which facilitates government access when requested.

Additionally, Vietnamese security forces allegedly kidnapped A 41-year-old political asylum seeker taking refuge in Thailand and returned to the country. Moreover, four environmental activists were convicted of bogus tax evasion charges because they opposed the government’s continued use of coal for energy generation.

A strong and robust civil society is crucial in ensuring that governments worldwide are held accountable and that all individuals' rights, safety, and lives are protected. Nonetheless, the CIVICUS report highlights that authoritarian regimes will go to great and devious lengths to maintain their power and suppress dissent.

Moreover, the ruling government in Vietnam serves as a stark reminder of the consequences that may occur when civil society is slowly dismantled and silenced. And while there are a few instances in the report of small gains in favor of a positive change, as illustrated with regard to global legislative victories on climate change, these examples are few and far between.

Civil society continues to face an uphill battle in its fight for lasting and beneficial change. Still, the road remains steep and treacherous, with each step forward met by formidable obstacles that threaten to undo all the progress that has already been made. Despite this, many individuals from all walks of life, and organizations continue their daunting struggle. They face a Sisyphean endeavor at significant risk to their lives and the safety of those they love, with no guarantee that their efforts will bear fruit.

This is the state of the world we live in.

The more I am confronted with the world's harsh realities and learn about the pervasive issues plaguing it, the more my resolve is tested. Fear, uncertainty, and despair have become my constant companions, and it would be much easier for me to close my eyes to the truth and live forever, blind in blissful ignorance. But whenever I try to turn away, my thoughts turn to my friends and colleagues. The stories they told come rushing back to me of the torture, abuse, and imprisonment they endured under a cruel and indifferent government.

Every day I am confronted with the faces of hunger and poverty and the visage of rampant corruption that pervades all aspects of life. And despite their daunting task, I see faint glimmers of hope in the actions of others who work to bring about genuine change worldwide.

Through their actions, I find courage. Through their deeds, there lies fortitude. And through their determination against all odds, I find the resolve to do what little I can.

The strength of civil society lies in the unbroken invisible bond that ties all of us struggling together and the tiniest spark of hope that may one day ignite a flame that spreads and grows until it becomes a roaring fire, impossible to ignore or extinguish.

I have to believe that change is possible. If not, who else will?

The CIVICUS 2023 State of Civil Society Report can be accessed here.


CNN. (2023, February 23). Russian invasion of Ukraine: A timeline of key events on the 1st anniversary of the War. CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/interactive/2023/02/europe/russia-ukraine-war-timeline/index.html

CIVICUS Global Alliance. (2023, April 11). State of Civil Society Report 2023. CIVICUS Global Alliance. https://www.civicus.org/index.php/state-of-civil-society-report-2023

CIVICUS Staff. (2021, November 19). Turkey: Refugees targeted in surge of xenophobia. CIVICUS LENS. https://lens.civicus.org/turkey-refugees-targeted-in-surge-of-xenophobia/

United Nations. (2023, March 30). Root causes of conflicts in Africa must be addressed beyond traditional response, special adviser tells Security Council debate on silencing guns | UN press. United Nations. https://press.un.org/en/2023/sc15249.doc.htm

Mensah, K. (2022, June 29). Ghanaian police arrest 29 people protesting high cost of living. VOA. https://www.voanews.com/a/ghanaian-police-arrest-29-people-protesting-high-cost-of-living/6638241.html

Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty. (2022, January 19). Russia-led military alliance completes withdrawal from Kazakhstan. RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty. https://www.rferl.org/a/kazakhstan-csto-troops-withdrawal-security/31661294.html

The Vietnamese Magazine. (2022, August 22). Vietnam briefing August 22, 2022: Vietnam’s new decree on cybersecurity requires tech companies to store users’ data locally. The Vietnamese Magazine. https://www.thevietnamese.org/2022/08/vietnam-briefing-august-22-2022-vietnams-new-decree-on-cybersecurity-requires-tech-companies-to-store-users-data-locally/

The Vietnamese Magazine. (2023, April 23). Vietnam’s security agents allegedly abduct political blogger Duong Van Thai. The Vietnamese Magazine. https://www.thevietnamese.org/2023/04/vietnams-security-agents-allegedly-abduct-political-blogger-duong-van-thai/

The 88 Project. (2023, April 21). Vietnam: Law weaponized to prosecute climate activists. The 88 Project. Retrieved May 1, 2023, from https://the88project.org/vietnam-law-weaponized-to-prosecute-climate-activists/

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