09/26/2013 04:18 pm ET Updated Nov 26, 2013

Government Crackdown on Civil Society Threatens Global Progress

I bid farewell to my new friend fearing he might be in jail by the end of the week. That I cannot say his name underscores the gravity of the situation. All morning he had been on Skype seeking advice from family and colleagues back home. After his last call he turned to me in our little office in Washington and said: "That was Human Rights Watch and they also advised me not to go back."

Working at a leading human rights organization documenting abuses in a small country in Asia had put him and his coworkers at risk. Just after he arrived in the U.S. for a research fellowship, government agents jailed his boss - a move designed to leave the organization in disarray. They were holding him under a law criminalizing the publication of information that may hurt the image of the state. Having turned the law into a legitimized instrument of repression, the government was now violating the group's fundamental freedom to organize and work together to improve human rights and other conditions.

His case is not unique. Since the turn of the century, the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law has documented a global trend toward the suppression of civil society organizations. Think of it as a counterrevolution that is rolling back the vast democratic reforms that followed after the end of the Cold War. Under the guise of laws aimed at protecting national security and promoting lofty sounding ideals like patriotism and legitimate aspirations, barriers are going up. This year alone, Russia inspected more than 2,000 organizations, seeking to prosecute those accepting foreign funding under its "foreign agent" law. And Egypt, even before the coup, refused to register foreign organizations working with orphanages to advance education on the grounds that such activities "conflict with state sovereignty." Restricting access to foreign funding is the most recent trend, but more than 50 countries have enacted legislation detrimental to the work of organized civil society.

Government suppression of civil society risks leaving millions of people behind and impoverished. Restrictive legislation and active repression are undermining the public's collective ability to engage in debate and work together to address problems. Civil society organizations have a global economic impact that has been estimated at no less than a trillion U.S. dollars, and enjoy international recognition as independent development actors. Yet, a shrinking civic sphere is blocking their ability to promote human rights and economic development. Governments taking such actions are violating universally recognized norms that enshrine freedom of association, speech, and assembly. They also risk denying a future of improved economic conditions for the world's poorest.

For more than 10 years the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) helped guide global development projects. Reflecting on them in this blog series, leaders and partners from various development organizations shared success stories that depended entirely on collective efforts - from planting home gardens that feed families, to fighting malaria and reducing HIV infections. Now, the world is contemplating with excitement a new, groundbreaking agenda for development. For the first time in history, the goal of eradicating extreme poverty across the world seems attainable. It will not be possible, however, unless we can stop the backlash against civil society, and protect the power that emerges from people working together.

The High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda convened by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, was well aware of the problem. In its final report, the Panel highlighted the silence of the MDGs on the importance of "good governance and institutions that guarantee the rule of law, free speech and open and accountable government." But, good governance, it said, is a core element of social wellbeing. To achieve transparent and responsive institutions, civil society must be meaningfully involved, which means, "ensuring people's right to freedom of speech, association, peaceful protest."

On Monday, President Obama launched a year-long, multinational campaign to stand for civil society. It comes as a strong signal to the United Nations General Assembly now gathered in New York with the aim of beginning to shape the post-2015 development agenda. His message was clear: a strong civil society upholds human rights, promotes good governance and attracts economic development, and the international community must step up to support it.

My friend's boss has been in detention nearly two months now. The work of local organization staffers embodies one of the world's most dearly held rights: the freedom to associate to solve common problems and improve lives. When I asked my friend what had finally made him decide to go back, he replied: "I am needed there. Our organization is in trouble."

Seeing my friend pack up his laptop for the lonely flight ahead of him underscored for me why U.N. members and international civil society must work together to preserve this freedom. The success of any post-2015 development agenda depends on it. Eradicating extreme poverty in our lifetime will require free societies that embrace innovation and cooperation. We need societies with civic spaces open to dialogue and people working together to leave no one behind.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and the NGO alliance InterAction around the United Nations General Assembly's 68th session and its general debate on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), "Post-2015 Development Agenda: Setting the Stage" (September 24-October 2, 2013). The session will feature world leaders discussing progress made on the MDGs and what should replace them when they expire in 2015. To read all the posts in the series, click here; to follow the conversation on Twitter, find the hashtag #No1Behind. For more information about InterAction, click here.