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Bond UK: An umbrella body’s response to closing civic space

Type | Coalition response
Region | Europe
Author(s) | Sarah Pugh and Deborah Doane

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Bond engaged in coalition activities on civic space issues, carrying out convening and coordination with its members, campaigning for CSO voice and doing advocacy work.

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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.

Technical nature
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.

New normal
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?)

Type | Coalition response     Region | Europe     Author(s) | Sarah Pugh and Deborah Doane

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