Resilience in times of shrinking civic space: How Resilient Roots organisations are attempting to strengthen their roots through primary constituent accountability

Soulayma Mardam Bey (CIVICUS) and Isabelle Büchner (Accountable Now)

The systematic crackdown on peaceful protests and demonstrations across the world has shaped our understanding of repression against civil society organisations (CSOs). Yet, less-spectacular restrictions such as increased bureaucratic requirements imposed by governments are not necessarily less threatening to CSO resilience.

While those tactics significantly hamper CSOs’ ability to operate and can reduce primary constituents' trust in CSOs' ability to represent them legitimately, we also need to acknowledge that these symptoms can stem from our own inappropriate approaches to accountability. When CSOs are not accountable to their roots, this can serve as a breeding ground for governments’ and other non-state actors’ anti-CSOs strategies and rhetoric.  

The Resilient Roots initiative is aiming to test whether CSOs who are more accountable and responsive to their primary constituents are more resilient against threats to their civic space. 15 organisations from diverse countries and contexts have partnered with us to design and rollout innovative accountability experiments over a 12 month period. These experiments will explore how public support and trust in CSOs can be improved through practising what we call primary constituent accountability, which aims to establish a meaningful dialogue with those groups that organisations exist to support, and increase their engagement in CSO decision-making.

Accountability and resilience are both highly context-specific and vary not just from country to country but also along an organisation’s thematic focus, size and approach. This means that we need to explore the relationship between accountability and resilience on a case by case basis and across a variety of very different contexts. Keeping this in mind - and without further adieu - read on to meet the some of Resilient Roots Accountability Pilot Project organisations:

One of these organisations is the Poverty Reduction Forum Trust (PRFT) from Zimbabwe. In the rural area of Dora, in the district of Mutare, they aim to systematically validate actions and strategies through constituent-led monitoring of programme progress. As a platform for civil society that aims to address the root-causes and diverse manifestations of poverty in Zimbabwe, they may face very different challenges from an organisation that works on more politically polarising topics.

For example, Russian CSO OVD-Info is an independent human rights media project that monitors detentions and other cases of politically motivated harassment, informs media and human rights organisations on the state of political repression in Russia, and provides legal assistance to activists. For the Resilient Roots initiative, OVD-Info seeks to set up a dashboard to serve as a data visualisation tool, which will help evaluate the efficiency of its projects and motivate their constituents to play a stronger role in the organisation’s decision-making.

In contrast to the technology and data-driven approach of OVD-Info, FemPLatz is a women’s rights organisation from Serbia that seeks a more direct and personal approach. They plan to gather feedback from their constituents through focus group discussions, interviews and workshops while also improving their communication with their constituents through the publication of a regular newsletter. This will allow their constituents to monitor their work and get in contact with them to provide feedback.

A newsletter can also contribute to closing the feedback loop. Projet Jeune Leader (PJL) from Madagascar, for example, will engage young adolescents, their parents and school administrations to establish a coordinated and systematic means to collect feedback. They will collect feedback through participatory scorecards, stories from primary constituents around the changes triggered by the project, and an updated youth magazine to get closer to their constituents. PJL works on a comprehensive sexual-reproductive health education and leadership development program integrated into public middle schools.

A particularly creative approach comes from Solidarity Now. Through multimedia productions, their primary constituents will express their daily perceptions, challenges, and dreams through the making and sharing of interactive material like video clips. Solidarity Now consists of a network of organisations and people whose goal is to assist and support the populations affected by the economic and humanitarian crises in Greece. Through the provision of services to both local Greeks and migrant populations, it seeks to restore the vision of a strong Europe based on solidarity and open values.

In Asia, Climate Watch Thailand (CWT) is an organisation working to drive changes in attitudes towards climate change, and trigger action on the topic. As part of the initiative, CWT is going to strengthen how they formulate policy asks, by continuously testing their relevance to their constituents and this gaining wider support.

Unfortunately, not all the organisations we work with in this initiative feel comfortable enough to publicly associate themselves to Resilient Roots, without the fear of inciting further anti-CSO responses in their local context. Such is the case of our Ugandan partner, a reminder of how delicate civic spaces are and how important it is for our sector to better understand how to strengthen CSO resilience in recent times.

These diverse organisations are using a variety of approaches to work on CSO accountability, and we are incredibly excited to be exploring with them how different accountability practices fare in different regional and thematic contexts. What factors will make them successful and where will they need to adjust? In what circumstances does increased accountability actually lead to increased resilience? We are looking forward to sharing this journey with you: how they progress with their projects, the things they are learning, and what you can draw from their experiences to inform the work of your own organisation.

 

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