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Disrupt & Innovate

Sharing lessons, in solidarity, more crucial than ever as COVID-19 makes acute situations for ICSOs worse

26th May 2020 by Deborah Doane

This blog is written by Deborah Doane, who along with Sarah Pugh, authored a series of pilot case studies on civil society solidarity. The six case studies analyse how civil society organisations and coalitions are developing resilience and showing solidarity in response to undue scrutiny and clampdowns.

We heard last week that Oxfam was making drastic cuts to its organisation worldwide, – phasing “out 18 of its country offices”. This comes as a result of the compounding impacts of the 2018 Haiti safeguarding scandal, and the more recent COVID-19 pandemic. Both have resulted in exponential drops in income for the organisation. Tragically, it has had to make these cuts deeply and rapidly. Staff and partners will no doubt be reeling from the announcement, as other international civil society organisations (ICSOs) look on and perhaps wonder about their fate. 

Many of the countries where Oxfam will be withdrawing from are experiencing shrinking civic space: Tanzania, Egypt, Burundi, amongst others. In these countries’ civic space environments, civil society is routinely attacked, restricted from operating in a way that enables them to do their work effectively. ICSOs were not immune to these attacks by governments, as some work – especially that with a rights-based lens — would have been difficult to continue on an ongoing basis, long before COVID-19.  

Oxfam’s measures put into stark light the need for us to look at the role of international civil society on a broader basis. For people in southern civil society, they have increasingly been calling on ICSOs to work with them from a position of solidarity. In a time of rapid change in international civil society, and drastic cutbacks such as these, what would it look like? How can we ensure that an ICSO withdrawal doesn’t lead to even more rapid shrinking civic space, as we’re already starting to see with restrictions imposed as a result of the pandemic? Some national governments, worryingly, will be seeing Oxfam’s announcement as a vindication of their attacks on international civil society actors. 

My colleague, Sarah Pugh and I, have been working with civil society and philanthropy for several years now, to understand how we can support the enabling environment for civil society more effectively. Last year, we worked with the International Civil Society Centre by creating a “Solidarity Playbook” that include pilot case studies of ICSO responses to closing civic space and learned some key lessons about what solidarity looked like in the face of it. What we found was that ICSOs played an important role in working in solidarity and partnership with local actors. We also found that some of these – if not all – do not necessarily require an in-country presence to support them. 

I want to highlight some of the key findings from across the case studies were: 

  • Maintain solid defences. When governments attack, the basics are important. In India, for example, thousands of small civil groups were denied the ability to receive foreign funding just for failing to complete their paperwork correctly. In one of the case studies, Action Aid found this was critical for their survival when they were attacked in Uganda. All organisations can be ensuring that relevant legislation is adhered to and supporting their partners in this endeavour. Infrastructure and resources are needed for this – from accountants to legal advice, but our own learning from other work shows that these can be pooled and shared across civil society.  
  • Working with local civil society on joint strategies. Engaging in scenario planning about what closing space might be bringing can help to understand and manage these risks, and identify both contingencies and offence strategies – like joint advocacy and framing work to combat the threats. In Nigeria, the Action Group on Free Civic Space includes 60 organisations working to create a unified sector voice in the face of a range of restrictions on civic space, including in the digital sphere. Amnesty International in this case, played a role in supporting the formalisation of a cross-sector network of local and national actors, which worked hard to find common ground and approaches, so that when risks surface that threaten civic space, they can respond as one.
  • Raising awareness of the importance of civil and political space, and of why it should be defended and expanded. Organisations can’t do this in isolation: they need to work in coalition with others to address these risks, as in the face of closing space many of them are systemic. When Islamic Relief was targeted by smear campaigns in the US, which were motivated by Islamaphobia and aimed at removing their state funding, their membership in the Together Project and InterAction ensured a broad advocacy response from peers acting in solidarity. They succeeded in countering the damaging narratives being spread by those opposed to their operations, so that they, and others, can continue their important work in many of the most challenging and complex environments. Their ongoing work on fighting ‘bank de-risking’ is important across civil society globally, to ensure that funds can be received and local civil society can function. 

Prior to COVID-19, challenges about responding to closing civic space were myriad, from getting institutional buy-in, to maintaining coalition work. On coalition work, in particular, which feels acutely important as organisations may be receding from the field, what we found was that while it was easy to galvanise coalitions in the immediate face of any government attacks, coalitions tended to drift after the threat subsided. Unfortunately, this gave governments an opening to come back down the line and seek to restrict space repeatedly. Organisations will now be dealing with the immediate issues of COVID-19. Thus, prioritising keeping collaborative relationships across civil society to respond to this as a collective will be an even greater challenge, but even more critical both for the emergency response and for the longer-term, too. 

We know from countries where space closed, and where many international civil society actors had to withdraw, prior to things improving, such as Tunisia or Ethiopia, that survival of local civil society relied on ongoing relationships with international actors who worked with them in solidarity on a range of human rights and other issues. Service delivery may be closing for Oxfam in some countries, but solidarity itself, especially on an issue like civic space, can actually be strengthened. Indeed Oxfam’s work on inequality gives a good indication of what can be done. 

When ICSOs are facing significant income loss and for many staff members, the loss of their own day-to-day livelihoods, or confronting COVID-19 in their own personal and professional lives, adding ‘closing civic space’ to the list of things they need to worry about, seems like a very tall order. But civil society’s survival relies on it being front and centre of any strategy right now and beyond. 

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Deborah Doane

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Deborah Doane is a writer and consultant, who has worked across civil society for over twenty years as a leader, campaigner and analyst, covering human rights, development, environment and economic justice issues. Most recently, she was the Director of the Funders’ Initiative for Civil Society, and now works in a portfolio capacity with a range of clients in philanthropy and civil society. She is a partner of RightsCoLab a think tank where she works on the future of civil society. She blogs regularly for the Guardian on International Development and civil society issues.

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