Civil society organizations carve out a unique sector beyond governments and business and are often considered to be the foundation of a free and democratic society.
Civil societies promote plural ideas, advocate for the unheard, drive social change, and seek justice. Unfortunately, civic spaces and associational life have been under increasing threat in a number of countries and this plays out in a number of ways: public attacks that discredit civil society groups, restrictive laws, or cooptation of previously independent associations to serve political ends.
After gains throughout the 20th century, 2018 saw the 13th consecutive year of decline in global freedom. The problem is widespread – affecting countries in every region of the world.
To counter this decline, this year’s Ashoka Fellows are working for reforms in justice systems and creating new avenues for civic engagement. Major strategies involve creating networked communities who are armed with knowledge to advocate for transparency within systems that have become closed. From making the process of obtaining legal advice easier for asylees in the United States to holding local governments accountable in Mexico, social entrepreneurs are at the frontlines of ensuring vibrant and active civil societies.
Public and human rights defense
It is no secret that the legal system in the United States is complicated. Two Fellows this year are working to mitigate a system that unfairly discriminates and excludes.
One of the biggest recurring news stories in 2019 was the treatment of families seeking asylum at the southern United States border. As reports of gross mistreatment of asylees and the detention of their children have rolled out, so have reports of the complex and rapidly changing asylum laws that have made winning a case extremely difficult. In fact, only 3% of asylum seekers who face the court without a lawyer are granted asylum.Swapna Reddy’s Asylum Seeker Advocacy Project (ASAP) is working to address many of these issues through a model that provides a private, online community for asylum seekers to ask questions from experts, learn about immigration enforcement changes, and share stories and strategies. These online communities also provide a Legal Emergency Room where asylum seekers can get short-term legal aid during crises. ASAP also litigates cases as part of their efforts to uncover patterns of injustice. Since 2015, they have expanded to assist asylum seekers in more than 40 states.
Adam Foss is addressing the United States legal system from a different angle. With 2.3 million people imprisoned across the country, the US incarcerates people at a higher rate than any other country. 68% of released prisoners will be re-arrested within 6 years. One of the most powerful actors in the system are the prosecutors who can determine the fates of the millions of women and men who pass through the system. Many, fresh from law school, are not able to break out of a system that prioritizes winning cases over identifying root causes like trauma, poverty, homelessness or mental illness that bring many people to court. Adam’s organization, Prosecutor Impact, works to address these critical issues through trainings for new prosecutors, culture change planning, continuing education and a national peer network of support. By exposing prosecutors to the systemic and root cause issues of the crimes they will see in their jobs before they begin, Prosecutor Impact provides them with tools to develop solutions that are more just, fair, and better protect the communities they serve.
Reigniting civic engagement
These days, it can feel like civility – the idea that societies are linked through common interests and collective responsibility – is lost. Several Fellows are building tools that encourage and ignite civic engagement. A history of corrupt and authoritarian governments in Mexico has made the population especially apathetic to civic engagement. And this has led to a mutually reinforcing apathy between the government and its citizens.Arturo Hernandez Ortega founded Los Supercívicos as a national strategy to generate civic consciousness. Using humorous viral videos, an interactive platform for citizens to report, and alliances with city councils, Arturo is building social awareness campaigns that people pay attention to which shed light and hold politicians accountable. With over 2 million social media followers, Los Supercívicos has seen the unexpected impact of city councils across Mexico competing to resolve the greatest number of citizen reports.
Romania has typically scored low on Transparency International’s corruption index. Civic engagement has been slow to pick up since the fall of communism 30 years ago. One answer to this issue has been the establishment of Funky Citizens, a Romanian initiative that is the brainchild of Elena Calistru.
Protagonists for Change
“Lobbying is neither good nor bad: it’s just a tool,” says found- er of The Good Lobby Alberto Alemanno – and he’s working to ensure that lobbying, a tool used for good. Policy making rarely includes the people for which the policies are written – 75% of meetings include shareholders or corporate elites and fail to include the wider population. As a result, lobbying has come to be associated with something negative or dirty. The reality is that most everyday citizen know little of the process- es of how policies are created, and politicians quickly become detached from the needs of their constituents. Citizen-led campaigns on platforms like change.org or avaaz.org can rally people behind a cause, but often do not lead to actual legal changes or policy shifts.
Learning and insights on the future of social good are key objectives for Ashoka teams throughout the world. With over 3,600 Fellows in the network, we have the experience, expertise, and data to understand key trends, new strategies, and innovative approaches in diverse fields. That’s why the Ashoka Learning and Action Center (LAC) was launched in 2018 to produce and disseminate practical research that cuts across Ashoka’s programs and initiatives. In 2019, the LAC team produced Doing Democracy: How Social Entrepreneurs Bridge Divides, Fight Apathy and Strengthen Civil Liberties, based on an analysis of 25 Fellows who are explicitly focused on promoting societies based on democratic values. Stay tuned for more tools and insights from the Ashoka network.
 House, Freedom. “Freedom in the world 2019: Democracy in retreat. Washington DC: Freedom House.” 2019.
 Ye Hee Lee, Michelle. “Yes, US locks people up at a higher rate than any other country.” Washington Post (July 7),2015.
 Alper, Mariel, Matthew R. Durose, and Joshua Markman. 2018 update on prisoner recidivism: A 9-year follow-up period (2005-2014). US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2018.
 Ellingwood, Ken. “Disenchantment may keep Mexico’s young voters on sidelines.” The Los Angeles Times 12, 2012.