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

CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA - OCTOBER 21(SOUTH AFRICA OUT): South African students protest outside the parliament precinct before forcing their way through the gates of parliament on October 21, 2015 in Cape Town, South Africa. Protesting students broke through the gates of parliament during protests against a proposed hike in tuition fees this is part of the fees must fall movement. (Photo by Nardus Engelbrecht/Gallo Images/Getty Images)

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?

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.