How can Civil Society respond to government crackdowns around the world? New Oxfam paper (and hello to Oxfam GB’s new boss)

Oxfam GB announced yesterday that Danny Sriskandarajah (right) will be its new boss. V exciting, and not just because he’s a mate. He comes to us from Civicus, the global alliance of civil society organizations. Here he is writing on this blog last year on the role of INGOs, if any, in defending civil society space. This is gonna be fun.

While we’re on the subject, Oxfam just published ‘Space to be Heard’, a paper on how to respond to ‘shrinking civic space’ – the relentless squeeze in dozens of countries on the activities of civil society organizations and activists. Two sections struck me:

Firstly, the diagnosis: What are the global drivers of shrinking civic space?

  • Shifting balances of global power: the growing discourse of national sovereignty and non-interference
  • Rising inequality: political and economic elites cracking down on civic action that challenges powerful vested interests
  • The changing nature of security: counter-terrorism and polarized societies
  • Civil society legitimacy being questioned: weak accountability and missing links with citizens
  • Changing development discourse: questioning the integral value of civil society
  • Populism, authoritarianism and nationalism on the rise: eroding the values of freedom, democracy and diversity’

Secondly, five areas that ‘civil society actors should consider if they are to become more resilient and effective in contexts of shrinking and shifting civic space.’


Civil society organizations need to adopt the same transparency and accountability standards that they demand of others, both to governments and donors and to citizens and constituencies. Building grassroots legitimacy should go beyond minimum public engagement strategies towards transformational change in ways of working, involving constituencies and mobilizing people. Strengthening transparency and accountability reduces the likelihood of being wrongly accused of mismanagement, tax avoidance and fraud, and enables more effective responses when being discredited.

Resilience and risk preparedness

Civil society actors must be prepared for risks such as arrests and harassment of outspoken individuals, freezing of financial assets, attacks on the reputation of individual activists, civic groups and organizations, and other tactics to restrict their activities. This includes having effective risk management and holistic security skills and systems, budgets reserved for mitigation, prevention and emergencies, and strong support networks that provide access to legal, political and psychosocial support. Building the resilience of local civil society organizations can also mean diversifying their funding streams, including through domestic resource mobilization.

Alliance building

We have found that threats to civic space are most effectively addressed when diverse civil society actors join forces. Alliances should be as broad and inclusive as possible – including formal and informal civic actors with various identities, faith-based organizations, trade unions, media, universities, business associations, community groups, online activists and others. These alliances often need to be unbranded to provide space for diverse actors. Working in diverse alliances to protect and strengthen civic space enables civil society actors to protect the most targeted or vulnerable CSOs and activists; and to defend our common space more effectively. To do this well, we must adhere to the principles of feminist leadership and movement-building, including investing in strong capacities and mechanisms for managing internal differences.

New activism and tactics

Civil society actors need to explore new strategies and tactics that are effective within shrinking and shifting spaces to contribute to transformative change. Particularly, informal (youth) movements have shown high flexibility and creativity in exploring new ways and spaces to organize and express themselves. The International Youth Day 2017 gives a flavour of this creativity. A Café Politico in Honduras, a Facebook live programme with a top-level government official and rural youth in Bangladesh, a PechaKucha event in Somalia and an animation video to share the Global Youth Manifesto to End Inequality are only a few of the initiatives around the world to provide young people a platform to express themselves. Connecting to and learning from these actors can help more institutionalized civil society organizations refresh their ways of working so that they can still achieve their visions within contexts of shrinking and shifting spaces.

Diversity and solidarity

As civil society, we must ensure that our space is open for all people. This requires valuing diversity, expressing solidarity across groups with various identities and agendas, and challenging any forms of discrimination based on gender, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality, and other identity traits within our own ranks, the broader society and the government. Powerful international and national organizations must ensure that they do not take the space of less powerful or more critical activist groups. Influential organizations should instead use their power to give less powerful actors access to their networks and support them in building capacity to raise their voices.

An inspiring example can be found in Tunisia. Following increasing violence against individuals and associations among the LGBTQI community in 2015, the ‘Collective of Individual Liberties’ was formed, involving LGBTQI associations and activists as well as feminist and human rights associations. In 2016, the Collective supported the LGBTQI community in celebrating May 17, the World Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. Turning from secrecy to an open event, the day was an important milestone for the LGBTQI community to create public awareness for their struggle.’

I would have liked to see more in depth case studies, but I guess the whole point about resisting shrinking civic space is that it’s hard to talk about without putting people at additional risk.

I’d appreciate suggestions for further reading, in particular on how CSOs and others are adapting and evolving in response to the crackdown.


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7 Responses to “How can Civil Society respond to government crackdowns around the world? New Oxfam paper (and hello to Oxfam GB’s new boss)”
  1. There is a difference in “Civil Society” and “Civic Space”

    Civic Space (CS) is created by a set of universally-accepted rules, which allow people to organize, participate and communicate with each other freely and without hindrance, and in doing so, influence the political and social structures around them. It is a concept central to any open and democratic society and means that states have a duty to protect people while respecting and facilitating the fundamental rights to associate, assemble peacefully and express views and opinions.

    CS is about Freedom in a Society and open source info and honest Media, not providing #FakeNews and bashing people that think different, mainly to promote what YOU believe is best.

    Indeed, CS is shrinking, mainly because of Vested Interest; too many people in a small world, so we rather fight for our interests, not for a common goal, because we feel that we ourselves are at risk, insecure, in danger.

    The problem is, that many CSOs have become part of the “vested interest” and are less concerned about what they want to achieve and focus too much on what they want to address.

    Example: Water NGOs advertise with water problems, they all do! But not why people should support them instead of another Water NGO, so it becomes a “Rat-Race” who can make the most shocking documentary about dying kids that have no water.

    Nobody is showing results, even within Oxfam, (one of the best NGOs without a doubt) is doing this wrong.

    For instance, Oxfam did a great water program with BluePumps in Turkana, because of that, a Regional Repair team was established that guarantees working BluePumps in that area, for a very low cost.

    But Oxfam is not using this success to raise more money to do similar sustainable projects, instead, in most of their fundraising adds, they show only the problems, not the solutions.

    By doing so, NGOs do not show transparency, nor accountability, no tactics, no responsibility.

    Walk the Talk, and show it…

    Otherwise, people will intuitively think that you have something to hide and your “space” in the Civil Society will shrink even further.

  2. Miguel Moreno

    Congratulations and all the best to OXFAM GB’s new CEO.

    Also, thank you for sharing the paper on how to protect, defend and consolidate the civic space in countries where governments are clamping down on CSOs, alliances, private sector, students and informal groups that criticize them. This reminds me of the current situation in Nicaragua. As you said, the challenge for an INGO or NGO is how to operate without putting people at additional risk. I would appreciate suggestions from you and/or your audience for further reading, including case studies.

    Again, congratulations and thanks!

  3. Emily Brown

    Do have a read too of Kvinna til Kvinna, Jass Associates and Mama Cash’s respective contributions to the analysis of closing space from the deeply personal and politically super-smart perspectives of those whose days jobs focus on supporting women human rights defenders and trans activists and movements…..this is some of the smartest analysis and practical strategising I’ve seen for a long time.

    What can we really say about populism and nationalisms if we don’t dig into the gendered aspects the narratives required for that battle for power, or the highly-gendered, often violent ‘burps’ that emerge as a result….?

  4. Congratulations to the new CEO of Oxfam.
    The case of civil society and civic space with reference to Pakistan is peculiar. International civil society organizations had been operating freely in Pakistan since 1980s. I was with a resource center for NGOs in the early 90s that produced a directory of 100+ international funding/donor organizations present in the country. During this period, most donors enjoyed freedom from reporting to the government or involving local institutions in their activities. That is why the period saw the birth of some of the largest NGOs and rural support programs in the country. After 9/11 2001, there was an unprecedented upsurge in funding to local and international CSOs, that continued for more than a decade. During this period, dozens of new international organizations and foreign contractors/firms started their operations, particularly in areas bordering Afghanistan. Many had their focus on programs to counter violent extremism and de-radicalization of local populations. While all this was happening, the country suffered four major disasters, (earthquake 2005), floods (2010), unrest in Swat (2009), and the outbreak of Polio (2006) for which more NGOs and assistance programs came in. Interestingly, it was the same time when terrorism was at its peak in Pakistan. (According to government estimates, more than 35000 people died in terrorism-related incidents in Pakistan and overall economic loss till June 2018 was 168 Billion US$). In 2015, the government devised a National Action Plan to counter terrorism. The plan also looked at operations of NGOs that are receiving funding from abroad. In 2015, Save the Children was accused of working for a plan to hunt down Osama Bin Laden. Save the Children was asked to leave in 2015. Incidents like these created a rift between Pakistani government and INGOs. Since then the government has taken a tough stand on working of INGOs in the country. Many have been asked to leave and almost all are required to work in close coordination with government departments. The irony is that ever since this NAP is being implemented, the law and order situation has started improving (3300+ deaths in 2009 to 24 in 2018). Intelligence agencies believe that many foreign-sponsored NGOs were responsible in terrorism and it was important to stop them to improve the situation. Ever since then, the state apparatus is pulling the strings whereas INGOs in Pakistan have terribly failed to develop a working relationship with the government. Most are reluctant to comply to the new legal regime. They lack communication skills and transparency to enhance government’s comfort level. So now local civil society organizations are in a deep problem.

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