Michael Jarvis is the Executive Director of Transparency and Accountability Initiative (TAI)

Conversations highlighting the problem of closing civic space have become a staple of international donor conversations. Awareness has risen alongside the fast growth in governments actions. According to the International Centre for Nonprofit Law, 70 governments have enacted over 120 legal initiatives restricting civil society since 2012.[1]  

Funders of transparency and accountability programming are increasingly part of those conversations. This should not be a surprise. The types of groups these funders support, i.e. transparency advocates, independent media, and anti-corruption campaigners, are often at the frontlines in terms of drawing government attention and are increasingly affected by restrictions. What has been less considered is the extent to which transparency arguments and actions may help build greater resilience or resistance in the face of closing space, and in what circumstances they can be problematic for the non-profit sector.  This is an area where the members of the Transparency and Accountability Initiative (TAI) are looking to gain greater understanding. Our starting point is that more proactive transparency from government and civil society is very much in the public interest.

At one level, civil society organizations (CSOs) that champion transparency may be particularly vulnerable to government efforts to undermine their legitimacy. In a forthcoming paper from TAI, Hans Gutbrod details how governments are adopting the rhetoric of transparency champions and flipping those to justify asks of civil society groups in return. For example, the government of Azerbaijan justified one amendment to NGO legislation as being explicitly “made with a view of increasing transparency in this field.”[2] In another example, anti-corruption groups in Ukraine have fought hard for greater transparency from government. Then in March of this year, the government passed a law requiring the leaders of those groups to declare their own income and assets through the same e-declarations system that public servants use. The suggestion is that civil society should be subject to the same scrutiny and requirements as those in public office, even though the roles and responsibilities and justifiable expectations of privacy among private citizens are substantively different.

Transparency advocates, and their funders, need to be ready to talk to the distinctions, and be sensitive to ways in which transparency asks might be manipulated in ways that expose civil society and individual activists. For example, one can imagine how demands for greater transparency around lobbying, on the face of it a “win” for good governance advocates, may be so broadly interpreted as to consider all civil society groups as in effect “lobbyists” and so required to register and report those they meet with. Ongoing discussions around rules in the European Union suggest such risks are real.

How to respond?

First, we must not give up on the transparency and accountability asks of government. Those remain essential in the push to assure that governments act in the interests of the citizens, and that actions, including on closing space, remain visible. Civil society groups should be as transparent as they can safely be so they need not hesitate to highlight the hypocrisy and overreach of those seeking to constrain civic space. Their efforts will contribute to still unresolved broader societal debates on the legitimate bounds of privacy amid greater transparency.

Let us focus on ways in which transparency can be useful on both the defensive and offensive fronts. Five potential starting points are:

  • Funders can look at ways to more effectively support CSO transparency. More proactive disclosures from CSOs can help forestall government demands, reassure citizens, and enable transparency groups to more credibly say they “walk the talk.” However, the points of disclosure should be determined with sensitivity to potential abuses of the information or deterrent effects – for example, requirements to publish assets of CSO board members could make it much harder to attract strong talent. It will be interesting to see if the emergent effort of Accountable Now and the CSO Partnership for Development Effectiveness among others, might yield a viable standard for CSO transparency.
  • Funders can help CSOs experiment with ways to retain control of their own data and minimize risks of it being abused. Blockchain technology may offer some opportunities on this front – a platform to maintain the integrity of CSO data – both that shared publicly and that which groups may wish to share only with funders.
  • Donors, too, have a responsibility to follow through on their own commitments to funder transparency without exposing grantees – we can develop a consistent framework on how to triage what information is publicly shared.
  • We can take better advantage of transparency initiatives that may offer a bulwark against restrictions. The past decade has seen the growth of global initiatives that champion transparency. Fifty-two countries are implementing the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, while seventy-five are members of the Open Government Partnership. Such initiatives are based on a multi-stakeholder governance model and include mechanisms to assure civil society participation as a criterion of membership. CSOs in member countries should not be shy in exploiting these mechanisms that are typically underused, and in highlighting where governments are undermining meaningful space for civil society. Peer pressure and concern for global reputations may make governments think twice. In this regard, the recent rule changes of the Open Government Partnership that strengthen protections for civil society are very welcome. We need to further limit opportunities for so-called “open-washing” where governments get the benefit of joining but act in ways that are in contravention to the stated goals – including restrictions on civil society.
  • We can dig deeper to find ways to strengthen transparency champions whose success can help hold governments accountable. More data points will help, which is why TAI members are conducting a survey of all their grantees to better understand the extent and variety of impacts from closing space. Then we need to help grantees test new approaches. This might include new narratives that counteract government claims that transparency is an elitist/foreign concern of no interest to the average citizen. It might include building stronger relations to activists or networks in other parts of civil society with similar concerns, extending to labor unions and faith-based groups.

Such steps are not for the transparency community alone. These are common to broader efforts to build resilience. There is strength in solidarity and that applies to funders, too. TAI members are keen to learn from each other and from other individual funders and philanthropic networks worldwide. Civic space is essential to the viability of transparency and accountability efforts. Lessons from those efforts can, in turn, inform broader solutions that will emerge from testing in multiple contexts and sectors. Donor conversations can then shift from problem identification to how to scale proven responses.

Michael Jarvis is the Executive Director of Transparency and Accountability Initiative (TAI), a donor collaborative working to expand the impact and scale of transparency, accountability and participation interventions. Connect with TAI on Twitter and Facebook.

[1] See: https://humanrightscommission.house.gov/sites/humanrightscommission.house.gov/files/documents/Rutzen%20–Lantos%20Commission%20Testimony%20March%2017%20Rutzen_0.pdf

[2] Gabrielle Gould, UN Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai presented his second thematic report to the United Nations Human Rights Council. International Journal of Non-Profit Law, 2013. http://bit.ly/Gould_ICNL. For brevity, country names are used to represent a government’s position or action.