From Ebola to the bombing of Gaza, civil society was the first responder to humanitarian emergencies during the last year, but faces dire threats and a funding crisis around the world, says a new report.

“During the last year civil society was everywhere, doing great work often at the frontline of the world’s challenges, but at the same time having to stave off threats to its very existence,” said Dr Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, the CIVICUS Secretary-General on launching the organisation’s 2015 State of Civil Society Report.

CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organisations, says that in addition to the work it does on pressing global challenges, such as poverty, inequality and climate change, civil society also finds itself at the frontlines of response when it comes to humanitarian emergencies, including those caused by conflicts and disasters.

In addition to the Ebola crisis and natural disasters in Nepal and Vanuatu, civil society has, in the last year, also been called on to respond to a range of conflicts, including in Syria, Yemen, Ukraine, Gaza, Central African Republic and South Sudan.

“Despite the incredible work that civil society does, it remains under attack. In 2014 alone, we documented serious violations of `civic space’ – the freedoms of expression, association and assembly – in a staggering 96 countries around the world. Taking the size of these countries into account, it means that 6 out of 7 humans lived in countries where their civic freedoms were under threat.”

“To make matters worse, organisations that need funds the most, largely based in the Global South, receive only a fraction of the billions of dollars of funding that goes to the sector. It’s an untenable situation. Many funders know that civil society is doing essential work but we need more bravery from them to ensure the survival of those on the frontline,” stated Sriskandarajah.

Interestingly, there is a link between civic space and resourcing trends. “It is not surprising that domestic civil society does not have the capacity to defend itself against attacks on civic space if donors have systematically underinvested in local organisations,” Sriskandarajah said.

The report provides a comprehensive `year in review’ of civil society and the conditions it works in around the world, drawing on a range of inputs from experts and activists on the ground. In addition to reviewing the civil society landscape as a whole, this year’s theme focuses on the resourcing of what is called `change-seeking’ Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) i.e. those that seek policy change, hold elites accountable and seek to uphold human rights.

The report calls on governments to honour their commitments to protecting citizens’ fundamental rights, for donors to be braver and for civil society to stand together and show solidarity in the face of the threats it increasingly faces.

A few highlights from the Year in Review:

  • 2014/2015 demonstrated that civil society is the first responder to humanitarian emergencies, including those caused by conflicts and disasters.
  • We continue to see a rejection of conventional politics, because increasing numbers of citizens see through the attempts to mask collusion between political and economic elites.
  • The trajectory of contemporary protest movements generally takes an identified pattern of growing from small local issues to larger more profound matters such as inequality and lack of voice.
  • The power of civil society is recognised indirectly, when elites try to suppress civil society’s essential role of speaking truth to power.
  • In 2014, there were significant attacks on the fundamental civil society rights of free association, free assembly and free expression in 96 countries.
  • Threats to civil society emanate from both state and non-state actors that benefit from perpetuating governance failures and denying human rights; including corrupt politicians, unaccountable officials, unscrupulous businesses and religious fundamentalists.
  • New attempts are underway, even by democratic states, to roll back long-established human rights norms, which are described as obstacles to national development and security, while critical voices are conflated with terrorism.
  • Hostility to civil society is becoming normalised, and CSO energy is being forced into fighting existential threats.


Key insights on resourcing for civil society:

  • Change-seeking CSOs are finding it harder to receive funding, including funding from international sources because of government restrictions.
  • Many governments want to subdue CSOs that express dissent, and where there is an absence of domestic resourcing bases for change-seeking CSOs, restriction of cross-border funding is an effective tactic.
  • Out of the $166 billion spent on official development assistance (ODA or aid) by OECD-DAC countries in 2013, only 13%, or $21 billion, went to civil society. 
  • Although current data is hard to obtain, the latest estimate from 2011 suggests that Southern-based NGOs get only around 1% of all aid directly.
  • Many traditional donors are trimming their list of priority countries, and withdrawing particularly from countries assessed as having middle income status, despite their engrained social problems. E.g. Brazil and South Africa.
  • The rise of new economic powers, such as the BRICS countries, means that some Global South states are now donors, but almost all their support is for government-led initiatives.
  • We are seeing new donor conservatism with aid being more strongly connected with strategic foreign policy and trade agendas of donor governments, and the stronger pushing of free market policies on recipient countries to create opportunities for donor country businesses
  • Many international CSOs risk being seen as promoters of their home governments’ foreign policy agendas, and channels for government attempts to use ODA to project soft power.
  • At the domestic level, state funding often goes only to CSOs on favourable terms with ruling elites, and strongly favours service-oriented work.
  • A lot of funding for CSOs is short term and project focused often not lasting long enough to usher in systemic change
  • To counter negative trends, CSOs need to exercise exemplary transparency, demonstrate accountability to citizens, develop volunteerism and entrepreneurial capacity, where relevant, to reduce donor reliance.
  • CSOs should establish and implement resourcing policies to clarify the grounds on which they accept and do not accept resources from donors.
  • Conventional approaches to philanthropy are not working; donors need to be braver in their resourcing decisions to support the change the world needs.


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