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Countering the Challenge of Closing Civic Space

7 June 2018 at 8:34 am
Wendy Williams
Since 2012, 72 countries around the world have passed more than 144 pieces of legislation restricting civil society, according to a new report exploring how donors can effectively support civic space.

Wendy Williams | 7 June 2018 at 8:34 am


Countering the Challenge of Closing Civic Space
7 June 2018 at 8:34 am

Since 2012, 72 countries around the world have passed more than 144 pieces of legislation restricting civil society, according to a new report exploring how donors can effectively support civic space.

The report, Effective Donor Responses to the Challenge of Closing Civic Space published by The International Centre for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL), set out to examine what can be done to respond to and counter the closing civic space challenge more effectively.

It revealed there had been a “wave of civic space constraints – which is unlikely to recede soon”.

“Civil society and the ability to exercise civic freedoms – the freedoms of association, expression, and peaceful assembly – have been under threat for many years,” the report said.

“Governments continue to enact laws and regulations that impede civil society – individuals, organisations and movements – to exist and operate.

“The global trend is marked by the use of law as a repressive tool, converting the concept of ‘rule of law’ into ‘rule by law’.”

The report said it was important to note that government crackdowns on civil society, which it said could be traced to the beginning of the current millennium, were not limited to authoritarian political systems, but also extended to democratic systems.

It highlighted the Australian government’s proposal “to restrict community organisations that rely on international funding from engaging in advocacy” as an example.

The report found that donor governments had multiple reasons for defending civic space, “which spring from a vision of civil society as a pillar of healthy democratic states and pluralistic societies; from interest-based arguments focusing on security and stability, humanitarian assistance, and development goals; and from the inherent value of civil society”.

“The closing space trend runs counter to donor government goals and interests,” the report said.

It comes after the government of Sweden commissioned the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) in 2016 to propose ways in which Swedish development cooperation could more effectively help counteract shrinking democratic space by strengthening civil society.

Sida invited input from 50 respondents on this and other questions relating to civic space.

Informed in part by this input ICNL set out to explore what governmental donors could do to address the closing space challenge more effectively, resulting in this latest report.

The objective was to explore what strategies, approaches and practices donors, defined in this context as government bilateral aid agencies that provide official development assistance (ODA), can consider to protect civic space.

“While similar to Sida’s question, this question drills down more narrowly on effective donor strategies,” the report said.

“This is not meant to downplay the importance of civil society’s own responsibility; clearly the burden of responding falls not on donors alone, or even primarily on donors. Rather, the responsibility is a shared one – one that should include not only civil society and donors, but also the media, academia, business and citizens themselves.”

The report made a number of recommendations to counter restrictions and protect civic space.

Among these, the report said donors should articulate a clear vision of support for civil society as part of their development and foreign policy statements.

It also recommended donors demonstrate commitment to long-term support, as defending civic space is an ongoing challenge.  

“Crisis-oriented support, while necessary and important, is not sufficient,” the report said.

It found donors should strive toward policy coherence and coordination between development agencies, foreign ministries, and other agents of foreign policy.

“Efforts to restrict civic space take both legal and extra-legal forms, affect CSOs [Civil Society Organisations] at all stages in their lifecycles, and occur both in country and extraterritorially,” the report said.

“Addressing a problem of this breadth and complexity requires harnessing the potential of both development assistance and diplomacy.”

It found donors should also continue to empower civil society, with civil society leadership described as “fundamental” to responding to closing space challenges.

According to the report there were multiple areas of potential engagement, but it said all engagement should seek to support local leadership, and should “recognise the advantages of multi-pronged responsive strategy”.

The report also cautioned that as the nature of global challenges evolved, donors should be nimble and ready to adapt responses in innovative ways, including adapting aid modalities to current realities, including the emergence of social movements, social media, youth activists, and others as key change actors.

It said donors should seek to support recipient country governments to defend and expand civic space.

The report also recommended that donors be alert to opportunities to engage with private sector allies on issues affecting human rights and civic space.

“Civil society’s capacity to address gaps in governance, climate change, youth unemployment, and rising inequality, among other issues, make it a natural ally of business, whose success depends on a stable and enabling environment,” it said.

“A vibrant civil society is vital to the interests of private companies.”

The report concluded that: “Countering the closing civic space challenge is a shared responsibility of civil society, government, the private sector and, of course, citizens themselves.

“As this paper demonstrates, there is a broad range of possibilities through which government donors can share in this responsibility.”

Wendy Williams  |  Editor  |  @WendyAnWilliams

Wendy Williams is a journalist specialising in the not-for-profit sector and broader social economy. She has been the editor of Pro Bono News since 2018.

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