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 an international group of funders for a two-day workshop to develop strategies to counter this trend.
The phenomenon of closing space for civil society has become of great importance globally. While human rights activists and donors attempt to navigate legal restrictions on cross-border funding at bilateral and multilateral levels as they arise, there remains a significant need to develop a more in-depth understanding of the current environment and craft concrete strategies to counter this trend at its roots.
For this purpose, private and public donors and civil society actors convened a two-day workshop in Berlin to discuss the strategies and tools that civil society, governments and donors can use to contest the further disabling of civil society. The workshop’s participants identified a safe and enabling environment, protected by human rights principles and supported by a robust legal framework, flexible funding procedures, long-term support and access to resources for the most marginalized voices, as the key conditions needed for an independent and resilient civil society.
For decades, human rights defenders across the Arab region (and globally) have criticized the absence of sustainable and unrestricted funding to support and promote human rights work in the region. Now more than ever, with an escalating closing space phenomenon, human rights and social justice donors (among others) should acknowledge the entwined relationship between the provision of long-term and flexible support to human rights defenders and non-governmental organizations, and the expansion of an enabling environment for the civil society work. Both the donors and the civil society actors who were present at the workshop stressed the importance of unrestricted (core) and long-term funding through which the supported groups and individuals are enabled not only to implement strategic interventions in a timely fashion, but to also maintain their existence and sustainability which is becoming much more challenging in such a closing space. Simple forms and procedures are also indispensable to facilitate the work of both the human rights activists and donors without undermining or compromising due diligence.
And as the closing space phenomenon continues to impose serious challenges to the work of human rights activists and donors, flexible procedures in funding could be a successful tool in challenging this trend. For example, in cases where the supported groups or individuals face foreign funding restrictions (Egypt, Jordan or Syria), or groups are informal and unregistered, the donors can channel their contributions through fiscal agents who have the status of civic companies and are not regulated by the country’s restrictive NGO law, or even use cash payments in exceptional circumstances. Despite the additional administrative burden that these procedures may impose, including the identification of fiscal agents and preparation of legal arrangements, they have proven to be the most efficient ways to navigate such restrictions. However, they remain insufficient and temporary measures. More work and resources are needed to build the capacity of human rights activists in litigation, advocacy and campaigning to argue for a safe legal and political environment for civil society.
Samar Haidar is Executive Director at the Arab Human Rights Fund.