We all sense that democracy is challenged. For a while already and also in Europe. It seems we lack three things for our philanthropic work in Europe: first of all awareness, second better understanding and third to get prepared for action.
What strikes me after many conversations with colleagues from different countries and working with various topics is that we are many who are not aware of the big picture of the situation in Europe. Many of us observe changes in the operating environment of our grantees or for ourselves. Public funds decrease, new legislation regulating the non profit sector enter into force, an activist is put into preventive detention, a demonstration is forbidden, etc. If we add all incidents from different sectors, target groups and countries, the situation is more alarming than just a small, local and maybe temporary change. Therefore this blog. If you see or experience restrictive or repressive legislation and behaviour of public or corporate actors towards societal actors of general interest, take the time to reach out to those who work on the big picture for the philanthropic sector for a while: the European Foundation Centre, the Funder’s initiative for civil society with its analysis and framework; subscribe to the email list in the ariadne communities; or just get in touch personally.
My personal wake up call came from conversations with colleagues from Central European countries in 2014-2015. Asking for news about the difficult environment for philanthropic and non profit action in the Czech Republic and Hungary, colleagues called for saving the situation in Western Europe alongside with support to what happens in Central and Eastern Europe. Worries grew even bigger with the assessment that France could no longer serve as model. Examples from Germany, Spain, The Netherlands, the United Kingdom… can be added.
What comes next is the need to understand. Do we experience short term, local, specific and “justified” restrictions or are we heading towards definite, systematic and general repression happening all over the place? The question being highly political and thus sensitive, philanthropy needs facts and sober analysis as basis for defining its role and action
In addition to the funder groups mentioned above, different actors provide facts and analysis: For example the Civicus Monitor by tracking civic space across the world with five categories of open, narrowed, obstructed, repressed and closed space or Civic space watch as collaborative monitoring and sharing platform. Space is narrowed in 12 European countries and obstructed in one. Maecenata Institute publishes on the topic and keeps a list of its publications while planning for a more comprehensive literature review.
We must not agree to what extend democratic and civic space is closing or closed down in Europe already. Available facts and examples should be reason enough to get prepared. And many foundations started doing so. By gathering grantees or activists, setting up joint initiatives – FICS mentioned above – and funds – Civitates under the umbrella of nef for example or the Piper Fund in the U.S. –, by taking on new ways of operating – funding social businesses, funding individuals, support litigation and create capacity building around it… Reviewing the language we use direction of more positive wording – democratic, civic or vital space, democratic governance, civic engagement, save democracies instead of shrinking and closing space – as well as putting at glance all our initiatives using different wording while addressing the same challenge can be brought to priority.
Two concepts could be looked at in depth: risk and participation. Criticizing what happens in front of our European doors is definitively a risk and out of scope for some philanthropic actors. And participation of concerned in planning, decision-making and evaluating grantmaking is a topic we are still struggling with. Experimenting further and becoming exemplary can support our standing and offer solutions for open, dynamic and inclusive democracies.
We definitively should get ready because the ground in direction of authoritarian restrictions is well-prepared already and shifts can happen quickly!
Inga Wachsmann is Grant Manager at Porticus. Writing in a personal capacity.