In recent years, governments around the world have responded to increased activism, protests and political engagement of citizens and various civil society actors with cracking down on civic space. Unfortunately, these trends have not passed the Western Balkans and Turkey by either.
As restrictions on foreign funding (in Kosovo, Turkey), barriers to registration (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Turkey), intervention in CSOs’ internal affairs (Macedonia and Turkey), negative narratives (Serbia and Macedonia), and declining public trust in civil society in almost all of the countries become the new normal in this region, civil society and donors are going to have to adapt to this context:
We need to promote an enabling environment for civil society development
The political calamities coupled with the rise of citizens’ unrest and humanitarian (migrants) crises, not only have left little room for improvements of the environment, but have also led to narrowing the space for civil society development, especially in the area of basic freedoms. In the efforts of creating an enabling environment, there needs to be regular monitoring and reliable reporting of trends to track whether civil society space is worsening or improving, and trigger alerts to drive response action. To this end, in 2012, the Balkan Civil Society Development Network (BCSDN), with support of its member CSOs and legal experts, developed the first Monitoring Matrix on Enabling Environment for CSDev for measuring the health of the legal, regulatory, and financial environment in which CSOs in the region operate. Solid, timely research and advocacy goals are needed to enable CSOs’ inclusion in policy-making, as a way to more transparent, predictable and quality policies, as well as a common understanding and reaction of the sector when these are breached.
We need to improve our accountability & transparency practices
In times of changing role of civil society and active pressures, civil society actors need to ensure they retain their integrity and high levels of trust. Apart from improving civil society’s performance by creating an enabling environment for civil society development, improvement “from within” is also necessary. A recently launched global initiative aimed to enhance CSO accountability as a direct act against the shrinking of civic space is the Global Standard for CSO Accountability, developed by nine well-established civil society networks from around the world, including BCSDN. As reinforced by the Global Standard, investment in dynamic accountability – a concept where the constituencies are in the core of the organisations’ functioning – has the potential to transform the CSO sector into a highly participative and responsive one. A set of jointly developed and owned commitments on how CSOs carry out their work and apply these principles can help CSOs hold themselves and their partners accountable to a shared standard.
Donors need to support us in improving both the environment and ourselves
Financial sustainability is one of the top priorities for organisations that are often dealing with budget cuts and shifting priorities of the donor community. CSOs need to engage with donors to adapt their funding mechanisms to support building capacities of CSOs to be resilient and act quickly and efficiently in times of shrinking civic space. The growing demand for greater accountability and improved effectiveness, have been pressuring donors to change their funding practices, and some progressive donors have responded with including the final beneficiaries and those most affected to have a say on the funding they provide. This approach could give an example for the targeted recipients of these funds to follow.
In times when local challenges are in fact global ones, it is necessary that CSOs across the world cooperate globally to show solidarity, exchange experience in order to reclaim the trust from their constituencies, to build coalitions and join forces in promoting the civic space jointly.