Discover and learn from Solidarity Playbook case studies

Solidarity and collaboration are among strongest tools we have to push back against clampdowns on civil society. These case studies showcase best practices, challenges, and lessons learned from resilience mechanisms of international civil society organisations (ICSOs) and coalition responses to civic space restrictions and changing operating conditions for civil society.

There is clearly a need to move from reactive mode – responding to clampdowns – to a more formal prepared footing. Our strength will be in building on these case studies and ensuring that there are stronger organisational and sectoral responses as a whole.


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Coalition response
November 2020
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International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group (ICLMG): Working in coalition to push back against national security overreach in Canada

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The International Civil Liberties Monitoring Group (ICLMG) is a coalition of Canadian civil society organisations, established after the adoption of the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001.

The coalition’s aim is to protect and promote human rights and civil liberties in the context of the so-called ‘war on terror’. Since its creation, ICLMG has been a platform for exchange among organisations and communities affected by the application of national security laws.

This case study looks at how this long-standing coalition has developed, and the strategies it has used to advocate for greater accountability and transparency in Canada, and to resist the overreach of national security.

Maintaining energy long-term
In being such a long-standing coalition, ICLMG sees a high turnover of representatives from member organisations engaging with the campaigns and activities. The secretariat has to serve as a shared institutional memory for the policy positions that organisations have taken, and there is a challenge inherent in having to remind members of past engagement and in encouraging renewed participation.

Maintaining funding long-term
Turnover in representatives, alongside financial constraints faced by members, has meant that maintaining a consistent and increasing level of funding takes ongoing work.

Technical nature of work
Coalition members generally recognise the importance of the work undertaken by ICLMG, but it can be challenging to translate this into support amongst the general public, particularly in order to build pressure to change laws and policies. However this presents opportunities for the coalition to think through how to articulate the problems clearly.

Value of institutional memory
Long-standing campaigns need a consistent coordination mechanism driving and leading the work. ICLMG was the only institution with a detailed memory of the key moments between 2001 and 2017, and they were able to link this important history and background to the present day work, ensuring that the learning from years of advocacy informed the demands of civil society when the opportunity to participate arose.

Common discourse is vital

At the time of ICLMG’s founding, the language and discourse around national security and civil liberties was in flux. By developing a common set of principles, policy goals and public discourse, the coalition was able to have an impact on the framing of these issues, particularly in the media.

Flexible structure
Despite existing for 20 years, the ICLMG coalition has never formally incorporated as a standalone institution. Staff has been housed and employed by several different member organisations, including Inter Pares. Likewise, the coalition’s finances have been administered by a succession of member organisations. Functioning in this way has allowed the coalition to remain responsive and agile, and allowed for coalition staff to have much needed administrative support. This places a higher level of importance on institutional memory and individual involvement.

 

  • Coalition members came to a consensus on every question in the national consultation, meaning that everyone was on the same page in their advocacy efforts.

  • The introduction of a Review Agency was finally included in the National Security Act of 2017 and the Agency was then established in 2019. Although the coalition is critical of many of the other changes brought in through the Act, for example the increasing of surveillance powers, the inclusion of the Review Agency is a success. Its introduction means there will be one body with the power to look across the collaborative work of multiple security agencies, providing greater accountability and transparency, and therefore, protection.

  • This has an impact beyond issues of rendition. There are agencies that work closely together on issues pertaining to domestic security, ranging from what is typically considered to be counter-terror activity through to the policing of protests against extraction or the policing of indigenous communities. A lack of oversight of these agencies’ collaborative work leads to a greater risk of damaging practice that could shrink civic space for progressive civic actors. The mandate of the new review agency offers the potential for deeper investigation and broader accountability, which should also act as a deterrent to agencies participating in collusion and corruption, including coordinating anti-terrorism activities with their US counterparts that may be unlawful.

Report Date | November 2020     Type | Coalition response     Author(s) | Sarah Pugh and Deborah Doane

Coalition response
November 2020
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Civic Organisations. It Works: A coalition to boost the profile and presence of civil society organisations in Poland

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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.

Representation
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.

Report Date | November 2020     Type | Coalition response     Author(s) | Sarah Pugh and Deborah Doane

ICSO mechanism
November 2020
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Plan International: Strengthening the resilience of youth-led organisations in Latin America through direct funding and mentorship

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Plan International is an independent development and humanitarian organisation that advances children’s rights and equality for girls. They work with children, young people and partners in over 75 countries across the world.

In response to shrinking civic space in Latin America – alongside the ambition to shift power dynamics and improve partnerships with youth-led organisations – Plan International initiated a pilot project to direct-fund and mentor youth-led organisations in the region with core and flexible funding to enable them to adapt to risks as they arose. This saw Plan fundamentally change its approach to supporting youth-led organisations so that they could act more independently, while Plan worked in solidarity alongside them. A risk-analysis tool on the enabling environment was created to accompany this process so that both Plan and youth-led organisations could manage closing space conditions more effectively.

Securing buy-in
It is challenging to maintain the principles of transparency and full participation. These principles are often difficult to maintain because of conflicting donor requirements. In this instance, making the case for the key difference between direct funding and supporting groups via intermediaries, and advocating for more flexibility when reporting on and auditing the funds, was a challenge. The hope is that through this project, Plan can demonstrate to donors the balance needed between accountability on the one hand, and supporting youth-led organisations and new leadership on the other. This is especially relevant in contexts of high risk where capacities need to be strengthened in order to build resilience in the face of closing space. In this case, Sida’s flexibility and ambition to strengthen civil society made the project possible.

Generational differences
There is a generational issue to overcome. Many of those working in international civil society organisations (ICSOs) have a vision for the world and for society informed by parameters and ideologies set several decades ago. This means they risk missing out on what young people see as change, in terms of political participation, trust in democracy, how to build solidarity or connect. For effective partnership and solidarity, there needs to be transparent conversations – and active listening – on what all stakeholders expect of change.

Balancing risks and rationale
It was important for Plan to be able to articulate why it wanted to work with youth-led organisations. This connects to risk analysis, and how far an ICSO will go when acting in solidarity with youth. Without answering this question, an ICSO risks constantly coming up against the barrier of not being willing to take that risk.

Solidarity requires courage
The support of empowered staff at the technical level within Plan country offices was key to the success of the pilot project. Importantly, there were courageous staff willing to take on the additional challenges and risks of working more directly with and mentoring youth.

Involving the right decision-makers
Involvement of finance staff was key. Plan’s financial procedures are generally strict, with limited flexibility, and so it was necessary to have the buy-in of finance staff for a project that aimed to change the way local, youth-led organisations were supported.

Agency
Ensuring that the youth-led organisations themselves drove the project’s agenda was vital to developing Plan’s understanding of how to contribute to the strengthening of the resilience of these organisations. For example, work on sexual and reproductive rights (SRR) in Nicaragua revealed how sexual identity had become deeply politicised and how SRR were therefore a political issue. The awareness of this was important to ensure Plan could fully assess risks and responsibilities when working with youth-led organisations on those rights in that context.

Energy needs support
The pilot project revealed that although the youth-led organisations involved need opportunities to learn, alongside certain tools, most of the time they are ready to organise themselves without further intervention. ICSOs and donors have a tendency to suppress energy and leadership that is already there, as they impose northern-led systems. This energy is vital in advocating for an enabling environment for civil society more broadly – it must be strengthened through flexible support and solidarity.

  • The pilot phase of this project has now been completed and evaluated. The model is currently being scaled up across the region into a new phase that will run until the year 2024 involving 15 youth-led organisations and networks.

  • The cross-regional connections that were made, along with Plan’s international presence, contributed to the sense of solidarity between the youth-led organisations on these challenging topics.

  • Quote from the evaluation: “It is evident that Youth Organizations were strengthened from the Pilot Project. Their strengths can be seen in… the optimal use of resources and general organizational capacities. It is also evident… the maturity that Youth Organizations achieved throughout the project, their regional and national projection, and therefore their ability to have more political influence, as well as the ability to create new alliances and obtain new resources. Clearly, the Pilot was highly beneficial for all Youth Organizations and for strengthening new capacities in the people who comprise them.”

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

Coalition response
November 2020
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#KeepItOn: Organising the global effort to end internet shutdowns

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The #KeepItOn campaign and coalition, hosted by Access Now, unites and organises efforts to end internet shutdowns worldwide.

Members of the #KeepItOn coalition work together to identify, verify and document incidents of internet shutdowns in order to raise awareness of how they violate human rights. The coalition also works to prevent their occurrence through advocacy, capacity-building and litigation. Uniting under the banner of #KeepItOn and now with 220 members worldwide, they have successfully fought internet shutdowns in several national contexts, while raising the profile of the issue at the international level.

Coordinating a holistic response
It is a challenge to ensure that the right resources are in the hands of the right partners in the right place at the right time. Contexts where shutdowns are most prevalent are also settings where civic space is narrower, or closed. Thus, there are fewer civil society organisations operating there who are able to work with a global coalition, or who have the skills needed for a holistic response (policy expertise for understanding the political context and technical expertise for running tests and identifying how the shutdown is implemented). Coordinating these moving parts is challenging – the grassroots grants programme is aimed at developing this infrastructure through capacity-building, in order to mitigate this ongoing challenge.

Be prepared
Coalition members have learned from different contexts to be proactive rather than reactive. Now, rather than waiting for a shutdown to happen and then responding, they try to anticipate the challenges that may arise, for example around upcoming elections, and create strategies depending on the risks that are foreseeable.

Inclusivity
The decentralised model has been key to the coalition’s success. Although Access Now is an international organisation, many of its team members don’t have first-hand experience of internet shutdowns. It is vital therefore that those with direct experience of blackouts and restrictions are able to speak for themselves. Access Now has provided guidance and resources and initiated the development of the coalition, with the aim of being inclusive and raising up the true diversity of experiences. More support is needed from ICSOs to support those communities on the ground who are most affected by restrictions.

High-level figures and international and regional bodies have denounced internet shutdowns as a result of the coalition’s advocacy efforts, for example:

  • In 2016 the UN passed the resolution on the Promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the internet, condemning internet shutdowns, and urging states to refrain from ordering such measures. This was further maintained in 2018. Meanwhile, the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights passed a resolution in 2016 condemning the use of shutdowns by state parties during elections and protests.
  • In 2017, 30 governments coordinated by the Freedom Online Coalition declared their commitment to fight internet shutdowns, in a statement issued at Access Now’s RightsCon meeting in Brussels.
  • The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and Special Rapporteurs have condemned internet shutdowns, and have cited data collected by the coalition in their annual reports to UN bodies. Such reports include the 2019 Human Rights Council Report on Freedom of peaceful assembly and association in the digital age, and the 2020 Human Rights Council Report on Disease pandemics and freedom of opinion and expression.
  • Recent litigation wins against internet shutdowns have been recorded in Togo and Indonesia.

This has created important international and regional support and accountability, and is an important step in ensuring that shutdowns do not become the new normal.

Report Date | November 2020     Type | Coalition response     Author(s) | Sarah Pugh and Deborah Doane

ICSO mechanism
November 2020
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Helvetas: How to use selected human rights mechanisms for effective advocacy

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Helvetas is an independent organisation for development based in Switzerland, which supports poor and disadvantaged women, men and communities in 30 developing and transition countries across Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe.

Together with partners, Helvetas aims to tackle global challenges at multiple levels: with projects on the ground, with expert advice, and by advocating for conducive framework conditions benefiting the poor.

When civic space is closing at the national level, international mechanisms become more important, but are not always easy to access for national or sub-national organisations. Helvetas responded to this challenge by developing guidance for its country offices and local partners on how to advocate through the United Nations human rights system when national governments may be restricting civil society. The guidance sets out multiple entry points for advocacy beyond national boundaries through which national decision makers can be held to account, and which allow sensitive issues to be addressed in a safe space without exposure.

Securing buy-in
Securing organisational buy-in for this work can be challenging: there is some critique that it can feel like ‘just another paper’, and there have been questions about what the real outcome of these processes is if governments then don’t change their behaviour. It can be a long process, but advocates have underlined that it is still valuable in terms of providing safe space for groups to raise issues of concern, and that is an achievement regardless of government action or inaction following any reporting. International or multilateral-level work, and the creation of a safe space for discussion and exchange, is even more important when national-level space is severely restricted, helping to aid the resilience of civil society in the long-term.

Long-term funding
There are concerns about how to secure long-term funding, as donors can be wary of advocacy work in restricted environments.

Mitigating the risk of exposure
Local partners may be concerned about the risk involved in engaging in these consultations, as it can require a certain level of exposure. This can be mitigated by integrating information into joint stakeholder reports (e.g. CIVICUS in Country A).

Be selective and strategic
It is vital to filter and select those UN mechanisms which suit your work: the UN system is large, multi-layered and complex, and so it is important to focus time and resources only on those mechanisms which have a chance of supporting your work.

Facilitation is key
Facilitation capacity at country level is key. Helvetas have found that the process is most successful when there is someone in the country office who both knows the lay of the land and who has the capacity to convene, coordinate and facilitate civil society groups on the ground to contribute to any report or process.

Agency matters
It is important that this facilitator role does not set the agenda. They need to help structure things, but also ensure that there is space for issues to be raised by local partners, enabling national voices and agency.

  • There has been demand and appreciation from country offices for this cross-cutting advocacy support and the strategic use of UN human rights mechanisms to strengthen country-level and thematic work. Feedback indicates that it is helpful to have someone processing national issues into ‘UN language’, and supporting the consultations (these consultations must follow certain rules and procedures, and be structured in a certain way in order to comply with UN standards and terminology).

  • The consultations provide a safe space for constructive dialogue between civil society and government, and this itself opens up civic space and builds capacity and resilience at the local and national level, building the confidence of local partners to speak out.

  • Formal recommendations issued under the UPR (or other UN) Process are recorded and can be a powerful point of reference for advocacy at all levels.

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

ICSO mechanism
October 2019
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Islamic Relief Worldwide: Building a Reputational Risk Management Strategy in the face of Islamophobia-motivated attacks

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Islamic Relief Worldwide (IRW) is an independent humanitarian and development organisation. They have an active presence in over 40 countries across the globe, and strive to make the world a better and fairer place for millions of the three billion people still living in poverty.

IRW has often faced disproportionate hostility and scrutiny because of its Islamic faith and framing. However, it faced a new level of threat in 2014 when it was designated as a terrorist organisation or front – first by Israel, and then by the United Arab Emirates. It responded to these designations swiftly and as robustly as possible, but the organisation felt that it was constantly on the back foot during this fight. Three years after the designations, prompted by fresh reputational risks, IRW decided to adopt a more proactive approach, and invested in developing a new strategy to manage reputational risk.

Costs
Some of the tools needed to either repel or prepare for threats are expensive, such as legal or lobbyist fees. They’re effective mechanisms, but expensive, and so need to be included in budgets.

Staff time
Often, the people best-positioned to deal with these issues are in demanding, senior roles – to find time to deal with these issues can be difficult. The new role of Senior Communications Advisor at the International Secretariat has been vital in helping to underpin their strategy, doing the legwork that the crisis management team requires. It also means that the rest of the communications team can continue with their business as usual, rather than spending all of their time on reputational risk management.

Engage with the truly influential
Engage with the truly influential, and not necessarily with your opponents. Fighting back on every false allegation or vilifying comment gives those attacks oxygen and draws more people to the debate. Time is better invested in targeting those actors your opponents are trying to influence, to make your case there.

Make friends while the sun shines
It’s important to identify your key stakeholders and invest in building relationships with them. Ensuring that you have transparent, close relationships with those groups means that you can seek their support, and where appropriate their endorsement, in the face of an emergency.

Fail to prepare, prepare to fail
Risk analysis and scenario planning are key.

Say who you are
In response to reputational attacks, do not to get dragged into publicly arguing about what you are not. Instead, re-double your efforts to talk about who you are and what you do. Invest the time and resources required to tell your story and represent yourself in order to protect against misrepresentation.

Collaborate
It’s important to acknowledge where issues are bigger than ‘communications’ alone, and your strategy must recognize areas where the work needed goes far beyond what you can achieve in isolation.

For example, due to continuing bank de-risking, IRW’s Head of Governance has undertaken outreach work on the issue. He is on a tri-sector committee convened by the Treasury in the UK, which brings together government representatives, banks and leading civil society organisations to discuss and analyse the ongoing uncertainty of financial services for locations of greatest need, as only a joint approach can address this issue.

  • Islamic Relief Worldwide is better prepared for any threats to its reputation and operations, and therefore more resilient. Since the designations in 2014 which were made by two influential nations, IRW has continued to grow as an organisation. That in itself is a success, and an endorsement of its actions on this front.

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

Coalition response
October 2019
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Civilisation: Coalition-building to fight back against government attacks on civil society in Hungary

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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.

Standby
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.

  • Members are now better prepared for threats. Capacity has been built via shared resources, and links have formed between sectors and groups that were not previously connected, as this is the first truly cross-sector coalition in Hungarian civil society.
  • Although the international and regional solidarity has not stopped restrictive legislation passing into law, it has helped Hungarian civil society feel seen, and not forgotten, which has been incredibly important.
  • They are better organised. During quiet spells, the coalition is able to ‘plan for peace times’, developing longer-term strategies such as a positive image campaign, but also to prepare for adverse developments.

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

ICSO mechanism
October 2019
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Greenpeace International: Developing resilience to SLAPP suits through joint action

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Greenpeace uses non-violent, creative action to pave the way towards a greener, more peaceful world, and to confront the systems that threaten our environment. It is a global network of 27 independent national and regional Greenpeace organisations, and Greenpeace International is the coordinating body for this network.

Risk-taking is part of Greenpeace’s identity and therefore central to their usual risk-management processes. However, over the last decade, a series of emergencies in different national contexts has highlighted that work was needed to ensure all local offices were aligned in their approach to ‘smart risk-taking’. This case study focuses on a uniquely proactive response from the Greenpeace offices, in relation to the threat and damage of Strategic Lawsuits against Public Participation (SLAPPs) in the USA and beyond.

Communicating civil litigation
How to communicate civil litigation in an interesting and engaging way? Not many people know about SLAPP suits, and so basic awareness raising has been difficult for this technical, legal issue.

Incentivising commitment
When Greenpeace International and GPUSA were conducting the initial outreach work with US CSOs, there was interest from others and a desire to know more, but it was hard to incentivise commitment without a more formalised structure in place. Transitioning from an informal support network to a formal structure is difficult and takes time.

Differences between coalition members
Members of a coalition have many differences. There are different risk appetites, different priorities and agendas, and different appetites for ‘political’ work or stances, all of which makes joint planning and action challenging.

Coordination is key
Although the initial conference in 2018 was helpful in terms of brainstorming and building connections, the work was slow to progress until a coordinator was brought on. The project itself was ambitious, due to its multiple functions (legal, communications, campaigns). The governance structure worked well, but the key element was a coordinator who could spot links and ensure things were done.

Enabling easier participation
It’s important early on in the life of a coalition to establish mechanisms and structures that facilitate contributions from members, for example templates for sign-ons (advocacy campaigns). Member representatives are often busy with day-to-day work, so building structures that make their participation quick and straightforward makes for easier collaboration.

Greenpeace International helped incubate Protect the Protest for 12 months, and then withdrew, leaving their Greenpeace USA office as an active member. A separate anti-SLAPP coalition has been established in France – ‘On ne se taira pas’ (We will not be silenced) – to which the Greenpeace France legal counsel has contributed. Through these collective actions and their strategies, Greenpeace as a whole is much better prepared to deal with future SLAPP suits. They are now looking to take their experience and expertise and develop similar networks in other regions, thereby continuing to strengthen their own resilience to this tactic, and that of wider civil society.

Report Date | October 2019     Type | ICSO mechanism     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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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.

Trust-building
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     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.

Chill-effect
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?

Resources
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.

Transparency
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     Author(s) | Sarah Pugh and Deborah Doane

Coalition response
October 2019
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Vuka!: Building an international coalition to coordinate and enable civil society’s response to closing space

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Vuka! is a broad coalition of approximately 160 international, regional and national civil society organisations, working to incubate new forms of resistance and organisation.

Its Secretariat is housed within CIVICUS (World Alliance for Citizen Participation) and maintains a 19-member Steering Group.

With its large membership, multiple action teams and multi-country focus, Vuka! is something of a ‘meta-coalition’. With its Country Coordination Calls, Vuka! manages country-level responses to closing space.

Opening civic space
Coordinated action to respond to an opening rather than a narrowing of civic space, have proved more difficult to carry out. Among ICSOs, there is rarely a coordinated response to ‘opening space’. Civil society is skilled and experienced at fighting restrictions, but when there is sudden access to resources and space, what should support from ICSOs look like? It’s proven more challenging to determine what actions can be agreed upon on ’opening’ country calls.

Tension between depth and breadth
Coalitions often struggle with a natural tension between depth and breadth. Should the network dedicate their time to fewer countries and do deeper work there, or respond to a larger number of countries what would benefit from increased coordination?

Trust
When asking people to dedicate time to information sharing and collective discussion, you must first build trust and prove the value of engaging. Part of that is about not dominating the conversation, and making rather than taking space. Those stewarding or coordinating a coalition shouldn’t be in competition with members. The secure platform developed for Vuka! has been invaluable in helping to create that trust.

Coordinator role is key
Someone needs to be able to synthesise the information shared in order to properly identify potential next steps.

Resources and mechanisms
The collating of information and identifying of solutions needs to be backed up by resources and mechanisms to enable those ideas to reach fruition.

  • Because of the diversity of Vuka’s membership, allies with different expertise and networks can push information out to different stakeholders. The advocacy statements and campaigns have greater reach because members disseminate the information to their constituents and key influencers.
  • In closed settings, avenues for dissent are restricted and opportunities to engage with international or regional bodies are limited. So, including the UN or other Commissions on the calls to enable their engagement with national organisations has proved very helpful.
  • As well as the initiatives that have been formally spun out to other Vuka! action teams, many organic, bi-lateral connections and projects have been initiated thanks to these calls. The calls have acted as a platform for bridge-building between civil society actors who otherwise might not have worked together.
  • The secure, tailor-made platform that is used alongside the calls has allowed members to feel more confident in candidly sharing sensitive information about their strategies and activities, meaning that international civil society responses in national contexts can be mapped and analysed, in order to find gaps or opportunities for joint action.

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

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