The vicious spirit is out of the box. By now we – those of us who read this blog – all recognise that countries will not stop imposing restrictions on civil society in the foreseeable future; to the contrary, those restrictions are growing by the year. Just in 2015, over 30 countries proposed or passed 45 laws to constrain civil society organisations (CSOs) and rights of CSOs and activists have been violated in over 100 countries.
But what is this ‘vicious spirit’ and who let it out? Who’s to blame? Is it the newly budding populist and authoritarian leaders of this century? Or the masses of voters who elect such leaders and agree with their worldviews, including those on civil society? Democracies that weaken under the threats of terrorism, war and humanitarian crisis?
It is all of those and more; the phenomenon of shrinking civic space is complex and its root causes are difficult to tackle. As the problem has grown, more and more players became aware and got on board to address it: over the past couple of years, several dozen CSOs, donors, networks and international organisations launched ‘civic space’ projects, strategies and initiatives at the country, regional and global levels. Yet the negative trend remains. What are we doing wrong?
Over the past year, ICNL received almost 40 invitations from organisations and networks to participate in their meetings on a ‘new civic space initiative’. Most often, the idea was to ‘convene the key actors’ to come up with answers to the all-too-well-known questions about how to tackle the shrinking civic space. These initiatives lasted from one meeting to year-long engagements but only a few went on to formulate a viable new strategy. Bringing ‘key actors’ together in the different fields and communities of the CSO universe resulted in some awareness raising but little action. Unfortunately, the phenomenon of the global backlash is too complex to be resolved in a series of exploratory or brainstorming meetings.
The Latest New Idea
In many of these initiatives, ‘new’ was an important word, as they aimed at achieving something that hasn’t been done yet – ‘fill a gap’, ‘build on existing initiatives’ and the like. Since many of us have been working to address the situation for years but the problems intensify, the easy answer is that what we have been doing is not working and we need to find a new solution. But deeply rooted social-political-cultural trends cannot be reversed by any single magic recipe. A fetish for the ‘something new’ leads us to abandon yesterday’s new ideas – even if they have or could have shown results in certain contexts or over a longer time.
The third typical initiative has been that of ‘coordination’. Organisations that have come to recognise the importance of protecting civic space volunteered to ‘coordinate existing initiatives’ by way of asserting their role toward their donors, external and internal constituencies. In the nonprofit world, when a problem escalates it also becomes ‘sexy’ and attracts increased donor or member interest; however, new entrants into the expanded market may need time to understand the value they could add.
Beyond Convening and Coordinating
It can indeed be frustrating to see little positive change when so many dedicated actors are engaged. What can we do to overcome the frustration and perhaps start seeing a positive trend over time? Based on ICNL’s work of over two decades in protecting and promoting a safe legal space for civil society, here are some recommendations for all of us who aim to chase the vicious spirit back into its box:
- Recognise that we are dealing with a systemic challenge and interventions need to be transformational, not transactional – we cannot ‘fix the laws’ before we ‘fix the political culture’, for example. We’re in this for the long run.
- Therefore, programmatic investments have to be long-term and context-specific. Since ICNL’s 2014 mapping of needs in addressing civic space, the most neglected recommendations have been those that suggested country-based multi-year capacity building to help empower local actors in legal reform.
- True coordination needs to come from those who are working in the field; unfortunately that does not always happen and thus there is often a gap to be filled by the ‘coordination-compulsion’. As donors and ICSOs, can we honor our in-country partners by coordinating our actions that affect them?
- In lack of a blueprint for tackling the escalating global trend those who want to help will need to take more risk. Donors may need to let go of expecting pre-defined results on a yearly basis. Service delivery and human rights groups would need to find ways to work together; and local CSOs would need to build more support among domestic constituencies.
- In order to create real synergies in particular among international CSOs we need to redefine our priorities when it comes to collaboration. Can we compromise on some aspects of our institutional interests – such as funding and branding – in order to be more effective partners to each other? Can we be more transparent and provide meaningful information for synchronised strategies?
There is great need to work on strategies that have not yet been explored, most importantly ones that aim to engage the broader public. Among the latest initiatives are the Civic Charter facilitated by the hosts of this blog and a global campaign championed by CIVICUS. The success of these, as that of others already in the pipeline, will depend on whether CSOs and donors – at the international and national level – can go beyond ‘convening and coordinating’ when it comes to defending civic space.