Funders must join forces to defend civil society


Deborah Doane


Only last week, the head of Amnesty International in Turkey, Taner Kiliç, was detained while attending a training session on digital security. Sadly news like this no longer comes as a shock. Turkey, alongside several other democratic countries like India or Hungary, have been on a rapid decline where any dissenting voice against the state is seen as a threat to those in power.

The phrase ‘closing space for civil society’ hardly serves to describe the phenomenon that has seen civil society go from being a beacon of hope, providing a rich diversity outside of the state or market, to something to be feared, loathed and curtailed.

Some argue, so what’s new?

Civil society has long been at the forefront of challenging those in power, and in many parts of the world has been consistently under attack.  But with only 26 countries now considered to be “open” according to the Civicus Monitor attacks on civil society are wider, deeper and more intense than ever before.

The rules aiming to curb their activities go well beyond front-line human rights defenders. With more sophisticated tools, complex administrative burdens, and negative rhetoric, the beating heart of civil society globally is challenged like never before. Philanthropy, as itself a civil society actor, has also come under direct attack.

But what is also new is that we are now ready to move from hand-wringing to positive action. The philanthropy conference circuit has been live with discussions about closing space over the past few years, but until now we’ve done little more than ducking and diving and hoping it will all go away.

To a limited extent, increasing resources have gone to support things like digital security or capacity training to help grantees cope with complex regulations. But this leaves us with a question: should philanthropy simply retreat and seek to minimise the damage wrought from closing space, or can philanthropy play a more positive role in helping to curb this trend?

The Funders’ Initiative for Civil Society (FICS) was established with this question in mind.  Philanthropy is part of a long tradition that enables citizen-led action to take place – outside the market, outside governments – to support positive change.  Finding ways to defend the legitimate role of civil society, and of philanthropy, is clearly part of our offence against the onslaught of closing space.

How do we do that?  By thinking outside the confines of our usual approaches to grant-making, by working more collectively through learning from each other and sharing practices, and by getting resources to where they’re needed to push back against the closing space trend. And perhaps most importantly by preparing to be bold and less risk-averse as a sector.

Accustomed to being relatively invisible, philanthropy doesn’t just have a role to play in trying to get money to those most in need; it has a role to play in seeking to influence powerful actors, and to help uphold the fundamental values of everything that we do.

Whether we’re supporting health and education or the environment, or defending the rights of LGBTI groups, a pre-requisite to all of our action is to defend and uphold the freedoms civil society needs to function.

When the Rockefeller Brothers were established they were considered by political leaders at the time, to be a “threat to democracy.”

It seems we’ve turned the tables 180 degrees:  quite often philanthropy is now one of the main advocates for keeping democratic values in check, and it needs to have the courage to continue to do so. But it seems even more crucial now than ever before, against a backdrop of rising populism and authoritarianism, that we protect the rights to speak out and hold governments or corporations to account, that we challenge the status quo, and that we ensure a healthy civil society can support those most in need.

Philanthropy can act as a catalyst for this change, but only if its prepared to stand up above the parapet and work with others on this pressing agenda.

Deborah Doane is Director of the Funders’ Initiative for Civil Society (FICS), a donor collaborative which brings together private philanthropy to help ensure that space for civil society is free and open. Read more about the FICS strategy here

Tagged in: Funders' Initiative for Civil Society

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