2019 marks three decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall — the symbolic end of the Cold War. At the time, democracy was being embraced around the world, and civil society organizations seized the opportunity to promote free and open civic engagement in formerly communist countries.
Now the world is witnessing the pendulum swing back the other way, with a new rise in authoritarian governments and countries increasingly embracing populist, nationalist and xenophobic rhetoric. These trends have put stress on democracy and civil society and, in many countries, threaten to eliminate them altogether. In many parts of Europe, people are grappling with curtailed freedom of speech, attacks on freedom of the media and less judicial independence.
As a longtime supporter of civil society development across central and eastern Europe, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation has joined with other foundations to create the Civitates Fund, an initiative that aims to protect and reinvigorate space for civic engagement. This 16-member philanthropic consortium will help provide European civil society coalitions with resources they need to fight back against threats to freedom and democracy in their countries.
“Civitates is a great opportunity for Mott to partner with other funders to find solutions that will help civil society continue to thrive,” said Mott Senior Program Officer Walter Veirs. “By combining our resources, experience and knowledge, we can more effectively support people and organizations that are tackling the closing space challenge and help them continue their work in difficult circumstances.”
Civitates Fund Manager Loenie van Tongeren said the fund will make grants throughout the European Union. It will focus on countries where democracy faces tension and where support for liberal democratic systems is questioned.
“Digital technology is transforming how we communicate, participate and exchange information, and profoundly changing democracy and civil society. We have to ensure civil society is at the forefront of the digital revolution — not at its mercy.”— Walter Veirs
“This is a critical moment for Europe as hard-won democratic freedoms are being eroded,” van Tongeren said. “Civitates will provide a forum for philanthropic and civil society actors to come together to revitalize public discourse and ensure that all voices are heard. No single organization, however innovative, can improve democracy by itself.”
Veirs, who serves as a member of the Civitates steering committee, said the fund also will support work to counter the negative effects of digitization on public discourse and strengthen technology that promotes civic engagement.
“Digital technology is transforming how we communicate, participate and exchange information, and profoundly changing democracy and civil society,” he added. “We have to ensure civil society is at the forefront of the digital revolution — not at its mercy.”
Stefan Schäfers, head of European affairs at the King Baudouin Foundation and chairman of the Civitates board, also stressed the importance of confronting negative aspects of the digital revolution.
“In a world where misinformation travels six times faster than the truth, stronger safeguards are needed to ensure that hate speech, disinformation and misinformation are not allowed to continue to thrive in the ways they have online,” said Schäfers. “Civitates is committed to analyzing and exposing the problematic aspects of the digital information ecosystem.”
Civitates has so far distributed over $1.1 million in funding to civil society coalitions in EU countries, including Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Italy, France, Poland and Romania. Each coalition involves a wide array of organizations that focus on issues ranging from education to climate change and human rights.
Along with the Mott Foundation, members of the consortium are: Adessium Foundation, Stefan Batory Foundation, Bertelsmann Stiftung, European Cultural Foundation, ERSTE Stiftung, Fondation de France, Fritt Ord, King Baudouin Foundation, Körber Stiftung, Luminate, Nicolas Puech Foundation, Oak Foundation, Open Society Foundations, Robert Bosch Stiftung, and Stiftung Mercator.
For more information on Civitates, visit civitates-eu.org.