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.
‘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:
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.
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.
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:
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: firstname.lastname@example.org