How should donors be engaging with the new normal of a shrinking civic space?

by Nicolette Naylor & Rutendo Chandiwana, Ford Foundation

The term ‘shrinking space’ within civil society has become common phrases for the development community as we navigate what has become the new normal amidst the ever-increasing rise in inequality, authoritarianism and a move to much more polarized and insular societies around the world.

Some authors point out that attributing the shrinking space problem mainly to the authoritarian surge around the world overlooks the diversity of the causes such as rising nationalism, counterterrorism policies, a wider questioning of Western power, clashes between economic interests and civic activism, and other factors which are spurring the phenomenon. We know that since 2015 states have adopted 64 restrictive laws, regulations and other initiatives to restrict the space within which civil society operates (International Center for Not-for-Profit Law).

We have seen evidence of the shrinking space in the work that our partners do daily. Human rights defenders are constantly in danger with staff from civil society organizations being arrested, harassed and sentenced by virtue of their positions and willingness to defend the rights of marginalised communities. We have seen activists being killed or sued by large companies and we have seen laws being passed in countries to curtail the ability to operate and fundraise.  The most creative and outspoken organisations that are willing to speak truth to power are often the ones targeted. In practice, the shrinking space of civil society is seen through governments introducing restrictive laws limiting the operations of civil society organisations (CSOs), governments limiting the operations of foreign funders, internet shutdowns, LGBTI organisations targeted and criminalised, passing anti-protest laws and disabling the independence of the judiciary.

We also know that this is not a new phenomenon throughout time, as social formations, movements and organisations become more effective at challenging power – those in power clamp down and restrict the space within which activists can operate – we have seen this with thousands of anti-Apartheid activists who have lost their lives and civil rights movement actors of the 1970s in the United States persecuted.

In recent years we have witnessed how land rights and environmental rights advocates are being killed at an alarming rate when they get in the way of compromising lucrative deals between large corporates, the elite and politicians that seek to extract natural resources from communities.  In addition, women, LGBTI activists, and indigenous communities rank among the groups most affected by the shrinking space for civic action.

The role of private philanthropy – what can and should be done?

  • Local organisations need to be at the forefront of the fight to expand civic space in recognition that the problems and solutions are deeply local. INGOs have a role to play, but it is a limited role that must be practiced with humility, having to be careful about their actions making matters worse, e.g. by highlighting the aid dependence of their local partners. Outsiders need to make it a priority to canvass the opinions of and be led by local civil society organisations, and be cautious about launching into generic global campaigns.
  • We need to fund work that protects, adapts and strengthens organisations in terms of resilience and safety. We need to source and find experts that can provide technical support around risk analysis, self-care for activists, cyber security, etc. We need flexible, emergency funding mechanisms and support for groups who face legal and regulatory challenges.
  • We need to nurture creative energy, mobilise and support work that is geared toward expanding the space, not only responding to the restrictive environment that is the status quo. We should support advocacy that is rooted in a power analysis of both stakeholders and donors that lifts up the voices of the ‘unusual suspects’ and support unlikely alliances.
  • Now more than ever, we need to focus our grant dollars towards unrestricted core funding support that is flexible and able to respond to the real day-to-day challenges faced.
  • We need to get better at accountability, transparency and legitimacy of organised civil society to ensure that communities and most affected populations can identify with, influence and shape mainstream NGO agendas. NGOs cannot see their primary role as reporting to donors and satisfying donors while ignoring the needs of the communities that they are meant to serve. The same standards we expect of corporates and government when it comes to accountability, financial governance and diversity should be part and parcel of how NGOs operate and relate to their constituencies.
  • We need to not retreat into the safety of supporting groups working in safe, open (often Northern) locations where there is more freedom to operate – the tendency may be to move out of countries and to support large INGOs at a time when local resistance and local action is needed across borders.
  • Local philanthropy needs to partner with Western private philanthropy to help insulate groups from attack and start engaging with social justice issues around the shrinking space. We have to find ways to address power disparity in terms of aid flows, donor dependence, and Western philanthropy’s dominance, recognising that this feeds into a critique of organised civil society.
  • We can and should focus on building, nurturing and strengthening cross-border networks and solidarity platforms that operate at regional and South-South and North to South levels. At this critical moment, we need to find ways to bridge the divide and develop strategies that work at local, regional and global levels to build solidarity between and amongst groups.
  • The philanthropy community and aid community needs to be much more coordinated around sharing lessons, practices and be deliberate about pooling resources (financial and otherwise) to address challenges in countries and regions in a less fragmented manner. Western philanthropy needs alliances at the local level, now more than ever and needs to introspect on its own power.

Southern-based CSOs should become more prominent and important because it is necessary to localise responses and solutions. However, CIVICUS Secretary-General Danny Sriskandarajah in his article, ‘Five reasons donors give for not funding local NGOs directly’, highlights that most conservative statistics puts 1% of all official aid, bilateral aid and humanitarian assistance going directly to the Global South, particularly to grassroots organisations. Furthermore, unpublished research into private Foundations suggests that we are channeling much of our funding through fiscal agents in the Global North. Therefore, Southern-based CSOs are struggling to find resources to support their work at a time when the space of also becoming more restrictive.

We would argue that it is critical to maintain the importance of Global South organisations at the forefront of solving complex and intractable issues that affect regions uniquely, and nurture and strengthen the amazing expertise located within the Global South.

Lastly, it is important for global funders and civil society to initiate the kind of changes that will disperse power and influence where Southern-based CSOs and actors can themselves identify, set agendas and find solutions to problems that affect them distinctly. Maybe then we can start to move from a ‘shrinking space’ to an ‘expanding’ space and reject the new normal by doubling down on efforts to expand the space.

Nicolette Naylor is the Regional Director of the Ford Foundation Office for Southern Africa, and Rutendo Chandiwana is the Manager of the Regional Director’s Office at the Ford Foundation.

This is the eighth NGO analysis of my 2018 #NGOs4Africa Campaign.





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