Is there a global crackdown on civil society organization and if so, how should we respond?

Netsanet Bilayexplain. Increasingly (and not just among NGOs), development is understood in terms of politics, power, and struggles to redistribute the latter. That has produced a shift in resources towards advocacy and influencing, as a complement to more direct programming and humanitarian work, and in the best cases, a fusion of the two. That’s great (indeed it is the central argument of my book, From Poverty to Power), but it is predicated (in our case at least) on support for ‘active citizenship’ at local, national and international level. Yet a recent discussion with Netsanet Demissie Belay (right), the Policy and Research Director of CIVICUS, the international citizen action network, highlighted just how threatened ‘civil society space’ has become, particularly for the more political influencing work. I could do with some help in thinking through the implications of this. First a summary of Netsanet’s presentation, based on a synthesis of various analysis and research carried out by CIVICUS including Bridging the Gaps and State of Civil Society 2011 (reviewed here), which draw in turn on the work of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, which rigorously documents legislative processes around the world, and has just published the excellent ‘Defending Civil Society‘ report. Conclusion? Civil society organizations (CSOs) worldwide face an increasingly sophisticated and varied range of restrictive measures. These include (examples are from CIVICUS and ICNL): Old fashioned repression: in the words of Russia’s Vladimir Putin: ‘March without permission and you will be hit on the head with batons. That’s all there is to it.’ Restrictions on international funding (pretty essential in the poorest countries): Under Bangladesh law the Oxfam office can’t bring a penny into the country without government sign-off on what partners we fund, what we/they use it for and where it is spent. Government is looking at reducing regulation slightly (for example, dropping the requirement that we notify them of every foreign-funded trip our staff make and why they are making it) but not the overall premise. Civicus slideFunding restrictions particularly target advocacy work: in Ethiopia, advocacy organizations are not allowed to use foreign funding; Equatorial Guinea restricts NGOs from promoting, monitoring or engaging in any human rights activities. Deterrent red tape: Uganda’s draft Public Order Management Bill 2011 includes a requirement to inform the police seven days in advance of holding public meetings Vague and blanket regulatory powers for the state. In Tanzania, an international NGO must “refrain from doing any act which is likely to cause misunderstanding”. In Turkmenistan, having a goal that is ‘impossible to achieve’ is grounds for dissolution (wonder how that works for faith organizations, let alone Oxfam’s mission of ‘building a future free from the injustice of poverty’ ….) Barriers to registration: In Turkmenistan (again) national-level associations can only be established with a minimum of 500 members; in Russia (again) a gay rights organization was denied registration on the grounds that its work “undermines the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Russian Federation in view of the reduction of the population.” The most recent addition is a crackdown on communications technology, epitomized by Ethiopia’s recent move to restrict the use of Skype and other forms of VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) communications and the 18 year jail sentence handed down last week to blogger Eskinder Nega. And in case you thought this was just a southern phenomenon, CIVICUS points to some pretty draconian legislation in Switzerland (up to $110,000 penalties for unauthorized demonstrations) and Canada (prior notice of any demonstration of more than 50 people). The first question this prompts is ‘why now?’According to Doug Rutzen, who runs the ICNL, it’s actually been going on for a while – “between 2005 and 2010, over 50 countries considered or enacted restrictive measures constraining civil society.  The drivers of this crackdown include the Bush Administration’s “democracy promotion” agenda combined with the decline of US soft power after the Iraq war and the human rights abuses at Abu Ghraib; the patina of political legitimacy provided by Putin and others; the sharing of “worst practices” by governments; both legitimate concerns over development effectiveness and even the unintentional support for constraints arising from the concept of “host country” ownership; and the “war on terror” paradigm, which was used to constrain civil society in the US and globally.” To some extent, CSOs are also victims of their own success – the ‘colour revolutions’ in the countries of the former Soviet Union in the last decade, or the Arab Spring events of this one, both alerted governments to the threats posed by an active civil society. In addition, there may be a perception of impunity – governments like Ethiopia and Rwanda remain donor darlings despite their draconian attitude to any kind of opposition, because they deliver on growth and poverty reduction. That must send some kind of message. On similar lines, there is an increasingly widespread perception among developing country elites that the ‘western model’, both economic and political, is losing out to other development models, such as that of China, that entail a much more constricted role for civil society. Finally, there is also the tricky question of whether some of the ‘crackdown’ is actually legitimate government oversight, both because of Belarusslow progress on transparency and accountability by CSOs and NGOs, but also because of the use of ‘soft force projection’ by the US and others to achieve foreign policy goals by selectively supporting protest movements. The next question is ‘why are the INGOs so quiet?’ We shout about everything from land grabs to arms treaties, but often stay quiet when it comes to the ability of our preferred partners to go about their business (Netsanet himself was jailed for over two years in Ethiopia for his work as national coordinator of the Global Call to Action against Poverty (GCAP)). Some evidence-free guesses as to why that might be the case: Fear of ejection from the countries in question (well-grounded fears too, in many cases) Fears over the safety of staff (but our partners often run much greater risks) Professionalization – maybe staff in country have come to see their role as more project administration than ‘speaking truth to power’? Does campaigning for CSOs seem too much about process and the right to have meetings, and so too remote from the lives of poor people (and a tough sell as a campaign issue)? Have we at some level bought into the ‘economistic’ understanding of development that sees growth as more important than human rights, portraying Rwanda’s Paul Kagame in Rwanda and Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia (both hostile to civil society space) as the heroes of African development? There are some formal international processes we could plug into. The UN has Special Rapporteurs on ‘the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression’ (Frank Larue) and (since 2010) ‘the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association’ (Maina Kiai). Under the auspices of the Community of Democracies, a group of concerned governments has established a Working Group on “Enabling and Protecting Civil Society” to monitor and respond to developments concerning civil society legislation around the world. Also, 14 governments have jointly pledged financial support for the “Lifeline: Embattled NGO Assistance Fund” to help civil society activists confronting crackdowns. So should the development community be doing more, and if so, what? Working at multilateral government, lobbying our home governments to make it a foreign policy priority, defending CSOs (and/or supporting those who defend them) on the ground? What is most effective in different situations? I’d be interested in your thoughts.]]>

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20 Responses to “Is there a global crackdown on civil society organization and if so, how should we respond?”
  1. Ken Smith

    Another factor is that I’m not sure western donors as individuals and taxpayers have yet accepted the notion that advocacy is where resources should be spent. So the train could heading for the wreck with less and less fuel on board.

    • Duncan

      Not sure I agree Ken – I’ve had several recent conversations with DFID people in recent weeks which run along the lines of ‘we all know that politics and power are at the heart of things, what does that mean for our work?’ At least on the policy/analytical wing of the aid business, this feels like something approaching a consensus (though whether that filters through to MEL and funding departments remains to be seen)

  2. ch

    Without being too cavalier about this, I think individual INGOs should be more willing to get chucked out of country x, y, z. We’re very, very risk averse. There comes a point when you’re just the frog in a slowly warming pot, and always too scared to croak.

  3. Dom H

    Just to jump in on the government attitude to supporting advocacy work, i think always best to split the civil service from the ministerial – under any administration, not just the UK and not just current government. DFID staff may well be in favour of civil society’s role in advocating for change. Are Ministers?
    And I’d agree with Ken about advocacy – all our fundraising focus groups show very clearly a huge preference for “project outputs” and a negative response for “advocacy” work – at least in terms of their money going to it.
    However, we could argue that’s because the DRTV, public campaigns, emergency appeals massively outspend and crowd out the space for more long-terms rights-based messages. And I think there’s a real issue here for UK INGOs – where do we get our money from and how much of it are we willing to compromise to balance our messages out.
    The current hunger campaign plans – worries me we’re going to do it all over again, although I know there are good people at the top of this, how easy will it be to resist the temptation of getting easy media and attention with pictures of distended stomachs. Ok will stop there before this turns into an ill-directed rant 🙂

  4. Does this not go to the heart of the debate over what a post 2015 framework should, could or might look like?
    Duncan suggests that too many in civil society may have bought into the economists understanding of development as essentially being about growth.I agree. And in fact it’s worse than that because our advocacy often seems to think of growth as being primarily about GDP, rather than ideas about equity, rights and so on.
    Before that provokes howls of anger consider what this obsession with 0.7% GDP in ODA actually looks like to Governments. Why does so much Northern civil society advocacy prioritise this issue rather than what might actually work on the ground?
    Political representation for women, anyone?
    Perhaps this is a wake up call to recognise that we can no longer continue to overlook that all development is political, not just economic. And that the narrative we craft for ourselves through our advocacy may well be contributing to this situation.

  5. Matthew

    Duncan – that might be where DFID and institutional funders are at but I think Ken’s point is about the man in the street, and to him/her development is still about wells, school books (and bras?). Do Oxfam do enough to take their key supporters on this advocacy journey? And what could this mean for funding through ordinary people?

    • Duncan

      Thanks Matthew, the comments are going nicely off topic, but what the heck. I think we could do more to take people with us on advocacy (why not offer people the chance to sponsor an activist for Christmas, rather than buy more goats or toilets?), but I also think the stereotypes of the views of ‘men in streets’ are probably overdone. I vaguely remember from my time at CAFOD a few years ago that their supporters told them they wanted more money spent on campaigning, not less.

  6. Mtega

    I think there’s an opportunity to link with the media and related institutions. Media and civil society freedoms are two parts of the same whole, but in my experience NGOs and the media tend not to work together on protecting each others’ freedoms. The complete absence of the word media in this blogpost is a case in point.

  7. Dom H

    Hear hear Chris, I cannot understand the obsession with 0.7%. Great, more aid – what on? Even further, the focus on whether 0.7% is in legislation or not rather than just available. Come on guys, there are more urgent issues.

  8. Freshwater Action Network Global is a local-global consortium of southern NGO networks, who collaborate on advocacy and action to secure the rights to water and sanitation. Our networks are much in demand by donors, INGOs, governments, for policy dialogue, monitoring and accountability etc, but too few are willing to pay anything to support southern led advocacy. Target driven INGOs conflate advocacy/campaigning with fundraising and branding. This undermines southern led advocacy, which is higher risk but more exciting, real and sustainable in the long term.

    • Duncan

      absolutely – all too often, discussions on civil society unthinkingly shrink the concept to ‘people like us’ – NGOs or NGO-like organizations. Other brances of civil society – media, faith groups, trade unions, sports fans etc, always seem to go missing

  9. P Baker

    So-called developed countries have lost moral & economic authority. Our economic model doesn’t work, our own societies are increasingly unequal and we are destroying the Earth with our emissions. Developing countries know this.
    Yet we roll up with less and less money and tell them to behave! It won’t wash anymore.
    BTW, any research on how cost-effective advocacy is?

  10. Annie Bellows

    Trade unions are sometimes the only form of organised protests existing in a country. Either you build upon them or you divide them, the latest being the prefered option of NGOs, in favour of minority groups which will never tip the balance of power.
    Advocacy is political, and most of the time but not always, it is used to preserve the statu quo and to peddle agendas on people who do not have the power to fight them.

  11. Sylvia Hordosch

    Among the UN human rights mechanisms, there is also the Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, currently Ms. Margaret Sekaggya.

  12. Duncan,
    Great piece on the above subject. I have had regular meetings/conversations with Embassies here in Canada and for many of them, they still see CSO/NGO activities as politically motivated to influence vote. When Tanzania recently imposed a new visa fee structure for volunteers, it was very hard for a group of NGO in the USA to come together and lobby for a reversal in the decision because they could not mutually demonstrate the impact of their combined activities.
    I am recently back from Central America where we have secured the hosting of two events to discuss “Open Data” and “Finance” in the perspective of a host country.
    The idea of the two events is to look at the basket of outside revenues that developing country receive and how do they complement national strategies and local CSO.
    I hope that we will be able to discuss our plans with you and identify areas of synergies.

  13. I agree with Danielle (above) who states: “Target-driven INGOs conflate advocacy / campaigning with fundraising and branding. This undermines Southern-led advocacy, which is higher risk but more exciting, real and sustainable in the long term.”
    Tearfund has many partners across the world, engaging in advocacy in their own countries, on their own issues, in ways that are appropriate to their contexts. What they have consistently been telling us over several years now is that civil society space is not just shrinking, but it is shrinking because of government legislation.
    This has given rise to challenges – When to speak out against such legislation? When not? When is the risk too great? Who decides? Etc …
    However, what we have found to be important is understanding the rationale behind the governments who are bringing in this legislation. As you say, some of it is “legitimate government oversight”. However, it is also linked the long global war on terror. (See here for a good rationale about this: It is also linked to a sense that legislation somehow ‘legitimises’ government control of civil society.
    Within Tearfund, our way of dealing with this growing trend has been to continue to support partners who are willing to hold their governments accountable, even in the most risky and politically challenging contexts. But also to facilitate peer-to-peer learning, so that they share good practice with each other about how they do this, and to link them (where we can) with CIVICUS and others who are seeking to defend, maintain and open civil society space.
    Maybe – as you suggest – there could be room for us to advocate on their behalf to make this a foreign policy issue? However, in my experience, the most effective way of standing up to these governments’ trends is to mobilise and empower those courageous people who are prepared to speak out and hold them accountable.

  14. Gareth Price-Jones

    Duncan – Pleased to see that you included the following in your introduction:
    ‘That has produced a shift in resources towards advocacy and influencing, as a complement to more direct programming and humanitarian work, and in the best cases, a fusion of the two.’
    I think that there is a risk that Oxfam in particular forget that advocacy and influencing needs to complement, not replace, a significant level of direct work at the community level. My team are regularly being asked to revisit project plans, developed by Southern staff in close consultation with partners, government and communities, on the basis that they are too much about direct assistance. But without the real direct and ongoing grounding in communities with partners and staff in southern countries, we’re cruising on empty, relying on our past reputation and experience, academic perspectives and engagement with elites rather than learning directly on an ongoing basis with the people and communities that we ultimately aim to empower.
    It’s not just governments that are reducing our space to operate – communities, in an environment where they often have choices about who they engage with from a wide range of NGO actors, are understandably less and less willing to engage unless they can see a return on their investment in time and knowledge sharing. This favours ‘truck and chuck’ operations that are hardware only (and have better admin-to-program cost ratios) and reduces the space for more sophisticated approaches.
    Usually there are multiple agendas, but an element of government restrictions is usually a reflection from national ministers of what they hear from local counterparts and communities about ‘No-Good Organisations’ that talk and talk but deliver nothing.
    If we want to influence effectively, we have to listen to our stakeholders, and create the space (through the fusion approach you describe) to take communities and other stakeholders with us.

  15. Chris Alford

    This was a really interesting, if somewhat worrying, post.
    I think one thing that needs to be done is work harder to get the word out there about how civil society can really make a difference in development. The development industry’s most well-known and most widely publicised development success stories are usually centred around the likes of East Asian Tigers, China and now, as you mentioned, Ethiopa.
    Whilst these are fascinating and extremely important case studies for analysing and demonstrating the importance of active states in facilitating a successful development process and driving widespread poverty reduction, one could be forgiven if one only considered these examples that civil society is just simply not an important component of the development component. And I think this is the real danger when so many institutions within the development industry put so much time and effort into putting up such examples as the shining beacons of successful development.
    So I think to counter this we really need to put more effort into putting examples out there of just how powerful civil society can be in achieving equally impressive development results. It’s not like there aren’t countless such stories out there – Porto Alegre, Kerala, even the history of the trade union movement in the Scandinavian countries. And there’s lots of great academic work we can draw on to – the Citizenship DRC’s 10 years of work, UNRISD’s Combating Poverty and Inequality report, and your own book Duncan.
    So in sum, I think more needs to be done to get the word out there on the importance of civil society in development in order to tip the scales away from those that have enabled the development discourse to become too heavily focused on the likes of Rwanda, Ethiopa, China etc

  16. Nicholas

    Why is external financing necessary for people to work to assert their rights? The trade union movement in nineteenth century England did not receive foreign funding. It was built on the sweat and sacrifice of poor people (though the catalysts tended to be the more skilled/better paid end of that spectrum). Nor interestingly dis the citizens groups that catalyzed change in the former Soviet Union. One of the challenges of foreign funding is that it has professionalized and depoliticized ‘civil society’ detaching it from living constituencies of support who work together on advocacy and practical help; and, by making it, often, risk adverse.
    Without embedded organizations that draw their support and sustenance from communities, political change is not likely to happen at depth, in any sustained manner and it is that political action that we need.