Sarah Mendelson on countering restrictions on civil society

Sarah Mendelson, senior adviser and director of the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) spoke about how human rights scholars and practitioners can push back on closing space around civil society for the Stanford Program on Human Rights’ Winter Speaker Series U.S Human Rights NGOs and International Human Rights on January 21, 2015.

Mendelson, having previously worked as an activist, academic, and government official, addressed the Stanford audience from multiple perspectives about the relationship between U.S governmental agencies and domestic and international NGOs. She emphasized the lack of alignment in the research emerging from academics and policymakers, stressing the need to close the gap between universities and government. Mendelson proposes that public opinion survey instruments be deployed to test the efficacy of NGO work in the field, and that universities, governments and NGOs collaborate in developing these instruments.

There was a great deal of overlap in the issues that Mendelson addressed and those addressed by Douglas Rutzen on January 7, 2015. Both described the alarming movement of governments to close space around civil society, stating that the trend has now extended far beyond Russia to become a global phenomenon. Mendelson probed the audience with challenging reflections on the potential negative consequences of the Silicon Valley open agenda approach towards data transparency, demonstrating how governments view the increased connectivity as a threat to their sovereignty. Therefore, there is a link between the need for transparent, accountable governments on one hand, and closing of civic space on the other, a paradox that is activating dangerous tensions between governments and their citizenry.

Helen Stacy, director of the Program on Human Rights, followed Mendelson’s talk with questions on the legitimacy of NGOs; the extent to which NGOs are held accountable for their work; and the moral soundness of public opinion. Mendelson responded and concluded with the ultimate need for more powerful data to provide legitimacy for NGOs and for policy to be driven by evidence. Questions from the audience included how ethics tie into international development work, the proper toolset for doing due diligence on an NGO as a potential place of work, and the connection between innovation and humanitarianism.

Dana Phelps, Program Associate, Program on Human Rights