Daniel Ferrell-Schweppenstedde

Former Policy and Public Affairs Manager

Charities Aid Foundation

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Civic space is suffering globally – but we can change that picture 

New report highlights how civil society has fared in the last 10 years

9 August 2021

CIVICUS, a global alliance of civil society organisations and activists, monitors the state of civil society and civic freedoms in 196 countries, relying on data  from the CIVICUS Monitor.

Each year it also publishes the State of Civil Society report - a widely recognised stock taking of the ‘health’ of civil society globally. This year’s edition is a special one. It recounts the impact of the pandemic and civil society’s response in 2020, and gives an outlook for 2021 and beyond. It is also the 10th edition of the report highlighting key trends over the past decade.

While being a lifesaver, civil society faced repression

Civil society showed high levels of resilience and managed to mobilise millions of people to help tackle the crisis. It also enabled individuals to challenge governments and society at large on a range of issues including racial inequality and social justice, climate change and infringement on democratic rights. But the report also shows how civic freedoms faced crackdowns in many parts of the world – both during but also long before Covid-19 when many advocates for progress were already risking their own lives and wellbeing in the face of oppressive governments.

Covid-19 has, as one might expect, introduced new challenges. According to CIVICUS many states failed ‘the pandemic test’. They introduced a top-down approach, not listening to communities and used repressive measures that targeted civic freedoms, increased surveillance and punished critical or dissenting voices. It is feared that emergency powers, many of which may have been legitimately required tackle the crisis, have not been time-limited and will not be rolled back as the pandemic recedes. CIVICUS found that that by the end of 2020 ‘87% of the world’s population lived in countries with severe civic space restrictions’.

CAF has also looked into how government’s supported civil society during the crisis. There are many positive examples, including the UK introducing a stimulus package for the sector, although there was also lively debate on whether or not enough was done. But we also found that, from a global perspective, governments generally did not only fail to give civil society organisations enough support, they also failed to realise how valuable they could be when it came to tackling the crisis.

CIVICUS look back on the pandemic captured how ‘civil society organisations quickly responded with vital support, distributing cash, food, medicines and sanitary supplies, sharing accurate information on the virus and providing healthcare and psychological services.’ In many instances, it was civil society that proved to be  the backbone of informal health and social welfare systems that were essential to keeping people alive and safe amid the immense pandemic-induced pressures on existing public services.

10-year trends present a gloomy picture

Looking at the wider 10-year trends, things do not look rosy. There has been a sustained crackdown on civic space with a greater range of states attacking civil society, including even some democratic ones. Another major trend is politics being in flux and democracy at risk. Civil society organisations that defend democracy face pressure, including from new ‘anti-rights’ actors that have positioned themselves in the civil society arena itself. An undermining of democratic norms including those of dissent and dialogue are the result. These are some of the many reasons why CIVICUS states: ‘Where the world is today is not where many in civil society would have hoped 10 years ago. While there have been gains as well as losses, overall, conditions for civil society have worsened.’

The picture is not static and must be changed

But the report also offers hope and solutions. It calls for civic freedoms to be protected and reinvigorated when looking beyond the Covid-19 crisis. In particular democratic states are being asked to reassert their values and freedoms globally (including the right to peaceful protest) while also genuinely respecting them at home. Others should be urged to follow suit through bilateral and multilateral efforts. One of the main reasons is that when citizens are allowed to mobilise and associate without pushback, it can result in improved systems, new rights and better outcomes for all across society.

The role of giving in championing civil society

There is also a role for giving to play here. For example, funders can invest in organisations that work to both broaden and protect civic freedoms. Direct philanthropic support for civic and political participation is, in reality, very small on a global scale. According to the Human Rights Funders network, this type of philanthropic initiative attracted roughly $125m of grant funding out of a documented $3.7 billion in overall human rights funding in 2018.

But there is scope for cross-border giving coming more into the fore in this space. Researchers from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy looked at 2018 data on cross-border resource flows coming from 47 economies that cover 85% of global GDP. They identified $834 billion USD coming from four sources: ODA, remittances, private capital investment, and philanthropic cross-border giving (which amounted  to $68 billion). These are already impressive numbers. But in addition to growing domestic giving, making it easier to give across borders could help unlock more philanthropic resources.

There is also general need to see civil society better funded and championed and for the issues they present to be viewed in concert – and not separated from - discussions around how to ensure they operate in a fair and transparent manner, ensuring civic space remains open and that cross-border  donations are able to flow.

The state of civil society is at risk globally and therefor global action is needed. CIVICUS’ report makes a compelling case for  the ‘State of Civil Society’ – at home and abroad to be top of mind for all of us.

Where to go from here?

Covid-19 could be an inflection point. 10+ years from now we might look back and see it as starting point for a further deterioration of rule of law, civic space, democratic rights, openness and the proliferation of top-down approaches in decision-making. But the opposite is equally possible. We could also see that the impact of the pandemic led to renewed international interest in civil society and protecting civic space. The end of the crisis could bring new motivation on the part of different public and private actors, new momentum for collaboration and new avenues for engagement. Institutional funders can play a big role in this process, but philanthropic giving more broadly will also have a part to play. The ‘menu’ option of what can be invested in and the actions we can take has been well described by many actors working in the field, so it is now time that we move on to take steps to shape the future for civil society.