Activism and Social Participation are at Risk in Mexico

Francisco Rivas, director of the National Citizen Observatory (Observatorio Nacional Ciudadano), writes about the importance of strengthening civil society in Mexico.

From January 27 to February 3, 2024, the National Citizen Observatory (ONC) and 7 other Mexican civil organizations had the honor of participating in a series of meetings with German Foundations, civil organizations, think tanks and authorities.

Thanks to the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom, the ONC, the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, México Evalúa and other civil society organizations were able to share experiences and analyze possible solutions to the challenges of citizen participation. The seminar, which took place in Berlin, Germany, aimed to strengthen the work of Mexican civil society organizations, as well as to lay the groundwork for future international cooperation.

This effort takes place at a time when activism and citizen participation are under severe threat in Mexico. In the last 5 years, the number of Mexican civil organizations has systematically decreased, the institutional spaces for the organizations to be a counterweight to authorities have been lost, and their work has been highly discredited and/or persecuted. Therefore, meetings such as the one organized by the Naumann Foundation are significantly fundamental to find strategies that allow not only the subsistence, but also the strengthening of impactful civil society organizations.

Then, how has social participation evolved in Mexico and what can we learn from Germany?

In our country, there is a century-old tradition of philanthropy. It has normally sought to mitigate poverty, as well as promote access to education, health and basic infrastructure in communities. In contrast, the first civil human rights organizations and think tanks emerged just over 40 years ago. It was not until the end of the last century that the first civil society organization focused on security and justice issues appeared.

From 2000 to 2012, the first years of the century were very positive years for social activism. A sustained growth of civil organizations was observed, as well as advocacy spaces that were institutionalized through regulatory reforms and inclusion in regulations. However, citizen participation, philanthropic subsidiarity, and social activism remained incipient in Mexico.

It is enough to analyze that countries such as Argentina or Chile -which have a third of our population- have many more civil organizations than Mexico.

Unfortunately, the current scenario is much more adverse and worrisome. Since the beginning of the current federal administration, the decrease of social activism has been evident, as well as the formal and informal channels of communication and cooperation between governments -at all levels- and civil society. At the same time, a systematic attack and a discrediting -from both the current presidency and many other authorities- to the work of organized civil society has been substantially promoted.

How are we really doing?

The federal and local governments do not limit themselves when it comes to attacking civil society; from the beginning, they have implemented tax reforms that inhibit private donations to social organizations. In addition to this, the political use of the prosecution offices, the tax authorities and the patrimonial intelligence, against our donors, has managed to alienate social and business leaders from civil organizations, as well as to reduce the collection capacity of CSO's and Think Tanks.

In addition, the various governments have repeated in the local level the actions of the federal government: they have dismantled the formal mechanisms established in laws and regulations for organized civil society to be heard and act as a counterweight. At the same time, governments have intimidated the media and journalists in order to reduce safe spaces for the opinion of activists and experts in various fields.

Less society means less checks and balances. Less society favors authoritarianism, and a biased vision inhibits transparency and accountability. The attacks from the President of the Republic and other authorities against civil society pursues precisely that, since less society and less democracy allow more opacity.

What a difference with Germany!

In Germany, for decades, funds, formal mechanisms for listening and cooperation, as well as evaluation systems have been built to encourage social participation, good governance and the good use of public resources. Recognition of the good work of civil organizations, as well as tax benefits, have strengthened a culture of philanthropy among citizens and companies. In each of the meetings with our German counterparts, it was evident that tax collection, intellectual independence and advocacy capacity are not problems they are experiencing.

It was also clear that the situation in Mexico is well known internationally and they have witnessed the government's attacks on activists in the country. Germany shows us the way forward. In Mexico, the deep social gaps, high violence rates, corruption and impunity significantly weaken individual and collective rights that hinder the citizens' freedom.

The ONC feels honored to have participates in this series of meetings. The seminar achieved its objective, we returned with a clearer strategy on how to respond to the current challenges and more confident that there are allies with whom we can build citizenship.

We are also deeply grateful for the trust and support that the Naumann Foundation has given us for almost a decade. This support has made it possible to analyze the phenomenon of human disappearances in Mexico, which is currently focused on improving the performance of law enforcement authorities, reducing impunity and better serving the victims of violence.

This cooperation has managed to significantly increase the number of investigations that allow the arrest and punishment of criminals, a cooperation that dignifies the work of the authorities and that, once again, confirms how foundations, international cooperation, civil society and governments can solve problems that seem stagnant in the Mexican institutional reality.

I hope that other organizations can feed on similar experiences and walk hand in hand with allies as solid as the Naumann Foundation, since the coming years will be key for the country. Today in Mexico, citizens are living worse conditions of security, rights and freedoms in comparison to 2018 and, undoubtedly, we could be worse off if many of our allies and colleagues had given up.

In Mexico, the day there is no more authoritarianism and corruption, it will be thanks to those of us who continue to believe in activism and social participation.

Fransico Rivas, Director of the National Citizen Observatory