There have been more than 100 laws enacted over the past couple of years that have significantly closed down the space for civil society organisations in different parts of the world – including in some European countries. They include restrictions when creating a legal entity, burdensome reporting requirements, restrictions on foreign funding, anti-protest laws, attacks on free media, independence of jurisprudence etc. Participants discussed their experience around this issue and the role they can play – individually and collaboratively to respond to an increasingly dynamic policy environment on the space for civil society.

The session started with a launch of the EFC publication: “The shrinking space for civil society – Philanthropic perspectives from across the globe”, a collection of opinion pieces from philanthropy leaders working across the world on how their organisations are experiencing the global phenomenon of the shrinking space for civil society. Contributors to the publication then engaged in a debate around shrinking space for civil society and what this means for philanthropy.

Speakers brought up the following key points:

  • Foreign funders are considered suspicious: The major change is the switch from being universally welcome to being a suspect of doing mischief. Examples include the criminalisation of foreign funding in Russia, Egypt, Turkey, Hungary and possibly Poland. Funders are under suspicion of wanting to overthrow governments.
  • New forms/approaches of civil society: Parts of civil society have changed significantly. Social movements of youth come together on online platforms and funders need to learn how to work with these new forms of civil society.
  • There is a dual reality in government policy about civil society in Russia: While foreign funding restrictions are hampering the work, there is more local philanthropy and new creative forms of philanthropy with a supporting environment from the government side, which gives hope.
  • Time for philanthropy to act:  The space was never open and never will be, but there are various efforts being made to enlarge the space, and philanthropic actors should engage.
  • Participants from the floor added that civil society could be a bit more self-critical. In the past foundations and NGOs have not always been fully accountable, and foreign funders coming out of the US and Europe have been to some extent paternalistic and colonial.

Speakers shared direct experience of shrinking space for civil society as follows:  

  • Ms Drexler from the Robert Bosch Foundation stated that there are attempts by government to tell civil society what they should engage in: for instance, providing a service to disadvantaged children tends to be fine, but engaging in policy work gets one into trouble. The Robert Bosch Foundation is not blacklisted in Russia, but it there has been talk of putting it on the list of unwanted organisations. Its partner organisations have been harassed in all kinds of ways. The foundation considers it important to engage with people on the ground and do what is safe for them to do.
  • Ms Chertok commented that the foreign agent law in Russia even provokes one group within civil society to say that another is the problem. Serious restrictions appear to derive from the Financial Action Task Force policy and regulations to fight money laundering and terrorism financing. Organisations have to produce endless reports, and working with banks is increasingly complicated. The administrative workload has increased tremendously and this burden is added to the sanctions regime and the risks for the receiving organisations. It is a whole new reality.
  • Mr Rishi reported that his organisation engaged in Ethiopia with work on children’s rights working with communities trying to improve the system, not providing service provision. According to a new draconian law, any rights-based work is considered illegal, so they moved their office out of Ethiopia. Mr Rishi also mentioned that funders appear to have a real PR problem that needs to be addressed, they do not get support from the people when the government attacks. Philanthropic actors are viewed as elite institutions, removed from the realities of the people on the ground.
  • Mr Moyo described simplicity as being the ultimate complexity.  The increased politicising of humanitarian work and services delivery makes governments react to all actors. He questioned who actually drives the closure? The drivers are not just governments but also international organisations, the private sector, and civil society itself. The INGOs that moved south have crowded the space. The INGOs are sometimes competing with local organisations.

Other participants shared their experience, which illustrates that the space is shrinking globally but also in Europe, in countries such as Hungary, Poland, UK and to some extent France.

Key points of learning

What can funders do to open up the space?

  • Participants concluded that this is not a simple or static picture with simple solutions
  • What do you do when things go wrong for funders and/or partners?  The possibility to create a joint emergency programme was discussed.  When grantees are in trouble, it is important to provide tools, technology and communications. Longer term support in terms of capacity building was also mentioned.
  • Collaboration with others and new partners is key: local actors, governments (local and foreign), other civil society actors including other funders as well as business.
  • More opportunities for funders will come up to link with governments also around the SDGs.
  • Funders need to keep on telling the story that we are not “dangerous” that we are making an important contribution and have an important role to play in a pluralistic society (develop a better PR strategy).
  • Engagement with existing NPO coalitions, for example on the FATF matter, are seen important tools to joining forces in a meaningful way on specific issues/leavers.
  • Working with local civil society is important but sometimes challenging since the classical NPOs are losing their relevance and one must figure out how to work with new actors of and approaches in civil society. 
  • There is appetite to collaborate more around this issue, to put words into action plans.

Going forward

The discourse should change towards an active push for an enabling environment – rather than just reacting to restrictions. New coalitions among local players, regional players, stakeholders from different sectors including the public and private sectors are already created and should be further explored and put in action. More research and work towards concrete identified actions around the levers should be undertaken.           

As a result of a June 2015 Ariadne/EFC/IHRFG Berlin workshop, a number of funders have committed to set up a new initiative called “Funder Initiative for Civil Society” (FICS) to take this work forward. Interested funders are invited to get in touch with any of the partners to join.

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