Bond is a membership body for UK-based organisations working in international development.
It unites over 400 civil society organisations in pursuit of global change, with members ranging from small specialist charities to large international civil society organisations with a world-wide presence.
Concerned by restrictions made to the enabling environment for civil society in the UK, and the precedent that this could set internationally, Bond has engaged in coalition activities on civic space issues, carrying out convening and coordination with its members and other civil society actors. This work has ranged from campaigning for the voice of civil society organisations within the UK, to advocacy efforts focused on influencing government policy on diplomacy and development.
Individual measures and restrictions are very technical in nature, making it difficult to garner support for reform. They are too complicated for many CSOs to engage with, and it is challenging to secure support from politicians and the public on such complex issues.
Existentialism vs. capacity
Many CSOs do not perceive these types of measures to be existential threats to their ability to continue operating and achieving their objectives. For example, international development organisations do not usually make use of mechanisms such as judicial reviews. Therefore, although there is a recognition that these measures do add up to a shrinking of civic space, many groups cannot justify dedicating capacity to the issue over and above their core work.
Some organisations have become used to the restrictions and see them as the ‘new normal’, in terms of the environment in which they must operate. They are adapting to restrictions rather than speaking out against them. Bond’s members work on international development – understandably, they prioritise their capacity on the core issues, i.e. their primary missions and the causes they were founded to address such as ending global poverty.
It is important to have broad, diverse coalitions. Advocacy on these measures and restrictions has been most effective when it has been part of a collective effort involving both international actors and domestic groups from all backgrounds. The leadership of key players in the domestic sphere such as the Quakers and Friends of the Earth enabled connections with CSOs across the UK and across sectors.
Given the technical nature of the legislative or policy-based restrictions that are introduced, expertise is needed to enable sector-wide understanding and the development of strategies to push back. Deciding where this is housed and resourced within a coalition is important.
Given the reduced advocacy capacity amongst many organisations, and the natural disconnect between primary missions and technical restrictions, umbrella bodies are key actors in the resistance.
Engagement with the UK Electoral Commission, and the resulting publishing of new guidance on the Lobbying Act, helped CSOs to feel more confident about campaigning in the run up to the general election in 2019. The collaborative actions of Bond and others helped to thaw the chilling effect that had silenced organisations in previous years.
The collective action and networking that was developed in response to the Lobbying Act resulted in a platform that was then well placed and poised to continue campaigning as new restrictions or measures were introduced. Certain organisations or alliances might actively work on specific issues, such as the judicial review process, whilst the wider network has been able to amplify messages and offer solidarity when required.
Organisations who have viewed the growing package of restrictions as an existential threat – mostly environmental and human rights organisations who engage more in public campaigning – have advocated against the measures and lobbied for civil society’s voice to remain intact.
In drawing a connection between the international and domestic spheres, Bond saw the need to be more outspoken, and engaged in collaborative, multi-sector advocacy efforts to resist the closing of civic space in the UK. In doing so, they have highlighted the key role that can be played by umbrella bodies with the capacity to undertake the more technical work required, and the political will to campaign on behalf of their members. They have also underlined that international solidarity must be underpinned by a commitment to civic space ‘at home’: “By ignoring these regulatory issues at home, we – civil society actors, funders, regulators – are complicit in closing space abroad: effectively saying to the world that these restrictions don’t matter and that they don’t cause harm. But they do.” (Bond (2018): Is the UK setting a bad example on civil society space?)
Civic Organisations. It Works is a coalition of civil society organisations in Poland. The coalition came together in 2017 to consider the narrative used in the media and by the government that had enabled considerable attacks on civil society organisations in the public sphere, alongside growing restrictive legislation.
Members of the It Works coalition reinvented their communications in order to improve public perceptions of civil society. Rather than use reactive strategies in response to government attacks and smear campaigns, they developed a long-term approach rooted in ‘hope-based communications’, designed to reveal the role and added value of the third sector as a proactive strategy to keep space open for civil society.
Reaching a consensus
Collective decision-making can be a challenge. With a communications team made up of representatives from 10 different organisations, reaching a consensus can sometimes be a long process. However, the principle of democracy is considered important as each group brings different strengths. It also helps to ensure broad buy-in for the strategies taken, and unity of messaging within campaigns.
To begin with, the coalition wanted to be an umbrella for all CSOs. However, it quickly became apparent that this wouldn’t work, as there were certain contexts that required a political stance. For example, members wanted to run a campaign alongside planned gender equality parades, using communications with the slogan ‘Love. It Works’ to demonstrate solidarity with LGBT+ communities. There was pushback, because such a campaign would inevitably alienate some organisations. In order to enable participation in the parades and to help steer future actions, members took the decision that their actions and strategies must be guided by a set of values centered on freedom, human rights and equality. This would enable them to determine when they could take necessary political positions to stand in solidarity with minority or vulnerable communities. This meant that some organisations would not join the group.
Doing the groundwork pays off
It was important to make the difficult discussions at the beginning of the process, to clarify a shared agenda and purpose, to build trust amongst members, and to create a strategy that all members could endorse. As a consequence, there was a heavier time commitment and workload from members in the development stage. But as a result, once a strategy had been agreed on, the day-to-day work was more straightforward and now only light consultation is needed when clarifying next steps on campaigns.
Campaigns grounded in values create solidarity
Hope-based communications are effective. Although the coalition does not yet have the numbers or statistics to fully demonstrate the change in trust amongst the public regarding CSOs, there has been an encouraging response to the campaigns conducted to date. Well-known public figures have endorsed the messages, and the sector as a whole has been keen to be involved. This is because the campaigns are rooted in values rather than just in specific topics, and this has created the space and structure for cross-cutting solidarity.
By sharing photographs, films and infographics, the coalition showcases CSO programmes and projects and demonstrates how they make a difference to the lives of people in Poland. Interviews and stories have been featured regularly in various publications including Vogue Poland, whilst some of the films produced for the campaigns have been shown in cinemas across the country. So far, campaigns have attracted over 4 million online visitors.
Although the impact in terms of a change in public perception is difficult to measure, as is often the case with long-term communication initiatives, organisations do feel safer engaging in communications campaigns and advocating for civil society, due to the protective umbrella of the coalition. By being part of a collective effort, the risk of raising one’s voice is reduced. As the coordinator has highlighted: “We believe we are now stronger in the face of attacks.” Meanwhile there are plans to conduct a survey to measure any change in the levels of public trust.
Civilizáció (Civilisation) was established as a joint campaign of Hungarian civil society organisations in early 2017.
Their mission is to strengthen the image, constituency and support of civil society and civic action; to increase levels of solidarity; to share knowledge and skills to strengthen the civil society sector; and to take action against shrinking civil space and increase the opportunities of democratic participation and the diversity of civil society.
Civilisation was established in response to a crisis, and therefore their coalition has been built upon resistance. They work best together when there is an external threat or something to respond to. Without a common, clear goal to motivate their joint work, there is a risk that the interest and engagement of members will decrease. The government has gone relatively quiet during 2019, and so the coalition has been ‘on standby’. They cannot maintain that mode infinitely, and so a common focus or theme is needed that brings the members together and inspires joint action.
How to cooperate
This has been the first real cross-sector coalition in Hungary, and learning to cooperate and to work together took time. Members had to work hard to recognise and acknowledge different styles and types of CSOs, and different attitudes, approaches, appetites and agendas. It took some time to harmonise this, and to recognise and appreciate the diversity of the network. The lessons learned during earlier (failed) coalition-building efforts contributed to this – they taught more experienced members to exercise patience. Mutually agreed internal decision-making rules, based on the principles of ‘one member – one vote’ and ‘everyone contributes according to their capacities’ were also important, particularly for smaller, weaker members to feel safe and comfortable in the coalition.