5 ways civil society can build resiliency as civic space changes

by Miranda Evans   February 3, 2020

Around the globe, restrictions on freedoms of speech, assembly, and association are shrinking and transforming the space for civil society organizations (CSOs) to operate. Whether the challenges come from government crackdowns on internet access, scrutiny over international funding, or citizen distrust of terms like “human rights,” one thing is certain, the operating environment for CSOs has changed. In response, these organizations need to change as well, say civil society leaders from around the globe.

“We at PartnersGlobal don’t think we can keep doing business as usual,” said Luis Gomez Chow, Director of Latin America and the Caribbean and Global Advisory Services at PartnersGlobal. “The context has changed; the dynamics have changed; and the governments have become so innovative and creative. So, what do we do as CSOs do to make sure we are ready to respond to these challenges?”

Gomez Chow, who leads PartnersGlobal’s Resiliency+ Framework, posed the question to regional civil society leaders from Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Middle East and North Africa at a January 14 event called “Resilience in the Face of Closing Civic Space,” hosted by PartnersGlobal.

Moderated by Gomez Chow, the panelists discussed the challenges facing civil society, how to overcome restrictions, and best practices for organizations to prepare for the future. On the panel sat three diverse experts: Rajae Boujnah, Hub Manger of Innovation for Change Middle East and North Africa, Guillermo Correa, Executive Director of the Argentine Network for International Cooperation, and Charles Kojo Vandyck, Head of the Capacity Development Unit at the West Africa Civil Society Institute.

While each brought unique insights from their regions, they all agreed that CSOs need to challenge traditional models and seek innovative solutions in order to build resilience and continue operating.

How exactly can we ensure this sustainable future for local CSOs in the current context? Here are 5 top takeaways from the experts.

1. Simplify the narrative

Charles Kojo Vandyck shared a conversation he had with his wife regarding the words he uses to describe his work; one of which is “civic space.”

“My wife is brilliant, way smarter than I am, but it took me five years to explain what I am doing and why I kept talking about ‘going into space,’” he said.

While making light of the situation, Vandyck stressed that failing to communicate the importance of our work in terms that can be understood by those outside of the democracy, human rights and development fields can have serious implications.

Whether the audience is at the international, national, or local level, the message from these organizations and their members need to be simplified and more direct. If “civic space” doesn’t resonate, give real world examples of ways restrictions are impeding people’s lives. If “human rights” is too abstract, talk about the ability to express your opinions freely without repercussion or the ability to vote for the candidate you like.

There is also an opportunity to change the narrative by documenting success. CSOs can spread a positive narrative by sharing achievements beyond donors to local government and society. By packaging their work in relevant and engaging messages, these organizations can raise awareness of what they do and why it matters.

2. Strengthen relationships with the local communities

The everyday people CSOs claim to represent are often not at the table or in the conversation, panelists said. Organizations must change this dynamic to stay relevant, resilient and attuned to needs on the ground.

“We as CSOs have been failing to really engage with citizens and to represent their interests,” said Guillermo Correa.

By building on the change in narrative and using more compelling and easy-to-understand terms and stories, organizations can begin to improve public perception. This in turn can open opportunities to strengthen relationships between organizations and local partners or citizens. Organizations need to prioritize this connection to build trust and legitimacy among “the base.”

“If we don’t build that trust, it is going to be very challenging for us to actually fight against the shrinking civic space because that is at the core of our relevance,” added Vandyck.

3. Find opportunities to influence those in power

In conversations around resiliency and shifting civic space, government is often framed as the enemy. Rajae Boujnah wants CSOs to reconsider this us vs. them mentality in some cases.

“We need new mechanisms for the state to recognize that this space is evolving, and people need new powers. We should find a way to work with the local governments that will complement their work,” said Boujnah.

Acknowledging the influence government has on civil society, Boujnah highlighted the importance of building a relationship between civil society and the people in power, where such a relationship is possible. While protest is a legitimate and highly effective approach in many cases, there are other cases where civil society and government, especially on a local level, may have similar goals and opportunities to collaborate, such as around providing education or improving service delivery.

Panelists noted that in finding small openings to cooperate with those in power on non-sensitive matters that advance development or human capital, for example, CSOs can begin to shift government mindsets about the value of civil society in general. Over time, this may create openings to influence broader policies that affect human rights, democracy and civic space.

4. Explore alternative funding

While the challenges facing CSOs are increasing, Vandyck presented a more optimistic view of the circumstances.

“The current environment is a window of opportunity, especially for a mindset shift,” he said. “Yes, institutional funding is great, but [relying on it] is going to reduce substantially. We need to find alternatives to support operations.”

Panelists pointed out that, while still valuable, traditional models of funding from governments and international foundations pose problems. The short duration of most international aid funding (3 to 5 years) does not allow for any long-term capacity building and true sustainability of projects. In this changing context, where the challenges facing civil society require long-term planning and investment, the ‘usual” approach will not produce significant results. While it won’t be easy, CSOs will have to fight for longer-term, more flexible options from traditional donors.

Meanwhile, they can build resiliency through alternative models of funding that offer longer-term investment and more flexible allocations of funds attuned to the changing context. And by working to simplify the narrative and better communicate their stories, value and needs, CSOs can make their case to new, non-traditional donors (individuals, companies, impact investors and others).

5. Build bridges with other CSOs

All panelists suggested that to build resiliency international organizations should seek to establish more mutually beneficial partnerships. By pooling resources, there is greater opportunity to tackle issues and make a collective impact.

These connections should also be established among local CSOs, and between local and international organizations. Effective coordination, sharing resources, and transparent communication can build solidarity— a key factor in civil society resiliency and an incredible asset in the pursuit of democracy, peace, sustainable development and human rights.

About the Resiliency+ Framework

PartnersGlobal’s Resiliency+ Framework helps CSOs to identify the external threats and internal vulnerabilities impeding them from implementing resilient operations. Using this information, the Resiliency+ Framework then provides a menu of strategies, tactics, tools and peer-to-peer assistance to help CSOs achieve the seven key drivers needed to adapt quickly in the face of closing civic space.

Download the Framework