Guest article by Edwin Rekosh, Rights CoLab
Starting in the 1980s, and accelerating through the 1990s, as democratic political systems and market economies spread around the world, the public sphere at the national level became increasingly populated by formal civil society organisations (CSOs). CSOs have served an important intermediating function for the general public, complementing the work done by governments and independent media to facilitate greater participation by citizens in decisions that affect their lives.
In the meantime, shifting geopolitics and unpopular neoliberal policies connected to economic globalisation have created an enabling environment for a new, populist form of political leadership at the national level, often described as illiberal democracy. One of the hallmarks of illiberal democracy has been a significant increase in governmental attacks on formally-structured CSOs, most of which depend on financial support from foreign philanthropic funders and development agencies.
A clear pattern of attack has emerged, consisting of two steps:
- stigmatise CSOs in the public eye, particularly through highlighting their foreign funding sources and other foreign connections;
- adopt increasingly restrictive regulatory measures, building on campaigns to weaken public support for CSOs and falsely justified as part of a global effort to curb money-laundering, corruption and terrorism.
As a result, CSOs in many countries are finding it harder to function effectively. Some are having difficulty raising and expending funds from donors upon which they have traditionally relied. Others are struggling with dramatically increased administrative burdens and the need to defend themselves against inappropriate regulatory actions. Still other CSOs are finding themselves distracted from their core missions as they devote resources to defending their image in the public eye. Most dramatically, some CSOs have been forced to shut down entirely for non-compliance with new laws and regulations intended to eliminate them from public spaces.
Members of the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations (INCLO) have experienced such attacks, both historically and today. In order to share insights on how best to respond, INCLO developed a strategic framework to aid CSOs in considering responses and collected case studies drawn from the experiences of members and other CSOs around the globe.
As the resulting manual reflects, CSOs are often able to do little more than manage ongoing risks, such as arbitrary enforcement of restrictive regulations, increased surveillance or physical threats. In the most difficult environments, CSO staff may develop alternative structures that permit them to function, but not without compromising their activities and strategies significantly.
Most importantly, CSOs need to address the globally replicating strategy deployed by many governments that plays on public fears to stigmatise, divide and conquer CSOs. As the manual lays out, among the more proactive strategies for CSOs to consider are:
- forging new alliances;
- reshaping public perceptions;
- building stronger constituencies.
1. Forging new alliances
Civil society typically fragments along various lines, including between: the different roles and approaches of service-providing CSOs compared to advocacy CSOs; the differing international networks connecting CSOs, whether oriented around humanitarian, development, human rights or environmental issues; and the degree to which CSOs might be engaged in areas that are particularly sensitive culturally or politically, such as LGBTI rights or the rights of a particular ethnic minority. Coalition building is not a new strategy for civil society, but when there is a sector-wide assault, it is particularly important for CSOs to band together for at least two reasons: to prevent governments from exploiting typical fissures in civil society and to seek influential supporters outside civil society.
There are a variety of approaches that CSOs can adopt to make their alliance-building strategies more effective. One approach is to broaden out existing coalitions to include other spheres, including trade unions, media outlets, sympathetic or similarly situated businesses and others.
2. Reshaping public perceptions
The most important long-range threat to CSOs is the increasingly pervasive use of delegitimising strategies to foster the perception that CSOs do not have any authentic local constituency. The fact that a large proportion of CSOs are financially dependent on foreign funding sources feeds into that perception, creating a vulnerability that can easily be exploited. For CSOs to fight back effectively, they need to find ways to explain their work in terms that convey legitimacy to the public.
Strategies include linking attacks on CSOs to past repression and characterising them as discouraging foreign direct investment, hindering achievement of the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and undermining democracy and stability. Another strategy is to frame an attack on CSOs as an attack on democracy.
3. Building stronger constituencies
Many CSOs develop in ways that overemphasise communication with key stakeholder groups outside their respective countries. As a result, rather than addressing those on behalf of whom they work, CSOs may be prioritising communication with foreign donors, international institutions, professional and expert networks and peer organisations outside their country.
In contrast, targeted and transparent communication to CSO beneficiaries can build trust and dispel unfounded insinuations about a CSO’s purposes, activities and motivations. The more information disclosed to the public about a CSO’s work, the harder it is to mischaracterise that work, and the easier it is to frame the work of the organisation in a positive light.
Further steps needed
The strategies outlined above are complex and dynamic, and they involve multiple actors over a long timeframe. Despite some of the lessons captured by INCLO members from their efforts to respond to governmental attacks, there are still many questions yet to be resolved before we can be assured that CSOs are in a position to turn back the tide. Among the questions that require further attention are:
- How do CSO strategies need to evolve at the national level at a time when the international order is shifting in ways that weaken international protection and support?
- How can CSO alliances be broadened, particularly for their policy work? How can effective collaborations be built between faith-based groups, trade unions and CSOs in general, and how can CSOs most effectively collaborate with young people, technologists, creative professionals and beneficiary communities?
- How can CSOs of different types and pursuing different organisational purposes best support each other in shoring up civil society as a whole?
- How can the business sector be guided to provide public support to CSOs more consistently? Where is the alignment of interests with differentiated segments of the business community, including large corporations in various industries, small and medium-sized enterprises, start-ups and social enterprises?
- What is the best way to explain to the public what is at stake for them? What are the simplifying models and metaphors that will help the public to perceive accurately what is happening and why it matters?
The responses outlined in Gaining Ground are a good place to start for thinking through how to address some of the vulnerabilities that open up CSOs to attack. CSOs are essential for mobilising private initiative, facilitating citizen engagement and protecting human rights. But they will need new energy and creative ideas that harness the opportunities of the 21st century in order to ensure that the civic freedoms gained in the past several decades are preserved and strengthened in the decades ahead.
This contribution to the CIVICUS report on reimagining democracy is an adaptation of INCLO’s manual Gaining Ground: A Strategic Framework for Developing Strategies and Tactics in Response to Governmental Attacks on NGOs, drafted by the author and published in December 2017. INCLO has also published a concise brochure, outlining the strategic responses.