Today the European Foundation Centre (EFC) and the Funders’ Initiative for Civil Society (FICS) have launched a paper which addresses the trend of closing civil society space, how it is impacting development and humanitarian funders and actors, and sets out potential solutions to deal with the issue. The paper is the result of a one year joint EFC/FICS collaboration involving different types of funders and actors who participated in roundtables and interviews to devise effective, possible responses to reverse this worrying trend.  The paper is complemented by blogs by several experts, focusing on their particular responses to the closing space via alliance-building and engagement in country specific contexts and the work around security policy and de-risking.

For the paper ‘Why Shrinking Civil Society Space Matters in International Development and Humanitarian Action’ and related blogs: http://www.efc.be/programmes_services/operating-environment/development-and-closing-space/

This project has been funded by the Open Society Foundations and the Fund for Global Human Rights.

Key findings

A healthy civil society is key to increasing equality and reducing poverty in development work. Yet recent years have witnessed an alarming rise in restrictions on civil society’s ability to operate, especially in developing countries. This is happening via a range of government measures, from constraints on freedom of assembly to imposing excessive red tape and limitations on NGOs receiving funding from foreign donors. For international development funders, including international NGOs (INGOs), this can seriously impede their ability to support local organisations, undertake advocacy work or even implement basic service delivery programmes.

Many international philanthropic foundations and INGOs appear to be taking an ‘adaptation and mitigation’ approach to these constraints. Only a small number of philanthropic development organisations engage in advocacy to challenge shrinking space; however most do not. While conciliatory actions aimed at respecting increased regulatory demands in order to maintain access to a country may seem sensible, the authors of the report suggest that they can do the reverse and in fact harm development’s aims.

This paper explores potential ways forward for more strategic, concerted cross-sector action and engagement from international funders and development and humanitarian actors. Leaving the defence of civil society space in developing countries to a handful of actors on the ground is unlikely to be sufficient.  The paper also notes that approaches will differ greatly from country to country and oppositional or advocacy measures may not always be the best way to approach the challenge of closing space. Appropriate strategic responses should be agreed jointly with domestic and international partners wherever possible.