Christine Meissler is a Speaker for the Protection of Civil Society 


For quite some time, donors and funders supporting civil society globally have been observing an important shift. Opportunity surrounding civil society partners, and their recognition, are changing world wide in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Asia, sub-Sahara Africa and Latin America. Many partner organisations working on issues such as human rights, environmental issues, peace and social justice, are finding that the legal and administrative framework has become less enabling, limiting and even repressing. Fundamental rights, crucial for an independent civil society, such as freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association are increasingly challenged. Organisations and individuals are surveyed and stigmatized, and defamation, threats, criminalisation and killings of human rights defenders and civil society activists are increasing. 

For the civil society organisations under pressure, as well as for their donors, these issues are very sensitive. When project accounts are frozen, registrations refused and investigations on going, it often makes a lot of sense to try to solve and improve the situation in a discreet manner and on a case by case basis in order to find solutions with the authorities involved. However, when cases that appear exceptional become a systematic obstruction and a recognised trend, collective action, also by the supporters and funders of civil society, becomes necessary.  

What began initially as exchanges on operational challenges, and responses to shrinking and closing civil society space, led to a joined position paper by civil society and a dialogue between German civil society and the German government. At a working level meeting of different German non-state civil society funders focusing on operational challenges and responses to shrinking civil society space, initiated by the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin, it became obvious that the issue is too important to be limited to internal discussions and exchange. We saw that a common position paper addressing the German government would be helpful in raising awareness and starting a more structured dialogue with concerned parts of the German government, such as the Federal Foreign Office and the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development. After quickly deciding on the structure and the most important messages of the paper, a small team prepared the first draft, which was discussed, commented on and altered during another face-to-face meeting. Before finalising, it was also presented to and discussed with concerned partner organisations working in contexts of shrinking civil society space, who were present in Berlin during the time of finalisation.  

In the first part, the discussion paper analyses the global trends and challenges of civil society space. In the second part, the German civil society organisations spelled out concrete demands to the different parts of the government (Federal Chancellery, Federal Foreign Office, Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development, Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy, Federal Ministry of Finance) to contribute to the improvement of civil society space worldwide. One of the most important recommendations is to establish mechanisms that ensure that other policies such as trade, security and migration do not harm human rights and civil society space. 

In order to show the importance of the messages and the wide support, it was crucial to have major umbrella organisations working on development, human rights, environment and peace as sponsors. The final version was published by four national umbrella organisations focusing on these areas, and eight of the German major development and human rights NGOs. In order to be understood by most of the partners and to be able to connect to international discussions and initiatives on civil society space, the paper was translated into English.

Before being made publically available, the discussion paper was sent in December 2016 to the respective ministers with a cover letter expressing the wish to discuss the most relevant demands in a face-to-face meeting. In the beginning of 2017, the Federal Chancellery and the Foreign Office invited representatives of the signatory organisations to discuss the paper and its demands. It also let to a follow-up meeting with the Foreign Office and the Federal Ministry for Interior Affairs. This focused on the contradictions between the current migration policy and security assistance in third countries on one side and human rights and civil society space on the other side, which are observed by civil society. 

In order to continue the conversation with the government and effected partners, a smaller group of organisations decided to organise a full day event between partner organisations under pressure, government representatives, German civil society and international experts. This took place in May 2017, under the auspices of the four networks supporting the discussion paper. The aim was to exchange views about and responses to shrinking civil society space.

Finally, participants also reflected on what kind of initiatives and forms of cooperation’s could and should be taken up together by civil society (both in Germany and third countries) and German government institutions in the future. The meeting generated many interesting ideas for initiatives such as a more structured and systematic dialogue between civil society and the German government on civic space, a discussion paper with demands to German companies working in foreign countries, and a report monitoring the civil society work of German Embassies. We are currently seeing how we can realise these ideas and continue our cooperation. 

Link to the discussion paper in English: