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The Changing Environment for Civil Society

Posted by: Cécile on 27 Aug 2015
in Blog

In June, I was lucky enough to attend the Funder Workshop on the Disabling Environment for Civil Society in Berlin to discuss the phenomenon of how the environment is changing for civil society action around the world. This was the perfect opportunity to take a step back from my day-to-day work, reflect on current trends and understand how these affect us and our partners on the ground.

What are the current trends and challenges?

There has been a rapid increase in laws passed by governments around the world that have restricted the environment for civil society organisations, in terms of registration, operation and funding. These laws have limited freedom of expression, association and assembly.

Recently in India, where a number of Stars Impact Award recipients are based, foreign funding for organisations involved in 'political' activities has been prohibited. In a significant attack on democratic values and principles, approximately 9,000 organisations have also lost their registration status.

This affront on civil society activity is visible on a global scale but comprises a wide diversity of cases and contexts. In order to find effective and realistic strategies to address these challenges, it is crucial to keep the local context in mind. I found it particularly striking to hear at the workshop that only 1% and 0.2% of development and humanitarian funds respectively go directly to local organisations working on the front line.

'The right to freedom of association not only includes the ability of individuals or legal entities to form and join an association but also to seek, receive and use resources – human, material and financial – from domestic, foreign, and international sources', 

- Mr Maina Kiai, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.

What has been driving these restrictions?

There are a number of factors that can explain these trends and the emergence of new restrictions, for example:

  • The defiance of Western political values since the early 2000s and as a result of the wars on Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • An increased awareness of the power and influence that non-state actors can carry. The recent civil mobilisations in the Middle East, for example, and the impact these have had on the regimes in place, have contributed to this growing awareness.
  • The ability to advance change using non-traditional forms of communication, available via the internet, such as social media.
  • The increased prevalence of counter-terrorism and national security narratives, which have led to restrictions and increased attempts to control transfers of funding to civil society organisations.

How can funders respond?

During the conference, we discussed a number of different approaches that could help respond to the issue of the changing environment for civil society, but I would like to focus on those that resonate with me most:

  • Keep it local:
    First is the need to invest in local champions that truly understand the context in which they are operating and make a real difference on the ground. Stronger local civil societies will be better placed to respond to the challenges and restrictions they face, and could contribute to ongoing dialogue with state and non-state actors with greater confidence.
  • Strength in numbers:
    Building the resilience of these local actors is therefore essential, and to do this donors need to rethink the way they fund, for example by giving directly to local organisations and addressing the power imbalance between local actors and others.
  • Make it flexible:
    Funding local organisations directly is a great start, but more can be done. For organisations to be viable and sustainable in the long-term, we need to rethink the type of support and funding we offer. Flexible funding goes a long way for these organisations – this is something that we strongly believe in at Stars, and our experience of working with Award winners shows this type of funding is rare but can make a real difference. Flexible funding allows organisations to respond to changing circumstances and priorities, invest in core costs and organisational capability and better plan for the future.
  • Skills needs:
    Capacity building is another mode by which to strengthen local civil society organisations – looking at where improvements in organisational skills are needed and offering that expertise and learning internally is vital.

My final learning point from the conference is a call for action to funders – do not give up and keep trying! Even when circumstances are difficult and challenges come along the way, let's remember why we do what we do and get together to find the right solutions.