Never-ending news alerts inform us almost daily that Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) are coming under intense scrutiny, or are even shut down, by governments around the world. Civic space is shrinking, and we as a sector, have to take measures not just as an immediate response, but also have to set up our organisations in a way so they can resist such scrutiny and action. To cope with this task CSOs need to be transparent and accountable, which enhances the trust they publicly gain. More so, CSOs need to go beyond simple housekeeping exercises and implement the voices of all their stakeholders in decision-making processes: This is what we call Dynamic Accountability.
In the context of shrinking civic space we have seen more than once that governments use a narrative that delegitimises or even demonises CSOs. For example, they assert that CSOs are foreign agents aiming to undermine national sovereignty. This increases the view that especially large international CSOs are not seen as organisations ‘of the people’. As a result this creates more and more distance between an organisation and the people it is aiming to serve. If a CSO does not invest into enhancing this trust with people the narrative will move on and sink in the collective understanding of the people – even those who a CSO is directly working for.
The Global Standard for CSO Accountability is a tool that can help CSOs to build this trust with the people they work for and with the public. It guides CSOs with easy-to-understand commitments and key actions for Dynamic Accountability to gain more insight into the demands and needs of their stakeholders. This can help CSOs be ready to respond to threats by the government immediately, backed by the support of the people.
Nevertheless, implementing all of this is a long journey and threats can appear along the way. Currently, one of our Global Standard project partners, Development Network of Indigenous Voluntary Associations (DENIVA) Uganda, is experiencing what it means to be under such scrutiny. Having to pull together numerous documents to be ‘examined’ for every detail or even having your bank account frozen is not just extremely time consuming, but can reach to the roots of an organisation:
“The oppressive NGO Act and tougher regulations have been used to stifle the freedoms of the civil society sector, causing mistrust and suspicion between the government and civil society. The Global Standard provides an opportunity to prove to the government, and other stakeholders, that the civil society sector is proactively committed to a comprehensive and dynamic process of accountability. There will be no reason to be caught off-guard as long as the sector embraces this useful tool”, says Catherine Kanabahita, Executive Director, DENIVA.
Nevertheless, beyond the organisations that are under attack, shrinking civic space is about the threat towards the rights of the people that these organisations are working to protect. When human rights and fundamental freedoms are under attack, accountability and participation to fight for these rights go hand in hand. People will hesitate to participate in civil society in the absence of an enabling environment. Therefore, the accountability of CSOs to the public is a pre-requisite to ensure the effective participation of people. By leveraging more participation through inclusive accountability practices, CSOs can better position themselves to jointly advocate with the people for a common cause.
Without people’s participation, CSOs are vulnerable to governmental scrutiny. Without accountability to the people, CSO’s legitimacy can be questioned. Leveraging participation and enhancing accountability with inclusive measures improves our collective ability to respond to threats. We need to commit our organisations to a process of continuously learning from and with people, and therefor practice what the Global Standard calls Dynamic Accountability.