How can foundations confront the shrinking space for civil society?


Laura García


Space for civil society has been closing around the globe, with a noticeable rise in restrictive laws and pushback by state and non-state actors. In mid-June, Ariadne, the European Foundation Centre, and the International Human Rights Funders Group convened a two-day workshop to develop strategies to counter this trend.

As funders learn that closing space for civil society is not just a temporary trend but an international ‘tectonic’ phenomenon, building alliances with unlikely allies is an essential strategy to keep civil society open. But can funders actually affect the balance of power? How can we turn to local and international allies to counterbalance what seems like an overwhelming force against civic space? In a context where civil society is shrinking because of authoritarian governments, corporate power protection, anti-Western resistance, and actions in the name of national security interests and counter terrorism, it seems natural to think that little can be done to reverse the trend.

However, this is not a black and white issue. Power is only one aspect of the complex interactions between governments and civil society, negotiations with different sectors, coalitions, bargains and reciprocity. Looking at power narrowly and statically can limit funders’ abilities to build strategies. The corporate sector is a good example of where these nuances can help funders understand and engage with unlikely allies to build counter-narratives in support of civil society.

Law certainly influences politics, but the opposite is true as well. Governments and companies are bound by soft power as well, and this is a key factor for explaining why some companies are interested in advancing human rights and have even chosen to be publically concerned about closing spaces for civil society. Such is the case with C&A, H&M, De Beers, Unilever, Tiffany, Virgin and Adidas, among others. In an interdependent society and economy, companies find it in their interest to build a positive reputation and strengthen their legitimacy. They often pursued legitimacy by collaborating with civil society organizations to promote social justice and equality.

Corporations do not behave homogenously; nor do politicians, faith-based communities, entertainment industries or other segments of our society. Funders could turn to potential allies within all of these sectors to collectively defend space for civil society. Seeing that so many of them are already speaking out against injustice, it would not be such a difficult step to take!

Most of these voices are not aware of or are acting with the express aim of defending civil society, but they simply support its causes. Funders can therefore play a critical role in raising awareness and connecting the dots. For example, a well-known artist involved in defending LGBTTI rights may be unaware that many LGBTTI organizations around the world are closing down because of security issues, governmental scrutiny and harassment. Funders can use their voices to educate and help lead public voices in raising awareness about the threats facing civil society – and what those threats mean to the causes funders support.

Laura Garcia is executive director of Semillas – Sociedad Mexicana Pro Derechos de la Mujer.

Comments (1)

Angelika Arutyunova

It is good that funders are having dialogues and reflections on these issues. Please check out our piece at AWID on the same issue with a call to funders to complexify the thinking and reflections. We welcome dialogue with funders to further thinking on this! “The situation is however, even more complex. This context is part of a bigger clash of ideologies and geo-political shifts the world is undergoing now. With the economic pendulum swinging away from the West to the South, there is less need for dependence on the neoliberal U.S. and Western Europe driven models for development. Unfortunately, civil society is becoming the collateral damage of this battle. It is understandable that growing economies like India and Russia would want to choose their own development alternatives to those of the World Bank or IMF, but access and demand for basic human rights, freedom of assembly and expression cannot simply be rejected as Western ideals. That notion undermines home-grown movements of resistance that have always been there, foreign funding or not; and simply bulldozing them with intimidation laws will not be of service to either Russia, India, or any other economically growing nation. An attempt to build a healthier relationship between independent civil society and the state should be the focus of next steps for all the above nations, instead of the continuous diversion to who is on the right side of ‘foreign agent’ laws. This moment is also important for the international funding community to reflect on its work in those countries to date, consult its partners on ways forward, and develop alternative ways to engage and support to civil society.”

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