It is no secret that civic space is shrinking worldwide, including in some of the EITI’s 52 member states. Guaranteeing civil society’s free and active engagement in extractives governance is a fundamental part of the EITI process. Civil society is one of the three constituencies that sit on the EITI Board and national multi-stakeholder groups. They play a crucial role in scrutinising data, pushing for reform and holding governments and companies to account.
In some countries the EITI’s multi-stakeholder process is a rare pocket of freedom in an otherwise repressed environment. This space is protected through the EITI Civil Society Protocol. Validation of this protocol seeks to document and assess freedom of expression, operation, association and access to decision-making of civil society representatives in their activities related to extractive sector governance.
In the fringes of the EITI Board meeting held in Kyiv on 27-28 February, stakeholders gathered to discuss how adherence to EITI’s Civil Society Protocol is and should be validated. This is no easy task. For example, self-censorship by activists is challenging to identify if they are reluctant to talk about it for fear of reprisal. The effects of restrictions are often hard to pin down and measure.
Yet Validation seeks to ensure that all countries are measured by the same yardstick. Consistency upholds the EITI’s credibility, but it also means that each Validation decision taken by the Board builds precedence that affects future Validations.
Similar circumstances are supposed to lead to similar assessments, even when a different outcome could encourage improvements in civic space. Especially tricky are cases where civil society space restrictions are clear, but suspension from the EITI could close the last pocket of civic participation.
Stakeholders around the table in Kyiv highlighted the importance of hearing the voices of community-level civil society. CSOs based in capital cities may have excellent access to decision-making, while their peers in mining areas face repression. This is a message that we at the International Secretariat take seriously.
Inclusive governance is at the core of the EITI. Active participation of independent civil society is a prerequisite for public debate and accountability. As a participant noted in the discussion, civil society’s diversity is its strength, but it is also what makes assessing the Civil Society Protocol challenging. Validation needs to consider the situations faced by a wide range of actors.
While we can and should get better at understanding the circumstances civil society faces in EITI countries, there is good reason to be proud of the shared commitment to civic space that the Civil Society Protocol represents. According to CIVICUS Monitor, which monitors civil society space across the world, Colombia and Mauritania are deemed to be repressed. Yet progress on civil society engagement was assessed as satisfactory in the EITI Validations of both countries. This disparity highlights how EITI’s narrow focus on civil society space in the extractives can often be counter to prevailing trends in a country – but that is also a good starting point for wider societal change.