Is space for civil society shrinking?

Luis Miranda
The chairman of India’s Centre for Civil Society talks about the role of civil society in a rapidly evolving socio-political landscape globally
An interview with
Chairman of the Centre for Civil Society and CORO

In this interview, Shivaji Bagchi and Siddharth Poddar speak with Luis Miranda, the chairman of the Centre for Civil Society, about the pressures faced by civil society with the emergence of populist leaders around the world and the need for better communication all around.

Mr Miranda, who is also the chairman of CORO, which takes a community-based approach​​ to facilitating change from within India’s most marginalised and oppressed, and a co-founder of the Indian School of Public Policy, also talks about the need for governments to accept they don’t have all the answers and for civil society to take a less confrontational and more nuanced stance, and fight the battles that matter. He hopes that can result in a more engaged partnership between the three pillars of samaj (society)sarkar (government) and bazaar (market/ private sector)

Unravel: The role of civil societies has for long been seen as key in policymaking. But given the emergence of populist leaders globally, do you think the relationship between civil society and governments is changing?

Luis Miranda: The quick answer is yes! It clearly is happening across the world. One is the emergence of populist leaders, and second is the emergence of leaders who don’t necessarily want to look at scientific research or data. They believe that academia is elitist, and therefore they don’t necessarily see the value of it.

And that’s a challenge because today you have a lot of people interested in what’s popular; based, say, on feelings, making it difficult for civil society to react appropriately and to be a positive influence with these people.

Unravel: Why do you think this is happening?

Mr Miranda: People are worried about the future. They’re worried that their kids may have a worse time than they’ve had, and this is different from the past. In the past, people always believed that the future was going to be brighter. Now you have politicians saying “you’ve been misled in the past and we’re going to give you a better world”. They make it seem that we are actually worse off today and prey on that. Yes, in the past few months because of COVID-19, economies have been hit hard, unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. But the fact is that, before that, the world was actually a better place than it has been in the past.

We tend to focus too much on extremes or the average and don’t realise that there’s this large band of people in the middle whose lives are actually better off. For example, if you take this whole discussion on inequality. Inequality does create unequal access to influence, but inequality per se is not as big an issue as long as people who are really poor can get out of poverty. And that has happened across the world. The changes that have happened in the last 30-40 years—barring the past few months—have been phenomenal. But the narrative still remains that we are in a world that is worse than it was earlier, which is simply not true for most of the population. So, civil society has not been able to get the narrative out that we’re actually in a better world than what we were in, and therefore, a lot of populist leaders who are very eloquent and charismatic have been able to come to power.

Unravel: The next question we have follows quite naturally from where we’ve stopped. And that is, how can civil society engagements step up? What are ways for it to be heard and to have greater impact?

Mr Miranda: We are all hard-wired to focus on the negatives instead of the positives. I think we’ve got to relearn how to get our message across. We need to have champions who can do this in a way that is understood by the common person. People want to know something that they can understand simply. And that’s why you’ve seen leaders who can go out over there and talk in a language that resonates with most people. A lot of us in civil society have not been able to do that.

The other point is the education that kids get in colleges. In India, for example, they’re still being taught by the same leftist economists about the same development economics which argues for a larger role of the state, and smaller role for the private sector. And India has lagged behind other economies for most of the period since 1947 because of this. The ability to get new ideas and thoughts is, therefore, extremely difficult.

Unravel: Does civil society have sufficient say in policymaking that impacts livelihoods, the environment, education, good governance?

Mr Miranda: A quick response is that civil society doesn’t have sufficient say, but in the past five months, it has played a larger role in the lives of people, because governments have not been capable of handling the situation appropriately. But now, can we therefore leverage what’s happened in the last five months to get a seat at the table?

Across the world today—like in the US, India, Brazil—there is less tolerance for criticism. This makes it hard for people to be critical. There are too many ‘yes’ women and men who will never publicly say their “emperor has no clothes”. That’s the challenge. How openly critical can one be? Does one need to be more nuanced in his/ her language? Do you need to be more careful in which battles you want to fight? A lot of youngsters feel frustrated because they want to fight so many causes. In many cases those in power fan less relevant issues to detract us from the real challenges.  

In the last year, there has been a lot of protest and dissatisfaction on various issues in our country and many who want to protest more aggressively cannot do so because their organisations are concerned about the State going against them. That is the challenge. You cannot be as open as you would like to be. But we nip away, pick our battles and focus on the longer term issues.

Many of the battles being fought appear to just be tokenism. We need to be careful about how we protest against things that have been there in the past. And this is happening everywhere. Changing the name of a road or a station might be great, but there are far more important and pressing problems to address. We shouldn’t be claiming victory for these irrelevant things.

Take the new education policy in India, for example. At the Centre for Civil Society we’ve been talking about and advocating that we’ve got to segregate the running of government schools from their regulation and from their financing. Because if you have the same institution doing all three roles, there is a conflict of interest, you don’t have transparency and there is a lack of focus. We’ve been slammed in the past for suggesting it, but now it’s finally found its way in the new policy.

Another example that gives hope is what’s happening with the larger role of civil society in the relief work around COVID-19. The government has reached out to a lot of NGOs and engaged with them. It raised a lot of money through PM CARES fund, and hopefully that money will come back to society transparently in some way to help the poor. But was this engagement seen because we are in a crisis, or is it a trigger for greater cooperation? I don’t know the answer to that.

There needs to be better communication—governments have to accept that they don’t have all the answers and civil society also needs to take a less confrontational stance and realise that it needs to be more nuanced. But the engagement we’re seeing is a great positive, and we hope more of this will set the right framework for a more engaged partnership between all the three pillars: samaj (society)sarkar (government) and bazaar (market/ private sector)

Unravel: Do you think that there has been consistent diversion of energy into activities that don’t have any material implications on the here and now?

Mr Miranda: It’s a very good point. That’s the whole issue. Many of the battles being fought appear to just be tokenism. We need to be careful about how we protest against things that have been there in the past. And this is happening everywhere. Changing the name of a road or a station might be great, but there are far more important and pressing problems to address. We shouldn’t be claiming victory for these irrelevant things. Some changes take a long time and we need to be patient.

Unravel: How badly has the judiciary and the free press been hammered in India in recent years? And what impact does that have on the success of civil society? Are you worried for its future?

Mr Miranda: Has the judiciary been totally independent before? No. Has the press been independent before? No. It’s just that today the judiciary and the press are talking about things or making decisions and judgements that differ from what some think is correct. So they object to it. There are a lot of people who think otherwise. Much of the press in India is in business because they are saying things that people want to hear. Similarly, with the judiciary, a lot of people like what decisions are being made because they sit well with their worldviews, and we cannot forget that.

Clearly, people today are concerned about what they say, especially those who have a prominent voice. There is less freedom, but I think today many are agitated because they don’t agree with what is happening or don’t like it. We must remember the judiciary has always been appointed by the government – so those biases will be there (and they reflect the biases of the government in charge). One may not necessarily agree with the choice of people being selected and oppose it, but things have been done this way always.

Unravel: Would you say that the role of civil society now is more important than ever before? Especially in driving awareness?

Mr Miranda: Yes, it’s role is even more important. As I mentioned earlier, there’s this whole belief that we are worse off today than we were a few years or decades ago. Which is just wrong.

I sort of get distressed when I see people talking about inequality. Inequality is easy to fix – you just need to tax the rich and redistribute. But how do you take people who are really poor out of poverty. We cannot do it by redistributing shares of the same pie – the size of the pie must grow.

In my view the best way to get people out of poverty is economic development, and China has shown that. People have been saying for years that the China model is going to fail, and so far it hasn’t. Will it fail? I don’t know, but from 1981 to 2011, East Asia (predominantly led by China) took its share of people in absolute poverty down from 78% of the population to under 9%. South Asia has also seen substantial progress, although not nearly as impressive as China’s. All of this has been possible due to economic growth.

I sort of get distressed when I see people talking about inequality. Inequality is easy to fix – you just need to tax the rich and redistribute. But how do you take people who are really poor out of poverty. We cannot do it by redistributing shares of the same pie – the size of the pie must grow.

I think civil society has a larger role to play now in this age of misinformation. Additionally, we need to debate civilly to find solutions. The world has moved to a stage where everyone is either with or against someone else. It seems we cannot selectively and logically agree or disagree with anyone on specific issues, and this must change.

Unravel: What’s the biggest challenge civil society is faced with in trying to drive positive change?

Mr Miranda: The biggest challenge in my view would be communication. The inability to communicate ideas effectively. And there are two reasons – external and internal. The external is a reluctance to speaking openly and freely. And there are two parts to the internal problem – the first is the inability to devise a message that people understand, and the second is the inability to argue about this message in a civil manner.

I think civil society has a larger role to play now in this age of misinformation. Additionally, we need to debate civilly to find solutions. The world has moved to a stage where everyone is either with or against someone else. It seems we cannot selectively and logically agree or disagree with anyone on specific issues, and this must change.

Unravel: Just at a time where more and more young people seem to want to make a statement about the future of the planet or society, they are being met head-on at that same moment in history with a surge in populism. How do you see this reconcile?

Mr Miranda: I think we’re going to see a period of great angst. The question is how do you get such people to talk more and sit at the table and get heard? How do you get them also to listen to other points of views?

You look at India. In 70 years of relative peace we’ve had a democracy that has survived. We underestimate that power, that strength of democratic discourse. Many countries around us and several in Africa have seen democracy fail.

But in India, there are a lot of issues that are just not addressed in a civil manner openly, such as religion biases, caste discrimination, poverty, and the like; and at some stage we could see this dam burst. But democracy creates that safety valve to let steam out. It’s very important that this valve operates freely. It may not operate the way you or I may want it to, but at least it should work.

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Chairman of the Centre for Civil Society and CORO

Luis Miranda is Chairman of the Centre for Civil Society and CORO. He has been involved in setting up two highly successful companies – HDFC Bank and IDFC Private Equity. He is co-founder of the Indian School of Public Policy. He is also on the board of Educate Girls and SBI Foundation and co-founded, Take Charge, a mentoring programme for Catholic youth in Mumbai. Luis is also Chairman of ManipalCigna Health Insurance and Senior Advisor at Morgan Stanley. He is a Trustee of the UChicago Trust in India and a member of the Advisory Council of the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation at Chicago Booth. Luis blogs for Forbes, Thrive Global and Spontaneous Order, and teaches at the Accelerated Development Program of Chicago Booth.

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