Space for civil society has been closing around the globe, with a noticeable rise in restrictive laws and attacks by state and non-state actors. In mid-June, Ariadne, the European Foundation Centre, and the International Human Rights Funders Group convened an international group of funders for a two-day workshop to develop strategies to counter this trend.
Tectonic shifts, marked by a growing culture of fear and the movement of civil society from previously marginalized sidelines to centre stage, are dramatically altering the political and cultural spaces in which we operate. Monitoring the situation over the last few years, it is clear to many of us that wave after wave of new laws and legislation are having a negative impact on all human rights funders and activists transnationally. And with the dividing lines between west and ‘rest,’ north and south, becoming increasingly smudged, the warning light that flashed from the two-day workshop was that the disabling of civil society is a global phenomenon which will not be turned around overnight.
The highly sensitive nature of the issue meant that participants and experts needed to be assured a safe space if frank and honest discussions were to be facilitated. Thus Chatham House Rules and a self-imposed Tweet-free zone enabled no holds barred analysis and creative brainstorming in the breakout sessions, which helped steer thinking towards concrete strategies to counter the many negative trends being observed. These trends include governments trying to control, limit or stop the work of civil society organizations by developing and passing restrictive legislation, as well as nationwide campaigns of invasive NGO inspections using harassment tactics such as personal intimidation and threatening closure. Such legislation has the potential to silence or block their critical advocacy and activism, for example by limiting association with foreign donors. Donors’ focus on transparency increasingly means that grantees are required to maintain and disclose detailed project records, including for online publication by the donor. For women’s organizations working on sensitive topics in high-risk settings, such requirements put them in a difficult position as they struggle to balance transparency with the need to guarantee the safety of themselves and their beneficiaries. What is driving this trend?
The Financial Action Task Force (FATF), established in 1989 by the G7, is one of the most influential but least known multinational organizations threatening civil society today. Operating as a working group, the FATF’s mandate is to prevent money laundering and terrorism financing by setting a global standard. They are not underpinned by a convention or treaty, which means they have the freedom and flexibility to operate without much public scrutiny. This lack of transparency and the unquestioned power the FATF yields is simply astonishing. Equally astonishing was how little awareness many funders have of this global force directly affecting them.
It is easy to be disheartened, especially smaller funds who do not have the negotiating clout of the larger foundations with financial institutions and government bodies. However, collectively all funders great and small have a role to play. The smaller indigenous funds, such as the many women’s funds in the network that have particularly close relationships with their grantees, can bring the voices, experiences and reality of the grassroots to the advocacy table. They can inform and alert the activists they support of forecast threats to their activism. They can bring the credibility and ownership of the challenges faced by the grassroots and their demands to the counter-narrative. Other networks linked to the women’s movement can be brought in and can strengthen existing efforts by the funders’ networks.
Collective advocacy towards the FATF is planned for the autumn and a working group made up of members of the Ariadne network is being formed. Similarly this should be linked to parallel advocacy efforts through other bodies such as the Hague-based Human Security Collective. Closer to home we can invest in insuring the organizational integrity of ourselves and our grantees which may include enhancing existing skills and raising awareness on the importance of internal financial controls and appropriate due diligence. Regarding the well-being of activists on the ‘front line,’ it was noted that a shift in funding mentality to multi-year funding can ensure that positive gains on the ground are maintained and the resilience of grassroots human rights groups to manoeuvre and survive in the changing landscape is built.
Factors influencing the disabling of civil society must be taken seriously. As responsible funders we need to inform and be informed. And with equal gravity and according to our skills and capacities we need to commit to being actively engaged in the strategies collectively mapped out over the two days in Berlin.
Carolyn Boyd Tomasovic is managing director at Ecumenical Women’s Initiative.