Civil society responses to closing civic space have been gaining momentum and sophistication for a few years now. The learning that is brought to bear in the Solidarity Playbook to date shows that the armament to manage closing civic space is getting stronger, with a mix of partnerships and tactics building. Some of the key lessons that have emerged are:
Coalition work has become a popular – and perhaps the most effective – approach to strengthen the enabling environment for civil society. In highly restrictive regimes that we looked at, such as the cases in Nicaragua or Ethiopia, they offered protection, cover and shared risk to participants. They also provide economies of scale through sharing resources: such as technical expertise, joint strategies, or they can help to coordinate responses, providing a unified voice across multiple groups. In some settings, where closing space is more subtle or technical in its manifestation, umbrella bodies or networks can play a vital role in this regard, by collating the experiences and unifying the positions of the many different types of groups affected by the phenomenon. It’s important to note that coalitions don’t have to involve formal, registered institutions, and in some cases, it is preferable if they are less formal. This can help to bridge the work between formal organisations and social movements.
Shared trust and shared vision were often cited as an important factor in successful efforts to respond to closing civic space. This often involved investing time at the outset, especially to determine shared values in a human rights context. But it was also, in some cases, about building trust with government. Those who adopted adaptive strategies, for example, were aiming to build trust with government in order to keep some degree of civic space active. And this latter aspect is a difficult line to tread: on the one hand, organisations need to ensure that they are working in solidarity with partners; on the other one, an enabling environment for civil society may require a degree of trust and engagement with government actors, who some may see as a threat. Taking the time to build trust, and knowing what the ‘red lines’ to be drawn are is important, and should be negotiated with local actors.
Many ICSOs and coalitions have addressed closing civic space in reaction to an immediate threat. However, responses require long-term, proactive thinking too, while also being agile enough to respond to political opportunities. As a strong example of this, the Poland “It Works” campaign and coalition did just that. The coalition’s long-term aim was to change the narrative of civil society in the eyes of the public, after years of seeing mistrust built up by politicians and the media. But it was agile enough and able to take advantage of a teacher’s strike to make the links between education and civil society clear to the public, and therefore to underscore the omnipresence, impact and value of civil society over the long-term.
Civic space programming can be a catalyst for wider organisational change. Whilst a strategy for solidarity may be adopted in one or two national contexts, they may provide feedback mechanisms to engender wider organisational shifts. For example, Plan International situated their specific work in Latin America to support young women’s groups operating in the region, within a wider organisational strategy to localise and to shift power. We found that where international organisations had flexible pots of innovation funding, these were used by internal champions to show solidarity in contexts of closing civic space which could then shift organisational practice more broadly.
Working on civic space issues – either as individual organisations or in coalitions – is no easy task, not least because it encompasses so many multi-faceted dimensions. The challenges that emanated from the case studies reflect this multi-faceted nature:
The lack of capacity – time, human and financial – came up consistently in all of our case studies, especially in coalitions. In many instances, civic space was seen by some as a diversion away from core programming work. This meant that, in the case of coalitions, some organisations couldn’t always see the need to prioritise engagement, where there were competing priorities by partners. This is a serious concern because collective decision-making, especially in the early days of a coalition, take time and focus. It also meant that resources required for successful work in this area were scarce and hard to sustain, especially over longer periods of time. Underestimating capacity needs could dilute attempts at building and sustaining solidarity.
Who shares the risk when it comes to civic space? There can be a clash between donor expectations and those on the ground, where the former demands high levels of reporting and accountability procedures. But when groups on the ground are being attacked, a degree of flexibility is required. Solidarity requires an approach to agree who shares the risk and how that will be managed, and it prompts a discussion about which mode of solidarity (the ‘how’) will be adopted. For example Helvetas, who sought to secure safe access by partner organisations to UN processes in a very closed context, had to ensure that the safety of activists engaging in the UN processes could be managed, as in this instance it involved a high degree of risk to activists.
While closing civic space can be seen as an existential threat, its response can require very technical know-how on sometimes minute areas of policy. Our cases looked at how civil society groups addressed this, bringing in technical expertise in international anti-terrorism policy, complex accounting procedures, or the mechanisms behind internet shut downs. But not all CSOs have this capacity, and therefore the added value of civil society infrastructure and umbrella organisations is vital, and resourcing this is a challenge that demands a coordinated response.
A number of organisations in our case studies underwent substantial reviews and strategy development in reaction to direct attacks, which all need to be sufficiently resourced, both in terms of staff time and financially. It’s also important to note that this requires that the right people be involved – from financial and legal staff, to policy and programme people.
Many organisations will also have small ‘innovation funds’ available in. Internal champions can seek to access these types of funds to do a number of things around civic space solidarity, for example gather the right allies for any working group or initiative on the subject; invest in intra-organisational sharing of lessons from different contexts; or create new tools to help partners adapt or assess risk.
Civic space can be a huge catalyst to change organisational practice. The issue can link, for example, to stronger practices around ‘localisation’, or help build stronger alignment between different parts of an organisation as well as between humanitarian/development and human rights approaches. It can also help frame discussions around broader issues about the role of the ICSO more broadly.
Solidarity doesn’t just mean public campaigning or statements. There is a spectrum of mechanisms and modes available to organisations, from careful or risk-averse to bold and outward facing. Selecting the right or most effective combination of modes and tactics requires trusting partnerships built over the long-term, understanding of the political context, shared risk analysis – between partners, allies and internally – and then the joint development of a multi-pronged approach, as outlined here. The dilemma between maintaining ICSO access to a country vs. addressing civic space concerns head on is not a black and white decision that can be made by an ICSO programme or Board, and there are multiple tools available to balance different interests.
Given the cross-cutting nature of civil society space, and the threats facing groups and activists across the thematic spectrum, coalitions will often be broad and diverse. Whilst this is critical to achieve impact, it is equally important to articulate the shared values as a solid base on which to build collective action. A rights-based approach was often taken in establishing shared values and helping to negotiate the messages, risk appetites and priorities of the coalition, as well as membership.
Coalitions will often need a secretariat, but long-term sustainability requires a shared ownership amongst the widest group of members as possible in order to drive collective action and secure active engagement. Newly established coalitions should invest in facilitation time to agree the terms of common ownership, including roles and responsibilities. These should be articulated in writing, such as through a memorandum of understanding (MoU).
Even with long-term flexible funding, donors generally look for clear ‘outcomes’ to be defined and reported on in grant-making. In the case of civic space, sometimes just keeping civil society present, functioning and secure is a legitimate goal of programming in this area. Real outcomes will be seen long-term and through sustained investment over time.
Work on civic space can require a significant amount of risk and donors should be sharing this with ICSOs and their partners. Being clear on who is bearing the risk and how that will be managed should be articulated.
Coalitions and networks often find it hard to secure adequate funding to provide shared services or facilitate collaboration. But they can provide significant added value in civic space responses in terms of joining voices, sharing risk, and by creating economies of scale in terms of technical or legal expertise.
Donors often have a strong oversight of different initiatives between civil society groups, and across national boundaries. This ‘helicopter view’ should help to seek out and amplify connecting opportunities between different, but aligned initiatives working on civic space matters. Donors can connect these and help create spaces for adequate learning and information sharing.