Why Civil Society Organisations are Champion Bridge Builders


By Sabrina Grover,  Co-Chair, Y7


As government leaders and heads of state shake hands and hold press conferences at international gatherings, policy and decision-makers meet in conference halls and discuss international guidelines and global goals—in the background toiling away at successfully shaping the pathway to sustainable development is civil society, and at the heart of this pathway is building the foundations for democratic institutions, and inclusive participation. Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) are a force in the international system, but more importantly they are a force on the ground mobilizing people, holding governments accountable, and activating change.

Civil society on the ground and in action

This past July, I had the opportunity to observe the harmonised elections in Zimbabwe as part of the Commonwealth Observer Group. These elections marked the first time in nearly 40 years, where Robert Mugabe’s name was not on the ballot, and served as an opportunity for citizens, and civil society to help shape the civic space for the country. In a country where democratic principles had for so long been observed only at the general whim of the government, especially as part of the electoral processes, these elections were a chance for a new narrative from Zimbabwe. CSOs in Zimbabwe had operated for so long in a tense and oftentimes repressive political environment where existing on a day to day basis was a challenge, often marred by widespread violence and aggression by the government. Following the 2000 elections, the ensuing decade of Mugabe’s regime was characterised by violence against political opposition and civil society perpetuated by police and youth militia.

This year during the elections that space opened up, and CSOs were able to push further, able to operate with some degree of freedom from political violence and help to activate a grassroots citizenry that for so long had been suppressed. CSOs acted as conveyors of information, helping to educate and inform Zimbabweans on the election and their rights to vote; CSOs served as defenders of human rights, ensuring that opposition candidates facing political violence were able to have their cases at the very least heard in the courts; CSOs helped activate young Zimbabweans, encouraging them to vote and help shape their own future.

Having an impact by defending the inclusion of women

As women faced an unprecedented level of violence and hate speech, CSOs organized around them, defending their inclusion and participation in the election and continuing to push for a greater number of women to be elected. On Election Day, CSO citizen observers deployed to over 11,000 polling stations across the country to monitor and observe the elections, including observing the ballot count which in many places lasted into the wee hours of the following morning. CSOs weren’t just present in these elections, they were active, they were involved and they were ready to fight for their country and their people.

Civil Society is the bridge to inclusive development, to inclusive participation, to bridging the divides of communities, government and citizens. Zimbabwe is only one example of so many, where CSOs persevere to protect the principles and values of democracy, of freedom, and of justice. In the global north, we often don’t even consider the role of civil society—in most places citizens could likely barely name even a handful of domestic CSOs.

We carry on with the work of elections, government, justice without noticing or even knowing about the role of civil society, yet when our values or principles are threatened CSOs emerge, ready to take on courts, to take on government, to take on business as defenders of liberties and human rights. Civil Society are the partners that need to be at the table to have conversations around progress and development in any context—they are the few that will protect the voices of the many.


This article is part of a LinkedIn series for the Women’s Forum Global Meeting 2018, demonstrating how participants and partners of the Women’s Forum for the Economy & Society are #BridgingHumanity to drive inclusive progress. You can read the original here. Visit our website and join the conversation using #WFGM18.