The State of Mediterranean Civil Society: Preparing the Ground for our Common Destiny

Gianluca Solera

Writer and Director of the Italy/Europe/Mediterranean and Global Citizenship Department at Cooperazione per lo Sviluppo dei Paesi Emergenti (COSPE)

The Mediterranean is not only an area of the most diverse ecological life and cultural communities but also a space where people organise themselves in different ways to address societal and political issues and exert resilience in fragile or repressive political systems, seeking to re-establish balance and provide better living conditions for their communities. The civil society of the Mediterranean space is, however, often seen in its separate parts, looking at national constituencies, at how associations cope with Egyptian security, or at how they manage to influence decision-makers in France. To counter this viewpoint, we decided to begin research on the civil society working beyond borders in the Mediterranean.

Is There a “Regional Civil Society” around the Sea?

Is there a “regional civil society” around the sea? Do these entities share a common view on the future of the region? What are the issues they are mostly addressing? Are they sustainable in terms of resources and governance? These are some of the questions that Med Dialogue for Rights and Equality – a European Union (EU)-funded programme with the overall objective of strengthening the role of civil society organizations (CSOs) active at the regional scale in the Southern Neighbourhood and the Euro-Mediterranean space – asked at the beginning of its mission. These queries emerged from the observation that issues and challenges related to rights in the region could attain effective solutions only through transnational cooperation.

Research was therefore required, not only to better design the programme activities but also to offer an informed “portrait” of Mediterranean civil society working beyond borders, and encourage these actors to break barriers in their work, seek a common understanding of issues, defend the idea that we need equal access to rights with no national or cultural justifications for exceptions, and nurture a vision of a shared future. We were convinced that acquiring data on and identifying trends of this regional civil society would strengthen it, and provide donors for a better understanding of their needs. It would also deliver legitimacy – if I may use this term – to their role of building sustainable development, regional cohesion, social resilience, and a culture of rights, while influencing policymaking in the Southern Neighbourhood and the Euro-Mediterranean space.

We wanted somehow to challenge the definition of citizenship as exclusively granted by nation-states – searching for an active, non-conventional citizenship shared within the Mediterranean transnational space

Too many voices are repeating that the Mediterranean does not exist as a community or as a socio-political space. They consider it a mere geographical fact, and therefore believe that only states must deal with their own domestic issues and reject the notion that the two shores share a common destiny. We wanted to question those statements because statements per se can change through “factual citizenship”, “citizenship-in-action”, through practices transforming communities, and opening ways for exchange and mutual support. If I may say so, we wanted somehow to challenge the definition of citizenship as exclusively granted by nation-states – searching for an active, non-conventional citizenship shared within the Mediterranean transnational space, based on noble human values inherited from the Western and Eastern traditions. A notion of citizenship with the objective of recreating a common space to be imagined, organised, practised, and lived as one. As much as peoples and their social entities have contributed to build a “European identity” among the citizens of the EU through their work beyond borders, so we wanted to understand if there is a similar potential in the Mediterranean space, which many of us recognise as our source of “collective identity”, built through various historical exchanges, cultural contamination, shared lifestyles and alternating regional dominations.

The Survey Research at a Glance

The survey research, conducted by a pool of experts between December 2019 and May 2020, provides a unique source of information on civil society networks, platforms and other entities with a transnational status or scope of action operating in the Mediterranean space. 3,200 entities of the region were initially screened among all “forms of non-profit grouping or aggregation (formal or informal) created by citizens to support a cause and/or address a problem that are characterised by autonomy, voluntary and free adhesion of members, independence, and action space outside political institutions” (Carlini and Heggi, 2020). Through a selection process based on a set of criteria – including the geographical scope, the sector of intervention, the capacity to work at regional or transnational level, or the relevance of their work to understand the complex dynamics of the Mediterranean – around 150 entities were listed as “Mediterranean networks”. Afterwards, they were sent a questionnaire, with 2/3 replying. Based on this data, a group of researchers and senior activists produced an assessment of the status of civil society in the region, which can be found in the publication Bridging the Sea.1

Networks’ Relevant Features and the Cause for Democracy

The survey found out that over 63% of these entities have less than fifteen years of existence, which shows that we are dealing with a young civil society, whereby the transnational dimension is a modern approach to civil action; we could also say that the 2011 social unrest might have further impacted this projection towards cross-border action. 60% of the respondents declare they have advocacy experience at transnational level. In terms of the operational context where they work, although these entities mainly depend on EU funds or grants from other public donors (56% and 60%, respectively), there is an interesting trend emerging toward funding diversification (21% declare receiving funds even from the private sector, and 6% from members’ fees). That is certainly determined by several factors, among which we can highlight the need for more autonomy and less dependence on public donors. Moreover, many networks operate in a context where the pressure of external actors is very important, and the main agent trying to influence or control these networks is represented by governments (60% of respondents say so), followed by political parties (23%) and religious institutions (19.5%).  Another important feature of these transnational actors is the importance they attach to the struggle for democratisation, whereby consolidating the democratic space and citizens’ rights, on the one hand, and influencing institutions to better serve citizens, on the other, are the two most important fields of work (63% and 54%, respectively). The challenge of tacking socioeconomic inequalities ranks third in the poll (53%). Experts’ assessment of this centrality of the democratic question is that there will not be any progress in addressing the multiple cross-border challenges confronting the Mediterranean without the accountability of regimes and a safe space of democratic expression. Even the issue of the ecological crisis responds to this scenario. Environmental CSOs prioritise consolidating democratic spaces, influencing institutions, and tackling socioeconomic inequalities, because the story of environmental failure is the story of state failure in general (Schwartzstein, 2021)! The democratic cause requires better internal governance mechanisms for these networks, whose governing bodies are too often detached from local communities and sometimes pretend to speak “on behalf of civil society” without going through any accountability process towards citizens. This has created in some cases a kind of “Euro-Med” elite, which does evolve with the developments on the ground. The risk these organisations incur is to be unable to counter the illegitimatising narrative against civil society, its role and funds. It is true that building cross-border networks helps CSOs to better cope with illegitimatising narratives, but there is still a disconnection between the adopted measures of internal democracy and governance from one side, and the mission of democratic consolidation from the other, which is stronger accountability to and representation of constituencies (Shahin, 2021).

A Shared Vision of the Future

The most encouraging message we have received through this survey research refers to the vision of the future: over 80% of the mapped networks believe that Euro-Mediterranean and Southern Mediterranean countries share common values that could become the basis for effective cooperation. However, their attachment to the region as a common destiny goes beyond it. Survey participants strongly agree (57%) and agree (29%) with the idea of creating a new common Mediterranean institutional space. Another datum of the survey also confirms that these organisations strongly agree with the idea of working together for promoting an integrated space with common policies (94%). Such a strong civil and political statement on their side is the strongest legitimisation of their transnational and transcultural mission; it is also the best argument to challenge sceptical, cynical or hate-based views that depict “the land beyond the sea” as something completely disconnected from the destiny of Europe, and as an area of turbulences and a threat for Europe’s stability and well-being.


In conclusion, three points deserve to be highlighted when dealing with the regional civil society in the Mediterranean:

• Despite repression, fluctuating resources, disenchanted local constituencies and rising walls between and within nations, Mediterranean CSOs are still energetic and engaged in various vital roles from service provision to advocacy, and from research to mobilisation (Mansour, 2021);

 • Most of the CSOs surveyed advocate internationally, although Mediterranean-wide transnational advocacy, where entities from both shores and/or many countries coordinate together, is still uncommon. For them, influencing American or European foreign policies or attitudes has a boomerang effect in the eyes of these organizations as it brings pressure to bear on Arab capitals regarding human rights or economic justice issues; and 

• International donors should not only care about the financial support these CSO networks rely on; they should be more effective at the political level, interfering in a more robust way to defend the civic space these CSO networks operate in to prevent further delegitimisation and isolation (Camberlin, 2021).

While this research does not claim to “close the book” on what Mediterranean civil society is and what it could become, it does strive to provide a space to reflect and spark action on behalf of all those who wish to see a stronger civil society in the region, working toward establishing a shared culture of rights and equality, which is the necessary condition for a future of peace, stability, respect and cohesion.


1.- The world outside of the window seems like a silent film.


Camberlin, M., “Sustainability of Regional Networks in the Euro-Med Space: Challenges and Opportunities”, in Bridging the Sea: A Review of Mediterranean Civil Society, February 2021.

Carlini, P. and I. Heggi, Mapping of Civil Society Networks, Platforms and other Entities in the Southern Mediterranean and the Euro-Med Space, Particip GmbH, 16 July 2020.

Mansour, K., “Engaging Beyond Borders: Challenges and Opportunities”, in Bridging the Sea: A Review of Mediterranean Civil Society, February 2021.

Schwartzstein, P., “Environmental Activism along a Warming Mediterranean: Forging Regional Engagement at a Time of Climate Crises”, in Bridging the Sea: A Review of Mediterranean Civil Society, February 2021.

Shawky Shahin, Y., “Civil Society’s Governance in the Mediterranean: A Strenuous Path Filled with Opportunities”, in Bridging the Sea: A Review of Mediterranean Civil Society, February 2021.