Closing Space for Civil Society / Grantmaking Practice

Closing Space for Civil Society and Cross-Border Philanthropy

Contributed by Julie Broome, Sigrid Rausing Trust; Iva Dobichina, Open Society Foundations; Poonam Joshi and David Mattingly, Fund for Global Human Rights; and Tim Parritt, Oak Foundation-

The past few years have seen an alarming increase in legislation constraining funding and space for civil society in every region of the world. Few topics are more directly pressing for international human rights funders, as our ability to support organizations is undermined and the activities of our grantees are restricted. IHRFG spoke with members of the Ariadne-IHRFG Donor Working Group on Cross-Border Philanthropy to learn more about this trend.

Legal constraints on civil society have been increasing across the globe. Where are these restrictions coming from, and what do they look like?

Civil society can be inconvenient. It operates as a watchdog, shaming governments and restricting their ability to operate as they please, so many governments – even democratic ones –seek to silence the voice of criticism and discontent.

According to the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, the past two years have seen over 50 lawsmouthtape proposed or enacted restricting civil society’s activities in every region. Restrictions range from foreign funding bans and burdensome government reporting requirements to limitations on freedoms of expression and assembly or defamation campaigns framing activists as agents of foreign influence.

The laws are far-reaching. They target humanitarian NGOs as well as democracy and human rights organizations, and the pushback stretches beyond authoritarian countries to democracies such as India, Hungary, and Israel.  Each government has its own reasons for restricting civil society, but there are common threads.  In Russia and Azerbaijan, restrictions are largely driven by fears of disenfranchised populations in the wake of the Arab Spring and EuroMaidan protests. Suspicion of foreign governments is a major factor in countries such as India and Egypt, along with an urge to prevent civil society from addressing politically sensitive topics such as corruption, transparency, and accountability.  In some developing countries, governments have cracked down to protect lucrative business deals from scrutiny by environmental, economic, or land rights NGOs.

States also push back against civil society to shore up domestic or international support. For many nations, painting critical voices as foreign-sponsored is a convenient way to marginalize them while reinforcing a sense of national unity.  Restrictions on civil society in Russia, for example, are only one of several government initiatives to stifle dissent and build a greater sense of Russian power.  In other cases, governments crack down on civil society as they see other nations do so successfully, copying the practices of Western democracies or neighboring countries, or in an attempt to comply with international standards on combating terrorism.

What’s interesting – and troubling – about the recent trend is that civil society space has eroded in countries that were not concerns just one year ago, like Mexico and Sierra Leone. Until recently, Mexico was seen to have a relatively enabling legal environment for civil society. However, in June 2013, it passed an anti-money laundering law in order to comply with standards set by FATF – the Financial Action Taskforce (a regulatory body created by the G7 that sets global standards on anti-money laundering and counter terrorism financing). The law places an unprecedented administrative burden on CSOs, requiring them to report large donations on a monthly basis, disclose information about their donors, and sign up to a public record before soliciting donations. Activists refusing to comply have faced backlash from the authorities.

While the exact motivation behind restrictive laws will vary from country to country, governments are realizing that they can introduce restrictions to great effect with minimal criticism from the international community. A combination of restrictive laws and stigmatization of civil society and foreign funding has become the new norm, with many states neglecting their obligations to freedom of association and other human rights provisions.

Who is affected by these restrictions?

In many countries, it is now easier to open a business than to start an NGO. While foreign investment from the private sector is considered beneficial, foreign aid is seen with a skeptical eye. It is increasingly difficult for donors to implement our mandates and support those on the frontlines of the struggle for fair development and human rights.

The challenge used to be limited to donors and activists working on the most controversial issues, such as elections or accountability for grave abuses. But countries have begun to restrict civic space far more broadly. Environmental and land rights activists, aid agencies, and humanitarian relief groups have come under attack. In addition to direct negative impacts on our grantees, there is an insidious chilling effect on wider civil society as organizations choose not to speak out, join coalitions, or pursue potentially sensitive issues for fear of similar restriction.

Donors’ work is directly affected as well. Foreign funding restrictions raise the transactional costs of grantmaking in many areas, making the process more difficult and cumbersome and running the risk that donors will choose to re-focus on less problematic issues or regions.  

How can donors respond to this trend?

Donors often respond on a case-by-case basis, partly out of a lack of recognition of how widespread the problem is. Systemic responses have been limited, aggravated by the challenges of developing long-term solutions and a lack of data on successful strategies to address the problem.

In terms of short-term responses, many donors are helping grantees set up alternate forms of registration – either inside or outside the country – that will enable them to receive funding.  Indeed, many organizations facing restrictions have called for donors to exercise greater flexibility to accommodate the difficult and often shifting legal environments in which they are working.

Longer-term change will require greater coordination among donors, such as establishing a platform to exchange information about the various “faces” of the crackdown and sharing efforts to defend grantees at risk. Donors might consider how to assist grantees more rapidly when these situations arise and invest in mitigating them early on. In many countries, there are few organizations that focus primarily on freedom of association or space for civil society. Activists often become galvanized on this issue only when restrictive laws are proposed or introduced. Donors can play an important role in providing resources and technical assistance to help activists quickly become experts, enabling them to build campaigns and coalitions to challenge harmful laws, disseminate information on how to navigate restrictions, and explore litigation where possible.

Donors must not only help organizations challenge restrictive laws through advocacy and litigation but also develop counter-narratives to respond to growing criticisms leveled at civil society.  We can ensure there are sufficient resources to make the case for civil society and publicize the findings, taking lessons from where it has been done well. For example, in 2013 Kenyan activists mobilized public support against a proposed law to restrict foreign funding by joining forces with the HIV/AIDS movement. Together they were able to highlight civil society’s critical role in promoting public health and saving lives where the state is unable to.  Countering defamation and stigmatization will require activists and donors to explore innovative partnerships and responses. They may not yield results quickly – or at all – but such exploration is vital to make significant headway against restrictions.

Donors themselves can also articulate a principled, positive affirmation of the role of foreign funding and the importance of CSOs that goes beyond traditional human rights rhetoric. The visibility of such a statement may carry risks, and appropriate communications strategies must be developed, but the response to closing civic space needs to be voiced by all relevant actors, including donors.

How can donors “do no harm”? What factors should the philanthropic community take into account to ensure that its efforts don’t put grantees at greater risk?

The ever-changing legal environment can place both activists and donors under pressure to develop a rapid response.  However, any strategies to address this issue must be developed cautiously, with guidance from the frontline activists who will have the best insight into which funding and advocacy strategies are likely to carry weight or do more harm than good.  We hope the Donor Working Group on Cross-Border Philanthropy can provide safe spaces for donors and activists to come together and develop strategies for navigating existing and proposed restrictions and for monitoring the effectiveness of those strategies.

Donors can also work to counter the stigmatization of foreign funding. We can publicly affirm that all our activities are regulated, both in the sending and receiving county. Where appropriate, donors can encourage and support grantees to comply with domestic laws and regulations, as irregularities – real or perceived – risk undermining their credibility.  However, there are clear limits to this approach, as many laws restricting foreign funding are broadly drafted, vague, and open to repressive interpretation.

Above all, donors must be guided by the needs of their grantees. Each country and context is different, and not all needs will be universal. We must recognize that by making ourselves more visible in this debate, we risk playing into narratives of foreign control over civil society organizations.  Of course, we want to support our grantees and help them navigate these challenges, but we also want to do so in a way that does not put them at greater risk.  The organizations themselves are best placed to understand the contexts in which they are working and the nature of the threats against them, and we should seek to follow their lead in determining our own course of action.

Has your grantmaking been affected by restrictive laws? Do you want to learn more or share your experiences? Join the Ariadne-IHRFG Donor Working Group on Cross-Border Philanthropy, or contact Sarah Tansey and Christen Dobson at IHRFG.

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