Missing rights and resources for civil society


Danny Sriskandarajah


Civil society groups and organisations are facing an unprecedented crackdown in a number of authoritarian and democratic countries. From Myanmar to Mexico, a viral wave of repressive policies and administrative controls is making it harder for civil society to work on today’s most pressing social, economic and environmental problems.

In the State of Civil Society 2015 Report, CIVICUS identifies a number of disturbing trends. Of primary concern is the growing rate of government harassment of civil society and a funding environment that is limiting the ability of civil society organisations (CSOs) to deliver.

Defending our Space:
CIVICUS documented that, in 2014 alone, there were serious threats to the freedoms of assembly, association and expression in at least 96 countries.  The most common abuses witnessed included:

  • registering false cases against activists who demand equality, social and political justice
  • illicit surveillance of activists and as means to impede and intimidate them
  • engaging in crackdowns on civil society groups through unlawful mass arrests, detention of activists and physical attacks
  • use of excessive police force against peaceful protests
  • raids on civil society organisations and arbitrary seizure of their assets
  • stigmatising activists in the media
  • preventing civil society groups from accessing crucial funds to carry out their activities, especially from foreign sources.

The negative effects of government harassment are not limited to totalitarian regimes. Tensions are also arising in some of the world’s most mature democracies. In the United States, there were heavy-handed responses to this year’s nationwide ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests; environmental groups in Australia and Canada have come under attack from their governments, and friends in Indian civil society have recently been trying to resist a cynical raft of measures to shut them up and shut them down.  In other words, the shrinking space for civil society is now a global problem.

Less Money, More problems:
To make matters worse, organisations that need funds the most, largely based in the Global South, receive only a fraction of the billions of dollars of funding that goes to the sector. As part of CIVICUS’ analysis on this matter, the Guest Essays in the State of Civil Society Report identify three primary problems related to the dichotomy between bureaucratic funding procedures and action-oriented grassroots programs:

  • Many donors are suffering from ‘logframitis’. They want us to package the long-term and systemic change we are passionate about into neat little fundable projects that fit their programme and timelines. They work through complex chains of ‘fundermediaries’ who channel ever-smaller chunks of money with ever-larger relative reporting requirements.  Many in civil society are good at playing this game – but many of the most innovative, most ambitious initiatives rarely involve project proposals.
  • In many countries civil society is caught between measures that make it more difficult to access foreign funding and the fact that domestic funders are not yet able or willing to support change-seeking activities. The situation is most acute in countries that have apparently ‘graduated’ into middle-income status and have therefore fallen off donors’ priority lists.
  • Despite all the promises about ‘funding the frontline’ and investing in the capacity of Southern civil society, very few resources actually reach those who need it most and, arguably, could spend it best.

Out of the $166 billion spent on official development assistance by OECD-DAC countries in 2013, only 13 per cent went to civil society.  Although current data is hard to obtain, the latest estimate from 2011 suggests that Southern-based NGOs get only around 1 per cent of all aid directly. The rest of civil society’s allocation goes to Northern organisations that serve as ‘fundermediaries’ passing on an unknown share of their funding to CSOs based in the Global South.

Reversing the trends
There are clear links between civic space and resourcing trends. It is not surprising that domestic civil society does not have the capacity to defend itself against attacks on civic space if funding channels are routinely blocked and donors systematically underinvest in the sector.

For civil society to continue working in some of the most vulnerable communities and on the world’s most urgent issues, it is critical that the sector is guaranteed an operating environment that ensures its equal rights and resources.

Danny Sriskandarajah is secretary general of CIVICUS

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