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Giving Thought blog

Understanding and reimagining civil society and how we support it.

Charities Aid Foundation


3 June 2016

This article first appeared in The Shrinking Space for Civil Society: Philanthropic Perspectives From Across the Globe, a publication by the European Foundation Centre.

The closing space for civil society is affecting our global programme, either by restricting our activities as a funder of civil society or by limiting our own advocacy activities.

CAF occupies an unusual position in global civil society. We provide financial services and advice for charities and services to donors at all levels and conduct research and advocacy with the aim of creating a more enabling environment for civil society around the world.

We often describe ourselves as “cause neutral” but that is a slight mischaracterisation of our mission. Rather, all of our activities are in pursuit of one overarching goal: to create a world in which people and businesses are able to give easily and effectively to causes that reflect the diverse needs, aspirations and interests of society. To that extent, “cause neutrality” means that we are interested in and passionate about all legitimate public-benefit causes. As such, our interest in addressing the closing space for civil society stems both from direct operational concerns and also from broader concerns about threats to our overarching mission.

The breadth of this mission sees us interact with every part of every sector. From this vantage point the differing perceptions of the closing space for civil society are striking. In short, those funders and CSOs that are directly being affected by the issue – often human rights defenders, environmental campaigners or those advocating for marginalised groups in society – are mobilising while others, including much of the rest of civil society, continue to see the issue as marginal. This, in our view, is a dangerous miscalculation.

The closing space for civil society should be a concern to everyone, and those of us who have the ability to broaden the knowledge base of influential partners have a duty to raise awareness. Partners may think that the silencing of environmental and human rights campaigners has little relevance to their interests. Some outside of civil society may even think that this suppressing of criticism actually creates a more enabling environment for investment, free from the onerous scrutiny of activists. However, in the long run, the shrinking of civic space damages social cohesion, and undermines the systems of accountability and the rule of law that create an enabling and sustainable environment for all legitimate interests.


Several forces seem to be driving a new, more limited consensus as to what civil society organisations are for and what they should do. The current global political economy is characterised by competition for business and investment. As governments strive to create stable environments that are attractive to business, they make assumptions about the interests of companies which are used to inform policy making.

This results in some progressive policies, but also in a broad range of regressive measures, including subduing media and civil society criticism, reducing environmental regulation and land laws, and relaxing labour laws or breaking unionism. Ironically, many companies are of the view that these policies are not necessarily good for business in the long term. It is up to those of us that work with businesses to make the case for solidarity between the private sector and civil society that is motivated by enlightened self interest.

Economic instability, an erosion of trust in public and private institutions, gaps in governance, climate change, youth unemployment, rampant inequality and the rise of sectarianism, populism, nationalism and statism all form part of the “new global context” which was discussed at this year’s World Economic Forum. The fact that business leaders increasingly recognise that these issues threaten to undermine their interests presents an opportunity for civil society to find powerful advocates in the corporate community.

Civil society’s capacity to ameliorate the effects of, and advocate for reforms that address the drivers of the above problems should make it a fundamental part of the enabling environment for business. We need to work with private companies to ensure that they understand that even when civil society stands in the way of their short-term interests, they are vital to their long-term sustainability. We might find that business is more amenable to this idea than many assume.

Take the recent case of Tiffany & Co, Brilliant Earth and Leber Jeweler Inc. who, alongside human rights charities, recently called on the Angolan government to drop the prosecution of a journalist who uncovered human rights abuses in Angola’s diamond fields. Their co-signed letter stated that “vital investigations into human rights abuses should not be impeded by the threat of jail” and called for “standards of international law” to be applied.

Where in the past companies might have engaged in wholly profit-motivated lobbying with one hand, while giving back to society through their CSR department with the other, many – as Mauricio Lazala, Deputy Director, Business & Human Rights Resource Centre points out – now take a more long-term approach. This is a trend that we have a duty to cultivate. Working with corporate clients must mean mutual improvement of practices where all parties seek to influence one another positively.


There is no doubting that governments are faced with an unprecedented volume of competing demands in the current global context. Delivering economic growth while maintaining the rule of law, in an environment where state sovereignty is being undercut by globalisation of business and information flows, is extremely challenging. In many nations formal, organised civil society may seem to governments like an import that has travelled on a wave of foreign capital.

Equally, the spread of ideas about freedom of association, assembly and the right to campaign could be viewed as a western invention that has spread through internet communication and the global media – in the case of China, there is some evidence that this view has gained traction. The pragmatic response by many governments has been to isolate the parts of civil society that they see as necessary, or at least benign – for instance service providing organisations in health, children, education and the arts – while seeking to marginalise critical voices through regressive legislation and muscular regulation.

To challenge this narrative we need to work harder as funders to show the positive effects that civil society can have. We need to take a more prominent role in explaining how philanthropists and foundations, and the organisations that they fund, can do more than augment state provision of services. We need to show that far from undermining stability and growth, civil society is a vital part of delivering it.

A well-funded charitable sector is able to represent the marginalised and voice dissent that may not always be comfortable to hear, but should be tolerated as a critical friend. Such an avenue for dialogue allows politicians to monitor public sentiment and acts as a pressure gauge for society. Egypt has become an extreme case in point. As I wrote last year, successive Egyptian governments have failed to learn that silencing civil society is not merely ineffective at preventing unrest but may in fact ferment it in the long term.

As a UK-headquartered foundation, we would not want to give the impression that the closing space for civil society is only a problem for emerging economies or nations with nascent civil societies. Research commissioned by CAF this yearshowed that just 33% of politicians in the Conservative Party, currently in power in the UK, believe that “It is important for charities to highlight if they believe government policies will negatively affect people”, compared to 63% of the general population.

In the UK, like many other nations, the view of the role that charities and their funders should play in society appears to be changing in ways that may give cause for concern. Increasingly, where charities are concerned, the word “political” has become a pejorative term that is all too often conflated with “party political” or “partisan”. This wilful confusion has seen new restrictions on campaigning during the run up to General Elections in the UK as a result of a piece of legislation that has become known as the “Lobbying Act”.


Some funders may feel that their mission is sufficiently uncontroversial that it is unlikely to fall foul of even the most muscular regulatory clampdown. Such an assumption could be criticised as favouring pragmatism over a sense of civic solidarity, but even this criticism might be too kind. As funders of civil society we must cultivate an environment in which politicians, business leaders and the public recognise the importance of an independent, diverse and occasionally controversial civil society.

When we allow ground to be ceded at the margins because it doesn’t affect us directly, we weaken the argument for our very existence. As an organisation that is trusted due to the essentially neutral nature of most of our activities, CAF is choosing to talk to our partners and raise awareness about the closing space for civil society. We encourage other funders to lend their voice to those who are being silenced and to resist complacency. But most of all, we need to start asking ourselves difficult questions.

As advisers to funders or as funders in our own right we are all faced with the challenge of adapting to trends in giving. It is critically important that we, as experts, consider how these trends interact with the closing space for civil society. The rise of movements like Effective Altruism, for example, is largely donor led and in many ways extremely positive. The desire to ensure that the maximum impact is derived from philanthropic money is undoubtedly laudable.

However, it is crucial that in the quest to move the dial on causes that are innately measurable and tangible, we don’t side-line activities that attempt to address systemic problems. An analysis of the history of philanthropic giving – such as can be found in Public Good by Private Means – a book recently published by Rhodri Davies which focuses on the UK example – reveals that advocacy has been every bit as productive in improving lives as any other form of giving.

As momentum develops around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we must of course do all that we can to seize the opportunity and invest in a movement that could achieve historic progress for humanity. However, while we should welcome the fact that the Addis Ababa Action Agenda on financing the SDGs recognises the “rapid growth of philanthropic giving and the significant contribution individuals have made”, the expectation is, perhaps quite rightly, that philanthropy should work increasingly within partnerships that are led by government and largely financed by business. The “call on all philanthropic providers to partner” in delivering the SDGs is followed in the same paragraph with a “call for increased transparency in philanthropy”.

Again, there is a strong movement to ensure that philanthropy is open to scrutiny from within the sector itself as this could help to coordinate resources and build public trust. But funders need to consider whether as minority partners (in terms of finances at least) within SDG partnerships, they may lose some of their independence, flexibility and capacity to innovate. Equally, they will need to consider whether partnering with governments who are closing the civic space while becoming ever more accountable to them represents a Faustian pact.

Mainstreaming the response to the closing space is not easy, and it has not been easy at CAF. As an international organisation with offices in advanced and emerging economies, we have first-hand experience of many of the issues that form part of this broad regressive trend. However, it is not always possible or indeed wise to tackle them at country level. We are lucky enough to have a dedicated staff – of which I am one member – that can consider the implications of wider trends and policies on our day-to-day business and on our wider charitable mission.

In the course of our work we have put out a number of reports, as well as a great many articles and blogs, which have looked at issues such as how governments can build trust in civil society and charitable giving; how they can create an environment that guarantees the independence of civil society; and how the legal, regulatory and tax environment can encourage giving. As a result, our hope is that CAF can help raise the profile of this issue with our partners and tackle what may be the greatest threat that civil society faces.