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The Closing Space for Civil Society - to whom should we be listening?

Posted by: Swatee on 22 Aug 2017
in Blog

In July I got the opportunity to attend and present at the Human Rights Funders Conference in New York with the With and For Girls Collective partners. The conference this year was focused on ‘Closing Space for Civil Society’, a topic that seems to have been an increasing focus for many funders’ meetings since the beginning of 2017.

In our session we aimed to start a dialogue with other human rights funders on the question “Where do girls and young women come into the conversation?” and worked hard to ensure a 16-year-old activist from the 2015 With and For Girls award winner, Girl Activists of Kyrgyzstan, could come and give her viewpoints. Despite our best efforts, her visa was denied.

We were determined to make sure she could still take part in the event in some way, particularly as the very point of the session was the inclusion of girls’ and young women’s voices. And so we asked her to either record or send a statement to play/read out at the event, to make sure her voice was heard. Sadly, she could not record her views as felt unsafe in her home to do so in case this exposed her activism - proving how important the physical space is for human rights defenders and groups:

“Teenagers can do anything, but not now” that’s what we hear all the time... and NGO youth start to think the same way and represent that, and can’t self-organise without short projects. While alternative groups, activists: organise, lobby, protest, survive and build movements….This visa example proves one more time how we as girls are not meaningful and how invisible we are in the spaces where decisions are made and how little governments care about our voices’. – Activist from Girl Activists of Kyrgyzstan

Her words are a powerful reminder for funders of the reality for grassroots and local groups on the ground – difficulties in operating as an activist-led group, lack of safe physical space, surveillance by authorities, the dominance of big INGOs and restrictions on having their voice heard in important forums.

So what is Closing Space?

‘Closing space’ is characterised by state-sponsored restrictions on the fundamental rights of freedom of expression, freedom of association and freedom of peaceful assembly.

The 2017 State of Funding for Civil Society report by CIVICUS, the World Alliance for Citizen Participation, found that just three per cent of the world’s population live in countries where civic space is fully open, including freedom of association, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.

Whilst the most severe of the restrictions on civil society organising are experienced in Asia or Africa, in every global region there are countries where civil society is repressed and Europe or North America are no exception, proving the trend of closing civic space is becoming a global norm.

The reasons behind why governments restrict civic space are often hard to discern and restrictions may be heavily concealed but often involve the following motivations:

  • Economic interests - the push for economic growth and the power of corporations has been identified by funders and activists as an emerging driver for restrictions being placed on civil society action. Both Canada and India’s governments, for example, have introduced repressive laws and engaged in smear campaigns targeting resource and labour rights activists who oppose aspects of their development policies, including those relating to large infrastructure projects and foreign investment.
  • Ensuring national security and counterterrorism policies - the heightened international focus on counter terrorism has contributed heavily to the restrictions placed on civil society action. Over 140 governments have passed counter-terrorism legislation since September 11, 2001, often in response to U.S. pressure, UN Security Council resolutions and the counter terrorism guidelines developed by Financial Action Task Force (FATF). FATF’s recommendation 8 identifies the civil society sector as being particularly vulnerable to abuse for financing terrorism and recommends governments take steps to prevent this.  
  • Challenging what ‘effective aid’ from foreign governments is - this has been used by aid recipient countries, such as Egypt and Ethiopia, to justify increased control of aid monies and in turn, constraints on international funding for development and human rights organisations.
  • National sovereignty arguments - in some countries it really is the fact that support is foreign (often from the ‘Global North’) that is aggravating issues.  If this attitude is addressed it implies hope for civil society actors in some countries.


Why should funders be aware?

This global trend and disabling environment for cross-border funding is having a serious impact on the ability of a wide variety of organisations, community groups, NGOs, civil society leaders, funders and donors to carry out their work, attacking civil society as a whole.

Many examples have been documented by Funders Groups, including The Shrinking Space for Civil Society: European Foundation Centre 2016 and Challenging the Closing Space for Civil Society: A practical starting point for Funders: Funders Initiative for Civil Society, May 2016.

Examples include:  

  • Azerbaijan – Activists and journalists frequently face imprisonment. Despite The Commissioner for Human Rights raising the issue, there has been no action in response. “The European Union’s continued funding to Azerbaijan (their largest foreign donor) is proof to the government that shaming strategies by human rights organisations are irrelevant and no-one cares about political prisoners.” - Gerald Knaud, European Stability Initiative.
  • Russia – Russia’s law on “foreign agent” organisations equates receiving any amount of foreign funding to being an agent of foreign interests. Its definition of political activities includes acts that are a routine part of many groups advocacy work, such as promoting policy changes or trying to influence public opinion. The law forces such organisations to clarify in their published materials that they are “foreign agents.” Failure to comply with the law triggers strict fines and even prison terms.
  • India – Ford Foundation’s philanthropic activities have been blocked (with several of Stars Foundation's past Award winners working across children’s, young people’s, indigenous and Dalit rights having lost their crucial funding). Groups including Hivos, ClimateWorks and Mercy Corps need clearance from the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs for any transaction they make through an Indian bank – fuelled by allegations they were funding anti-India activities.
  • Ethiopia – The government of the country de facto criminalises foreign funding for human rights groups.
  • Pakistan – Authorities shut down Save the Children’s office claiming staff members had been working “against Pakistan’s interest”, a decision that was later reversed.  
  • Nicaragua – Launched the Operation No More Lies campaign against NGOs it accused of embezzlement, money laundering and subversion. The NGOs’ promotion of human rights, poverty reduction and gender equality were “modern-day Trojan horses”, the government said.

As is clear from the above examples alone, restrictions have been directed at respected development organisations, humanitarian organisations working in areas of conflict and great poverty, social change and justice initiatives, environmental charities,  education charities and independent donors, who have found themselves outlawed and vilified in different countries around the world.

The current global phenomenon of closing space is not a new one; progressive funders have been acknowledging and looking at solutions to counter the wave for many years as my colleague Cecile noted in 2015.


What can funders do?

Some funders may think that these restrictions will not affect them and their work because their mission is less controversial than others are and so avoids attracting government attention. However, the organisations we fund may face increasing restrictions and as funders, we still have a responsibility.

“As funders of civil society we must cultivate an environment in which politicians, business leaders and the public recognise the importance of an independent, diverse and occasionally controversial civil society” - Adam Pickering from Charities Aid Foundation.

Funders are already coming together to both understand and find solutions to these issues, including exploring what their collective resources and networks can leverage. Examples of this type of collaboration can be found in funders groups such as the Association of Charitable Foundations, European Foundation Centre, Ariadne and the Human Rights Funders Network. A number of organisations have also committed funds to Funders Initiative for Civil Society – a new initiative to develop a coherent and strategic response to the closing space trend.

One of the things that drew me to working with Stars Foundation was its focus on funding locally led and grassroots organisations around the world with flexible funding. This allows local leaders to decide what their communities need and in turn, respond to the needs of underserved children and youth around the world. I have also greatly admired the trusting relationships we have with leaders of the organisations that we have awarded, recognising them as the experts, being led by their decisions on how they need to prioritise their funding, connecting them to others, amplifying their voices into ‘funder only' spaces and most importantly, listening when they explain their challenges.

If we are really to be responsive donors, we must understand how closing civil society space is affecting the groups, countries and regions where we fund and adapt our grantmaking to continue to support those groups which are most marginalised. We must listen to our grantees and continue to amplify their voices, even when this is difficult and challenges those in positions of power.

Over the next few months at Stars Foundation we will be:

  • Reflecting: through our blog, on feedback, discussion and dialogue with our Award winners on the impact of closing civil society on their work across the global regions
  • Convening our winners: to discuss these challenges with each other  
  • Meeting with other donors: we will continue to take the stories from our winners into donor only spaces, continue to include them in discussions in person where possible and convene other donors to listen to their experiences.

As part of this effort, on Thursday September 28th Stars is co-hosting an event in Hong Kong with our sister organisation: Philanthropy University, together with the Elevate Children Funders Group and the Asian Venture Philanthropy Network on the theme: ‘Where are the local voices in Asian philanthropy? Understanding the challenges and opportunities for local CSOs/NGOs in Asia’. The session is designed to enable us to hear directly from leaders about the impact of closing civil society space on local CSOs supporting children and young people in Asia. We also hope to reflect on opportunities and funder responses to enable local CSOs to thrive. If you are interested in finding out more please email: