Can INGOs push back against closing civic space? Only if they change their approach.

October 13, 2017 6 By Duncan Green

Guest post from Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, Secretary General of CIVICUS. He can be found on social Danny smallmedia@civicussg 

Civil society is facing a sustained, multi-faceted, global onslaught. According to the CIVICUS Monitor, fundamental civic freedoms are being severely restricted in an unprecedented number of countries. The operating environment for civil society organisations is becoming more hostile across the world and many of us in the organised bits of civil society – including in the biggest INGOs – are looking for ways to respond. But, those who want to ‘save’ civic space need to tread carefully.

For a start, we need to avoid seeing this issue through the standard North-South development lens. Civic freedoms are being attacked and restricted in countries all over the world, including in mature, Western democracies. And challenges to the legitimacy and role of NGOs are being levelled everywhere, from Honduras to Hungary, from Uganda to the UK. Seeing this as a phenomenon that is limited to fragile, broken states in the Global South, that can be by fixed Western actors misses this increasingly universal reality.

When we do look to the Global South, we see a civil society sector that has already been profoundly affected by the modus operandi of Northern donors and NGOs over the last twenty years. And not always in positive ways. The extensive due diligence and auditing processes of Western donors have sieved the sector, with smaller, less well-connected CSOs slipping through the net and only those larger, better established organisations able to meet high audit thresholds finding support.

Credit: Tony Carr

Credit: Tony Carr

The exacting requirements of powerful Western donors have forced these organisations to become experts in ‘accounts-ability’, answerable primarily to a funder in London or Washington DC, rather than to the communities they serve. Donors’ insistence that beneficiaries clearly brand the source of their funding has served to further undermine the domestic legitimacy of Southern CSOs, leaving them vulnerable to campaigns of demonisation and accusations of foreign puppetry. The diversity, reputation and resilience of civil society actors, particularly at grassroots level, has been weakened.

Given this context, I find the increasing interest of INGOs in how to push back against closing civic space at once encouraging – because more of us need to engage with this issue – and concerning – because a business as usual approach looks likely to cause more harm than good.

In recent months, we have seen a number of INGOs respond vociferously to threats of expulsion from, or punitive restrictions of their activities within, particular countries. Yet, though we can be fairly sure that for every one threatened INGO, there will be many local organisations already shut down, the response of the INGOs in question has been to focus upon protecting the operating environment for development actors like themselves. Instead of rallying a collective response to a widespread crackdown, civil society has been cast primarily as instrumental to the delivery of development outcomes and the continued presence of an INGO in a particular country as vital to the delivery of a much-needed service or sought after target.

By making the protection of civil society about the protection of development outcomes, we perpetuate the myth that only the international community can save those living in poverty. Pushing back against closing civic space isn’t a technical issue; it isn’t about the apolitical delivery of development targets; it can’t be tackled with metrics and logframes, or time-limited capacity building. It isn’t only about a tightening regulatory and legal context for CSOs. The issue is fundamentally, and unavoidably, a political one. It is about an on-going struggle to negotiate the limits of political power and its interaction with the citizenry; a balance that must be constantly and domestically re-negotiated.

It is by focusing on empowering local civil society that we can help to build the necessary domestic, grassroots

Credit: A. Davey

Credit: A. Davey

strength, resilience and expertise that is needed to engage in this continual re-negotiation. This kind of localisation is actually about reinvigorating democracy; it is about empowering and equipping the institutions that engage in democratic life to maintain the balance of power on the side of civic rights. This applies as much to those Western democracies where civic space is under threat, as it does to any country in the Global South.

The political economy of today’s development sector is not geared towards this kind of solution. Power and resources are far too concentrated in the hands of a few largely Western-based big players; their systems designed to facilitate incremental progress towards fixed development targets. If they are to play their part in pushing back against closing civic space, INGOs will need to get out of the aid business and re-engage with the art of social transformation.