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

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.



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6 Responses to “Can INGOs push back against closing civic space? Only if they change their approach.”
  1. Masood Ul Mulk

    Our experience in Pakistan is that in an age of growing restrictions on civil society organisations civil society organisations will have to earn the space to operate. Its importanr for this for civil society organisations to understand the context in which they opetate and understand where the restictions are coming from, or understanding the lens through which their activities are being scrutinised. We have found that talking and shouting about rights to water in a village is not as helpful as byilding the capacity within yourself to help the village get water. This is what we call combining software and hardware activities. This helps build trust and provides you a platform to initiate transformational work. Sadly most civil society organisations are unwilling to do that because it means buildimg capacities for hardware within themselves which means changing themselves radically.

  2. lilych

    My opinion only: With increasing restrictions on civil society organizations (foreign & local) — do I understand the option is empowering local civil society/grassroots organizations to engage in political issues? And who does the empowering? Governments? the private sector? other interest groups who provide pittance funding for grassroots organization activities — while coopting these organization who now become beholden to them? As such, can these CSOs yet engage in a “struggle to negotiate the limits of political power and its interaction with the citizenry”? Can they even venture into advocacy (campaigns, lobbying etc) when the rights to access to information are limited and curtailed & without capacities to for mobilization, no access to international audience/global community for international solidarity? In most if not all cases, local CSOs confine their work on “safe” grounds with support of INGOs/donors — in development (basic services, livelihood, participatory governance, peacebuilding etc) which accomplishments are established by outcomes (communities access to livelihood skills, better jobs/wages, increased school attendance, decrease in malnutrition/preventable communicable diseases etc) While these “outcomes” may be drops in the bucket of a pervasive/endemic poverty situation, they are means for information, education & awareness of communities that together they can address neglect of their basic needs & fight apathy & passivity. And the tools (logframes, time-limited capacity building), regulatory and legal context for CSOs are irrelevant because these were intended for INGOs? and to localize means local organizations need to develop traditional/indigenous methods/tools (like what) on political work? As the report indicated, “the issue is fundamentally, and unavoidably, a political one”. Certainly a few CSOs are already into issue-based advocacy work but with Damocles sword over their heads — branded/marked as militant/center-left/left organizations (a few non-state armed groups certainly started as one before they became formal enemies of the state for sedition & subversion as experienced in past decades of a tyrannical dictatorship) & likely first to be rounded up when democratic space for CSOs are closed. Human rights –a political issue that is a current major controversy with international stakes over thousands of reported extrajudicial killings — would a local CSO/grassroots organization take on the state on this?.

  3. Jayakumar Christian

    Fully agree with the concern expressed about shrinking space for civil societies. Very true in India. It does appear that there is a pattern here in many of our countries. Invariably (and strangely) as democracies become stronger the space for civil societies seem to be shrinking (you would expect it to be the other way around); strangely many of these democracies became stronger on the ‘shoulders of civil societies.’ It also does appear that there is a strong co-relation between shrinking space for civil societies and the marginalisation of the poor and the minorities (often with growing preference for the rich); often makes you wonder if this is an expression of an ideological bias against the minorities (social, economic, ethnic, religions etc). By pushing civil societies from among the poor and the margins the ‘minorities and the poor’ become extremely dependent on the state while the gap between the rich and the poor keeps widening. The marginalisation of civil societies is much harder on faith-based civil societies. Unfortunately, the state does not realise the last mile solution (often referred to as the execution of policies) is dependent on strong communities and active civil societies. The solutions is not for INGOs to rediscover new ways of doing development. Instead at this time it is is important for all civil societies (local, national & global) to come together along global players like WB, UN institutions, IMF (who the States will listen to, at least) to hold the State accountable for its promise to its own citizens without discrimination.

  4. Andrew Wells-Dang

    If I understand Danny Sriskandarajah’s argument, some of the reasons that INGO responses to closing civic space might ’cause more harm than good’ are that (a) they are too concerned about the survival of their own operations, rather than the local civil societies they are meant to support; (b) they are too beholden to donor aid, and thus their messages about civic space risk being labeled as foreign interference.

    If these arguments hold (and no doubt they do in many cases), then it seems to me that INGOs should also be careful about labeling civic spaces and by extension whole countries as ‘closed’ and ‘repressed’, as on CIVICUS’ map. These terms, and the whole ‘sky-is-falling’ narrative about closing space, don’t help to empower local activists: instead, it portrays them as pawns in an antagonistic struggle against big, bad governments (and sometimes businesses). But these governments and businesses are not monolithic: within them are some allies of civil society whom we can support and work with to creatively expand spaces. Yes, the global picture looks dark; all the more reason to light some candles and strengthen our networks beyond an us-versus-them posture. For that to succeed, INGOs and their domestic NGO partners can’t just be reactive – we need to push forward.

    • Hi Andrew, the downside of using broad bands – as opposed to more specific ratings, or indeed rankings – is something that we gave significant thought to when developing the Monitor. We definitely note the limitations of broad banding and make it clear on the website that just because two countries (for instance North Korea and Ethiopia are both closed) appear in the same category, we don’t conclude the conditions in both are equally dire. Our approach, instead is to apply the broad band and put it side by side with detailed, and continuously updated reports from the ground, telling the individual stories of civil society activists and organisations. By gathering information from our research network, we hope to capture a variety of sub-national and thematic civic experiences as best we can, despite rooting our ratings at the country level.

      While it is true that these are predominantly stories of activists struggling against oppressive acts committed by governments and business, we endeavour as much as possible to explain the detail of why this is happening, in order to avoid an amorphous (and as you rightly say, unhelpful) ‘GOVT BAD v CIVIL SOCIETY GOOD’ story.

      Similarly, you make a good point about reformers within some of these repressive governments and this may be something for us to look into, in terms of trying to support/highlight their actions when they come to the fore. Having said that, we have heard informally from some government officials (admittedly not in the most closed societies) who are on the reform side and who welcome a worse rating because it strengthens their hand for reform internally.

      In summary, there are many complexities involved in this kind of research and taking one approach over another necessarily involves trade-offs. We hope that by pairing broad ratings with detailed descriptions from the ground, we have struck something of a balance but we certainly welcome views to the contrary like this and are willing to take on board all suggestions for improvement. Feel free to keep in touch at

  5. Thanks for this helpful piece Danny, and for the role that Civicus has played in leading efforts to assess and address the challenge of closing civic space.

    When reading this piece I was struck by the fact that one could swap out “International NGOs” from the title and replace it with “International funders”. That is, that if international funders are interested in defending civic space – and many increasingly are – then they also need to change their approach: who do they fund (to do what), how do they fund them, how do they manage risk, what reporting do they require etc. etc.

    I know that promoting the resourcing of a diverse and resilient civil society is an important part of the new Civicus strategy. See p.12 for a summary of plans on civil society resourcing –

    So I’m excited to see how Civicus is making the connections between discussions about defending civic space and discussions about changing the funding landscape.

    Other readers may be interested in this Storify from an event that Civicus held in London recently on more direct and democratic resourcing – Thanks to Jennifer Lentfer at Thousand Currents for this #ShiftThePower

    Next up: What role can small NGOs based in Washington DC best play in shifting the power and how can they adapt so that they are useful players in an evolving landscape of power and resources?