ICSO mechanism
May 2021
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Hivos: In solidarity with content creators: The role of art in the resistance against shrinking civic space

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Hivos is an international development organisation guided by humanist values that works in the Middle East, Africa, Asia and Latin America on civic rights, gender equality, diversity and inclusion, and climate justice.

For more than 20 years Hivos has supported the arts and cultural sector, because they believe that art has the power to question the dominant powerful structures in society, create alternative narratives, imagine new realities, and bring about progressive social change.

As part of their response to the growing trend of the shrinking of space for free expression, Hivos developed the Resource of Open Minds (R.O.O.M.) Program to support artists, culture and media producers, to create critical work and freely express their views on social issues and injustice, and share this content in different contexts. Through the R.O.O.M. Program, Hivos aims to diversify dialogue and debate in society through thought-provoking and critical audio-visual productions that question harmful practices, stereotypes and injustices. The R.O.O.M. Program works with critical makers who “strive for openness and lead the resistance against the shrinking civic space”.

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Balancing scale and creativity
Given their size or model, content creators and creative hubs cannot cope with large grants or burdensome policies and procedures. In order to support these actors, Hivos staff have had to learn how to operate like an incubator, developing alternative, lean procedures to suit the nature of their partners and balancing growth and sustainability with the makers’ needs to be fast-moving and creative. This is more akin to supporting social movements then traditional CSOs, and the capacity-building strategies employed by the R.O.O.M Program are fundamentally different to those Hivos uses when engaging with other organisations. This form of solidarity and support requires a tailored approach depending on the needs of each partner, and rather than focusing on stability and procedures, it looks at independence, content and criticality (i.e. how makers can create art not just for art’s sake, or for commercial purposes alone, but instead art that is geared towards creating change).

Bringing makers together
Many creators have chosen commercial routes for their content, as that is where the money is, and it can be difficult to untangle the narrative of entrepreneurship and innovation, and encourage thinking around critical content that seeks to spark dialogue and debate. There is also natural competition amongst makers, and so solidarity is not always easy to nurture.

Gender divide
How can you actively encourage young women to enter the fray around freedom of expression and critical content creation in spaces dominated by men with a culture of exhibitionism of the female body, i.e. online platforms and social media? It is hard to tackle this issue given the nature of algorithms, however the R.O.O.M Initiative is trying to support more women by giving grants and building capacity to women makers, and by including gender training in workshops for creative hubs.

Be patient
Changing narratives and norms is not measurable in the short-term, and these initiatives will not always have an immediate impact. However, the mid- to long-term future will show the effects of a new tech-aware generation of content creators.

Class divide
As well as an unsurprising rural/urban dichotomy around internet access, Hivos has noted a divide between different urban neighbourhoods. Existing creative hubs tend to be situated in more central areas, and are not necessarily accessible to poorer young people from other areas of cities. Hivos has therefore tried to support hubs and spaces in poorer neighbourhoods, in close proximity to artists from marginalised communities, in order to create access and community for more young makers.

Different way of working
Hivos has had to learn how to frame the R.O.O.M Program in an appropriate way, so that makers feel able to apply for support, and are not put off by traditional CSO language or frameworks. It has also been very important to communicate that makers are not being invited to create something in service of INGOs, driven by a foreign agenda, but are being invited to create what they value as critical content, with independence and with freedom.


  • Makers become more self-sufficient – With financial support and capacity-building around finance, management and professional organisational skills, content creators are better positioned to apply to other funders and therefore maintain their independence. Hivos is often a seed-funder or an early-stage supporter, supporting makers to become less reliant on commercial assignments. In this sense, the R.O.O.M Program acts as an incubator for small and emerging initiatives, thanks to its holistic, tailored support. 

  • Makers create more critical cultural and media productions – As the R.O.O.M program enables makers to better balance and distinguish commercial work from editorially independent, critical content, makers have been free to produce documentaries, feature films, podcast series, artworks, animations, music pieces and books. Through these productions, content creators have been able to challenge repressive social norms and tackle specific areas of civic space that have come under threat, by leveraging online space for dialogue, debate and dissent. Capacity-building support and networking opportunities facilitated by R.O.O.M. have helped partners reach wider and more diverse audiences with their productions.

  • Makers have access to safe, well-resourced spaces – Hubs and studios supported by R.O.O.M are able to facilitate the productions of more makers, because of increased capacity, new tools and services, and more inclusive community-building. This capacity is developed with support from Hivos, for example, via the Creative hub leader’s toolkit (produced by Hivos, Nesta and the British Council). As well as providing services such as internet access and workspace, these hubs represent physical safe spaces where young creators can feel safe from harassment, and feel a sense of community and support that directly affects their creative process. These spaces also act as platforms and knowledge-generators for key issues affecting all young content creators, such as surveillance capitalism, or ‘who owns the Internet’ across Africa?

Report Date | May 2021     Type | ICSO mechanism     Region | Africa     Author(s) | Sarah Pugh and Deborah Doane

Coalition response
March 2021
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Human Rights Defenders Coalition: Tackling corruption to defend civic space in Malawi

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The Human Rights Defenders Coalition (HRDC) in Malawi was created in 2017 to provide protection and support for human rights defenders (HRDs), and to defend the civic space within which these activists operate. The coalition’s overarching focus has been on tackling corruption.

In 2019 when election fraud ignited the anger of everyday Malawians, HRDC stepped in to unite activists and citizens across the country, mobilising calls for greater accountability, and using litigation strategies to protect the freedom of assembly. This instance of electoral fraud was indicative of how corruption was negatively impacting the fair functioning of government, and in turn the enabling environment for civil society. Meanwhile, HRDC’s experience demonstrates the (sometimes) blurred line between the struggle to defend what can often be thought of as ‘neutral’ space and the need for civil society to be ‘politically’ engaged, along with the ways in which corruption and civic space are intimately linked.

Threats, attacks and harassment
During the 9 months of protest, there were multiple cases of serious physical threats and attacks made against members and leaders of the HRDC. These attacks were designed to instill fear in activists and deter them from organising further protests. Prominent figures of the HRDC were also subject to other forms of harassment. For example the HRDC vice-Chairperson and an executive member were arrested and charged with inciting people to contravene the law, after they called for citizens to protest in front of the State House as the President was yet to assent to a rerun of the election. The government also attempted to sue HRDC organisers. They claimed that protestors were damaging property and looting, and demanded that the organisers should bear the cost of such damage. These tactics drained the coalition of capacity and resources, and put membersat risk of physical harm.

Capacity and resources is an ongoing issue
The coalition’s leadership has not had the time or resources to build the capacity of its regional and district members regarding the HRDC’s mandate, and human rights awareness more generally. Although some limited funding and capacity building support was secured, allies and funders were quickly put off by government threats. For example it was reported in the media that HRDC had been ‘trained in guerilla warfare’ and an international civil society organisation (ICSO) was named as having provided support to that end (they had in fact been providing much needed security training). International actors were afraid to associate themselves with HRDC, as the issue was thought to be ‘too political’. As a result the coalition struggled to secure financial or practical support during a critical period. 

De-centralised power empowers people
A decentralised structure gave people at the community level the autonomy to make suggestions and decisions, within the coalition’s mandate. This meant that the HRDC leadership, who could not be everywhere at once, had contacts whom they could trust to make decisions at any level. 

Bridging to the legal sector was important
By formalising a connection with the Malawi Law Society, the founders of the coalition built a bridge between civil society and the legal sector from the outset, gaining connections with lawyers who were able to support activists and CSOs under attack as they challenged the fraudulent election results. In contexts where the judiciary has not been compromised, the rule of law is an important tool for defending space for civil society.

International solidarity matters
Organisations including Human Rights Watch, Freedom House and Frontline Defenders stayed connected with HRDC and raised the alarm at the international level over arrests and threats. This awareness and solidarity was an important form of psychological support. Members sometimes struggled, wondering whether they were doing the right thing in mobilising people to demonstrate but hearing others elsewhere speak out on their behalf motivated them to continue. On the other hand, solidarity was less forthcoming when the coalition sought diplomatic solutions to the crisis. Whilst protests and litigation were ongoing, HRDC participated in a task force convened by development partners, involving political parties and diplomatic representatives from other states. HRDC found themselves having to make the case for why demonstrations were needed, as external stakeholders feared the situation would degenerate into civil strife or war, and were averse to associating themselves with the movement. This underscored the importance of ensuring that international allies have a thorough understanding of the specific context in question, and revealed how this can require advocacy with international actors (and therefore resources and capacity) in order to secure solidarity.

Technical capacity is needed
HRDC and its members need ongoing support from ICSOs and allies, for example to develop technical capacities, such as financial and legal knowledge, to hold the new government to account and defend civic space. In particular, the coalition aims to develop proposals for a strong legal framework that would support the work of HRDs and civil society, and to work with the government on this framework whilst there is still good will. The international community can provide training and learning on best practice to strengthen these proposals, whilst in turn learning from the experiences of HRDC and Malawian civil society.

  • The High Court and the Supreme Court dismissed the government’s request for an injunction against protests, concluding that the right to demonstrate was unconditional and that the state could not impose blanket bans or use the courts to ban the protests.

  • The Constitutional Court nullified the results of the 2019 presidential election, calling for a new election to be held, and the Chairperson of the Electoral Commission finally resigned. A new Chairperson (elected by the judiciary) was able to push through plans for a fresh election.

  • In June 2020 an election rerun took place, and a new president, Lazarus Chakwera, was sworn in, leading a coalition government. Promisingly, Chakwera’s Malawi Congress Party’s campaign promises had included the support of operations of local and international human rights civil society organisations (CSOs), “through a permissive and enabling policy” (CIVICUS (2020): MALAWI: ‘Civil society expects new gov. to place rights at the top of its agenda’).

The demonstrations, alongside legal approaches, played a key role in ensuring that the Electoral Commission and President were ultimately held to account.

“Judges and civil society-led protests paved the way for the fresh presidential election to be held… key to the ruling was not only the independence of Malawi’s judiciary but also months of civil society-led demonstrations… This was particularly important because it significantly increased the pressure on the judiciary and other key democratic institutions to do the right thing. (CIVICUS (2020): MALAWI: ‘Civil society expects new gov. to place rights at the top of its agenda’).

HRDC members have been able to meet with the new President several times already to have candid and honest conversations about the issues Malawians are facing. The President has already addressed some of the issues raised during these meetings, for example the coalition has secured an agreement with the Corruption Bureau for a new whistleblowing initiative. By engaging in pro-democracy action at a critical moment, HRDC has helped to increase the odds of a more open context for civil society, whereby CSOs and activists can contribute to good governance and therefore to broader social and development goals. 

Report Date | March 2021     Type | Coalition response     Region | Africa     Author(s) | Sarah Pugh and Deborah Doane

ICSO mechanism
November 2020
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VSO Ethiopia: Advocating for policy reform in Ethiopia

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Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) is an international development organisation with a vision for a fair world for everyone, and a mission to create lasting change through volunteering. VSO has been present in Ethiopia since 1995, contributing to the development of healthy communities and strengthening inclusive education systems.

The introduction of repressive legislation in Ethiopia in 2009 led to a decade of severe crackdowns on human rights organisations, and a severely repressed environment for civil society. Foreign funding was curbed, the legislation violated international standards related to the freedom of association, and VSO was struggling to deliver its programmes in a context of severely closed civic space. VSO saw the need for collective action, and therefore took steps with partners to help found the Ethiopian Charities and Societies Forum (ECSF) in 2013, the main coalition advocating for civil society organisation policy reforms in the country. A new government in 2018 opened up the opportunity to build a new relationship between civil society and government, and as a result of successful advocacy, reform was achieved in 2019. This case study looks at VSO’s role in providing leadership and strategic guidance, and mobilising and amplifying collaborative action for an enabling environment.

Problem-solving can overtake programmatic focus
Investing time and energy in Forum-related activities created an additional burden for VSO staff, and this was challenging at an organisational level. It meant that the country office could not focus on the growth of its programmes, as instead it was focused on problem-solving. However, given that the office had received a warning letter from the government concerning its programmes, this strategic engagement was a priority to ensurethe organisation’s ability to remain in Ethiopia.

Risk of hosting
Hosting the Forum was not straightforward. The Civil Society Agency believed that the Forum was working against the government and its policies, and so there were risks for VSO associated with this hosting function. VSO had to try and ensure that the Agency saw the work in a positive light, in order to mitigate the additional risk, which made for a difficult balancing act.

Overcoming misconceptions and mistrust
VSO and the Forum’s leadership committee members had to work hard to develop trust amongst some civil society groups. As the Forum had to work closely with government officials in order to ease the tension and secure a safe and constructive working relationship, suspicions were raised that the Forum had been set up by the government, and was therefore not to be trusted. Consultations were undertaken to clarify the purpose of the Forum, as well as to collect input, to create broad, cross-sector buy-in. Trust gradually developed thanks to consistent and persistent communications and action from the Forum’s leadership.

Building a shared vision
It was vital to engage with a broader agenda, and not just focus on individual organisational problems. VSO’s long-term goal was the existence of a vibrant civil society, able to advocate for the rights and needs of others. Engaging with that broader vision and agenda meant that VSO and the Forum were able to win the support of donors and other CSOs. It opened up the space for discussion across sectors, informing the more strategic advocacy that could address the issues of all civil society organisations. By working to ensure that everyone was behind a shared vision and agenda, contributing to and supporting the Forum, they were able to eventually bring about change.

Committing to building bridges
The government at the time was strong, and there was no flexibility on policies. A strong commitment was needed with a long-term view taken on how to build trust and bridges. For example, the Forum organised consultative workshops and invited representatives from the regulatory body, so that civil society could directly share concerns with those from the Agency. This approach, over time, positively affected the Agency’s perception of CSOs, and meant that space opened up to move from the resolution of more immediate issues to the broader advocacy points for an enabling environment and reform. It would have been too simplistic and ultimately counterproductive to classify the government as ‘the enemy’, therefore constructive ways of working had to be found.

Multi-level advocacy is key
As an international organisation, VSO was able to engage in advocacy with donor partners and call for international advocacy on the issue, encouraging diplomatic approaches from different stakeholders to try and open up space. VSO was in a position to push the agenda from these multiple angles, and this was important in providing a sense of international solidarity and cover.


  • As a result of sustained pressure and successful advocacy, the CSO legislation was amended. The Charities and Societies Proclamation was introduced in January 2019 as part of new civic reforms, and the Law of Ethiopian Civil Society Organisations passed in February 2019. The new law has lifted restrictions on foreign funding, has allowed for the re-entry of international organisations to the country, and has updated the regulator to be a more robust ‘critical friend’ to civil society.

  • These changes have resulted in greater accountability and transparency, meaning increased operational freedom for VSO and other civil society groups, and an increased legitimacy of CSOs and their activities. Specifically for VSO, compliance concerns have been eased, and interventions on issues such as gender equality and social inclusion and accountability can now legally be integrated into programming.

  • The Forum has not since dissolved, and is now taking part in the transition period after the ratification of the new legislation. Forum members are developing a code of conduct for CSOs to support perceptions of legitimacy, and establishing a council to represent organisations and serve as a communications conduit between civil society and the regulatory body and different government sectors.

Report Date | November 2020     Type | ICSO mechanism     Region | Africa     Author(s) | Sarah Pugh and Deborah Doane

Coalition response
October 2019
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Spaces for Change: From informal networks and collaboration to the Action Group for Free Civic Space in Nigeria

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Spaces for Change PDF cover image

In 2018, Spaces for Change (S4C) – a Nigerian civil society organisation (CSO) working to infuse human rights into social and economic processes – initiated the idea of a learning-and-sharing hub on closing civic space.

What began as an informal network designed to deepen cooperation and solidarity eventually transformed into the Action Group on Free Civic Spaces in Nigeria, a coalition of 61 organisations working to co-create a unified sector position and voice to defend civic space against security-induced restrictions. Members work on diverse thematic issues, however they are all committed to ensuring that government regulations (framed around national security) do not shrink civic space.

National security questions are sensitive, and so as groups started to convene and collaborate around this, it took time to build trust and overcome the sensitivities in the room.

Balancing inclusion with capacity and skill set
It is important to try and ensure that group actions are inclusive, so that certain sector voices are not left out. However, when dealing with something like a Mutual Evaluation process, high level evidence based analysis is required, and so inclusion must be balanced with the capacity and skill set needed for that level of discussion.

Getting buy-in
Getting buy-in can be challenging. People can be suspicious when approached to join a coalition. It’s vital to find the central themes that connect constituencies and connect to the spirit of different organisations’ missions.

Common ownership
Nigerian civil society organisations have developed coalitions in the past, but they have proved difficult to sustain. In this instance, the Action Group has worked hard to ensure there is a sense of ‘Common Ownership’. Rather than the coalition being led by one group, it belongs to everyone, which has created a sense of buy-in that ensures the work is relevant and sustainable.

Non-financial support
Non-financial support can be just as helpful as funding. Many groups have contributed meeting spaces, covered their own transport costs, or shared resources in place of contributing funds, and this has helped to keep conversations going and to strengthen the coalition.

  • When operating as an informal network of like-minded organisations, Nigerian CSOs defeated two successive, restrictive bills. Whilst some CSOs have stronger ties with decision-makers, others have a stronger presence on social media, and others have the capacity to engage harder-to-reach groups and communities. Working together, inhabiting these different roles according to their different capacities and expertise, groups have been able to defend and reclaim civic space.
  • As a formalised coalition, the group is engaging with international institutions to ensure that the non-profit sector in Nigeria is properly represented during evaluations and assessments of the country’s anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism measures. They have managed to develop relationships with global coalitions, and gain access to important meetings with regulators.

Report Date | October 2019     Type | Coalition response     Region | Africa     Author(s) | Sarah Pugh and Deborah Doane

ICSO mechanism
October 2019
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ActionAid and ActionAid Uganda: How to scenario-plan for attacks and the narrowing of civic space

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ActionAid is a global justice federation working to achieve social justice, gender equality, and poverty eradication. Presently in 46 countries, ActionAid works to strengthen capacity and agency of people living in poverty and exclusion, especially women and young people to assert their rights.

ActionAid was early in identifying the closing space issue in 2013 and invested time and resources as a federation to research the problem, developing ways to build resilience and resist external threats. ActionAid Uganda, a member of the federation’s working group on this issue, would soon put the organisation’s early efforts to the test when their offices were directly attacked by the government in 2017. Their experience and the lessons learned have fed back into the federation’s thinking and strategising on this topic, and they are now sharing that learning with other national offices, and supporting the development of a Rapid Response mechanism.

Collective resilience
Simultaneous attacks were carried out on peers and partners of ActionAid. These partners were not as resilient as ActionAid Uganda, and whilst ActionAid were able to manoeuvre through the crisis, there remained an element of risk or exposure because of these partners. ActionAid Uganda managed to support one organisation in retaining their office space, however, given that their own accounts were frozen, they did not have the resources to do more. There was a collective gap in resources and resilience.

Long-term impact
ActionAid Uganda underestimated the medium to long-term impact of the government’s propaganda against them. Some citizens still think that their accounts are frozen and some donors still feel sceptical of their work. They needed to do more in terms of counter-engagement and communications beyond the initial attacks to reverse that impact.

Staff insecurity
Following the office raid, some staff no longer felt comfortable engaging with sensitive issues for fear of the backlash they might personally experience. Even though psychosocial support was provided, more was needed to build staff resilience.

Since the attacks, several civil society actors have been compelled to tread more carefully and civic engagement has become more subdued. ActionAid Uganda has had to consider how they can provide assurance and courage to others in the sector, to build sector-wide resilience.

Remaining uncertainty
The case brought against ActionAid Uganda was never resolved and the police never released a report. Although the accounts were unfrozen following political and legal engagement, the unresolved case means the office has a level of uncertainty hanging over its existence. Could they have “exploited the opportunity in the crisis” and pushed back more at the time of the attack, to resolve the case and regain more civic space?

How can you ensure, when in an emergency, that the office can remain operational, a response to the external threat can be mounted, and the governance or programmatic work for which the group is mandated can also continue? While ActionAid Uganda had healthy reserves as per federation policies, this was just about enough for the three months.

Always keep your house in order
Raids or inspections are mostly impromptu, and authorities seek immediate access to various documents and reports. Ensuring that these are readily available avoids potential additional scrutiny or suspicion.

Understand all processes
All staff and all board members must understand all processes. Questioning of organisational representatives in different locations must produce a consistent picture of how the organisation operates, in order to avoid contradictions that may further raise suspicions.

Legal response
A rapid legal response is necessary.

Relationship with the media
A positive relationship with the media is essential. In order to reduce reputational damage and have a platform for underlining an organisation’s legitimacy and value, links to media or social media platforms are important.

Be relevant to civil society
It is vital that an organisation be relevant to civil society and to local and national citizens. If it is, then there will hopefully be a show of solidarity that demonstrates its relevance and value.

Be transparent about operations and mission, and defend the organisation’s values.

  • The organisation’s bank accounts were unfrozen.
  • The amendment on land acquisition was eventually shelved, pending ‘further consultation’. However, the amendment concerning the President’s age passed, and has recently been upheld by the Supreme Court but the civic resistance movement continues to grow.
  • ActionAid Uganda saw the importance of civic space as an issue and have since integrated this into their programmatic work. For example, they now run a Sida-funded programme that coordinates the response to shrinking political space. Through this they developed a response mechanism that covers documentation, analysis, strengthening resilience and extra-legal support, and which helps to bring actors together.
  • They are now budgeting for the defence of rights and activists in an intentional way, for example by setting aside resources to enable them to respond to actors facing threats from the state.

Outcomes outside Uganda

  • The experience of ActionAid Uganda helped to inform an internal Learning Paper which has been shared across the federation. Lessons from the national level have fed back into the federation-wide discussion.
  • ActionAid Uganda is supporting other offices to develop scenarios and planning, based on their experiences.
  • Work is ongoing on strengthening federation resilience. For example, a Rapid Response mechanism is in development. ActionAid Uganda has supported mapping work and analysis of potential structures, looking at how this tool could monitor civic space and make predictions for the federation.

Report Date | October 2019     Type | ICSO mechanism     Region | Africa , Global     Author(s) | Sarah Pugh and Deborah Doane

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