share this page on social media

01 resilient roots






02 04 05

Innovation Category


Strengthening civil society solidarity and resilience networks.


A network-wide initiative with civil society organisations around the world to generate new learnings and insights on the link between dynamic accountability and organisational resilience, and inform future sector practices.

Main Features of the Populist Context

A growing number of governments and populist politicians are seeking to delegitimise the actions of civil society organisations (CSOs) by either demonising them as elite “special interest” groups, or accusing them of “losing touch” with the people they aim to serve.

In relation to the two core elements of populism, in contexts around the world, CSOs are frequent targets of the populists’ anti-elitist rhetoric. Populists have skilfully exploited the professionalisation of civil society/ non-governmental organisations and their reliance on foreign funding to vilify these groups as illegitimate elites working against the interests or welfare of the “real people” they claim to represent, and/or the nation’s sovereignty. Indeed, CSOs can pose significant threats to populist agendas, as they frequently champion the inclusion and rights of the marginalised or minority groups that the populists are defining as the illegitimate “others” robbing opportunities from these “real people”.

Given that populists claim to be the sole voices of the people’s will, the independent voices of CSOs, coupled with their messages of social inclusion and diversity, are also highly unwelcome to populist anti-pluralist agendas. In a number of countries, invoking “the people’s” or national interests are used to justify political moves — typically implemented via legislative and administrative measures — to heavily restrict the operation and funding of CSOs. Organisations that challenge or question populists in power, or use fact-based research to highlight sensitive issues or inconvenient truths that do not conform to their binary “us versus them” social, economic or environmental narratives, are usually the biggest targets.

CSOs pose challenges to the following additional features of populist agendas:

Seeking to promote debate as a means of testing government policies and distilling the best ideas for social change.

Producing and publicising countervailing data and evidence that can challenge or expose populist disinformation campaigns, data manipulation tactics and unethical or corrupt behaviour.

This evidence can be particularly inconvenient to populist agendas when revealing that the supposed crises, breakdowns or threats they are promoting have been misrepresented or overblown for political aims.

Populist leaders also aim to delegitimise the role of CSOs as intermediaries for the public — especially politically, socially, and economically marginalised populations — as populists claim that only they can under – stand and act on “the people’s” behalf. It is therefore imperative for CSOs to develop and strengthen a broad base of citizen support.

Traditionally, CSOs have typically demonstrated accountability through highly technical processes of regulatory compliance and donor reporting, which are often not suitable for convincing skeptical politicians and ordinary citizens of their importance and legitimacy. Moreover, such processes can give the impression that CSOs are primarily serving the interests of their well-resourced donors and funders.

Role of Digital Media

Digitisation is starting to transform the ways in which people can relate to organisations, enabling a new accountability paradigm for CSOs and public institutions. Now, newly empowered citizens are demanding more active roles in co-shaping programmes, policies and processes. At the heart of these dynamic relationships lie two-way digital dialogues between institutions and stakeholders, which promote regular interaction, adaptive performance and actionable decisions based on recent, visible data. Digital tools can help facilitate these dialogues, but they are ultimately sustained by the ongoing support of senior staff, tested accountability mechanisms (which could be “low tech”), staff training and skills development.

Main Features of the Innovation

CIVICUS’ Resilient Roots initiative is currently testing whether CSOs that are more accountable and responsive to their primary constituents, or “roots”, are ultimately more resilient against external political or structural threats (the project’s central hypothesis). The initiative is working with a network of partner CSOs in 15 countries, including populist contexts such as India and Serbia, to co-design and roll out year-long pilot accountability projects that seek to deepen the engagement of the organisations (such as India’s Video Volunteers case study and Serbia’s FemPlatz case study) with their primary constituents. CIVICUS provides financial and technical support for the design, implementation and ongoing review of the partners’ pilot projects and access to capacity support where necessary. CIVICUS also facilitates peer learning between these projects and is developing an evidence base of the emerging links between primary constituent accountability and CSO resilience. The main features of the innovation include:

The creation of a primary constituent accountability measurement process. All the partner CSOs are surveying their constituents and staff at the beginning and end of each pilot initiative, to help assess whether they have made gains in accountability over its duration.

CIVICUS devised a common “resilience testing” methodology applied across all the contexts and organisations. This established baseline assessments on the common types of civic space threats and/or restrictions, their degree of severity and the response strategies deployed by the partner CSOs

By measuring threat responses against their original benchmarks at the end of each yearlong pilot project, Resilient Roots will be able to assess whether any changes can be attributed to factors related to primary constituent accountability. Quarterly monitoring and progress updates provide data to assess Resilient Roots’ central hypothesis.

The approach to capacity development has optimised learning. So far, the pilot partner organisations have appreciated the hands-on support for project design and implementation and the strong emphasis on course correction, flexibility and experimentation.

This process allows horizontal monitoring and exploration of the factors and pathways that increase public support, build trust and increase legitimacy. CIVICUS and its partners can see how approaches are adapted to manage threats and develop more nuanced understandings of the relationship between accountability and resilience across various contexts.

The initiative encourages peer learning among the pilot projects and will foster the creation of a wider body of evidence and lessons. These resources will subsequently be able to help other organisations to develop and refine their own constituent accountability approaches.

While the pilots are still in their early stages, all organisations are already achieving impressive results, revealing rich insights about their primary constituents’ needs and interests. These include the need to more clearly articulate what the CSO does and does not do, so constituents are able to engage in its activities more effectively, and a real appetite from them to be involved in the planning and delivery of the organisation’s activities.

CIVICUS has developed four new case studies following the completion of the accountability pilots (UPDATE 2020):

The first looks at the three dimensions of primary constituent accountability – giving, taking and holding to account through examples from the Resilient Roots national partners.

The second distinguishes between service delivery and advocacy-focused organisations and the differing implications for PCA mechanisms.

The third explores the common challenges that partners faced when implementing their primary constituent accountability mechanisms, relating to: (i) buy-in, (ii) practicalities of engagement, (iii) feedback and (iv) capacities and resources.

The fourth case study highlights the broader impact and influence of the PCA approaches within the national partners on wider organisational programming, operations, and strategy.

Key Takeaways

  1. Primary constituent accountability is a complex concept and many of the partner organisations have required significant guidance to fully understand and address it in practice. Nevertheless, breaking down this concept into specific activities and ways of working makes it easier to communicate, digest and act upon. In fact, the process has catalysed the development of an organisational learning culture that is essential for new approaches to remain effective over time. Focusing on external (constituent) accountability has also triggered important internal changes — particularly with regard to governance and staff — among the partner CSOs. Indeed, for many organisations, working on internal accountability was seen as a precondition for working on their external accountability practices

  2. Organisational resilience is highly context-specific and not linear. To make the measurement process more manageable, CIVICUS and its partners have only focused on one type of resilience: against threats to civic space. So far, factors such as an organisation’s type, size and focus seem to have strong influence over the way the CSO perceives, experiences and responds to civic space-related threats. Different CSO responses to threats should not be viewed hierarchically (e.g. “resisting” is not necessarily a sign of greater resilience than “desisting”), but as a constant negotiation. The interplay between primary constituent accountability and resilience appears to be even more complicated than originally assumed, and further work should consider a number of other issues that also influence CSO resilience.

  3. Findings are still emerging, but the initiative continues to confirm if and how establishing broad-based citizen support and being able to draw on large networks of allies or members as sources of solidarity and support can benefit CSO resilience, especially during times of crisis. This could have big implications for CSOs in terms of changing their dynamic accountability and people-powered decision-making processes.

Innovation Categorisation

We have categorised this as an established, core innovation with an exciting new experimental framing which explicitly links accountability to organisational resilience. It demonstrates incremental use of existing tools and tactics for research and measurement, monitoring, learning and capacity support, with existing partners.

This is an established innovation as of 2020, as the pilots have been implemented and evidence from the programme and wider lessons or conclusions are being shared with others, including through the case studies above.

Innovating Organisation

CIVICUS is a global alliance of CSOs and activists with more than 4,000 members in more than 175 countries dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society throughout the world. Its goals are to defend civic freedoms and democratic values, strengthen the power of people to organise, mobilise and take action and empower a more accountable, effective and innovative civil society. It does this by building solidarity and connections among civil society across borders and at scale, producing timely and world-class knowledge and analysis, innovating and incubating bold initiatives and promoting, modelling and disseminating civil society best practices, advocating for open spaces and systemic change and amplifying the voices of those usually not included, and promoting the resourcing of a diverse and resilient civil society.

Innovation Report     2019