Call for Solidarity Playbook Case Studies

18th June 2020 by Eva Gondorová

The Solidarity Action Network (SANE) is looking for case studies to include in its Solidarity Playbook, to be published later this year. We are looking for examples of strategies and resilience mechanisms of international civil society organisations (ICSOs) and coalition responses to civic space restrictions that demonstrate how solidarity can work in practice. These strategies and responses may have come as a result of an undue threat or attack, equally they relate to the operating environment, for example a new law making it harder for CSOs to operate.

Continue reading if you are interested to learn more or have an example to share.

Solidarity Action Network and Solidarity Playbook

The Solidarity Action Network (SANE) brings together international civil society organisations (ICSOs) and their local partners to support each other when faced with undue threats and challenges to their operations or civic space restrictions more broadly. The network collects and shares knowledge and best practices, inspires collaborative actions and explores new solidarity mechanisms beyond public statements of solidarity.  

The Solidarity Playbook is an integral part of the Solidarity Action Network. It collects case studies and best practices to help other civil society organisations respond to undue scrutiny and challenges, and to enable learning on how to act in solidarity with civil society actors, particularly local partners. A set of six initial Solidarity Playbook case studies has already been published and we would like your help in building this collection.  

Show solidarity – share your case study with peers!

We are looking for more examples that capture best practices on:  

1) Strategies and resilience mechanisms of ICSOs 

We want to hear about strategies and resilience mechanisms of different ICSOs developed to respond to undue scrutiny and attacks such as legal restrictions, bureaucratic clampdowns, financial constraints, media and misinformation/disinformation attacks or digital and cybersecurity risks. We are particularly interested in learning from ICSOs which might not be an obvious target but have had to adapt their strategies due to the consequences of civic space restrictions. 

2) Coalition responses to civic space restrictions that demonstrate how solidarity can work in practice

We want to look at coalition responses at different levels (local/national/regional/global level) and map how civil society organisations support each other, show solidarity and respond to threats and challenges with a unified voice. We are particularly interested in looking at connectivity between these levels, coalitions uniting different kinds of civil society organisations and cross-sector collaborations. 

Got a question?

Then get in touch with Project Manager Eva Gondorová.

Think you might have a case study to share?

Then let us know what your case study is about by answering the questions below. Brief answers to all questions – also not required ones – would be very helpful for us to get a better idea of your case. After submitting this form, we will get in touch with you.

Case Study Submission Form

e.g. legal restrictions, bureaucratic clampdowns, financial constraints, media and misinformation/disinformation attacks or digital and cybersecurity risks.


Eva Gondorová

Project Manager

International Civil Society Centre

Eva coordinates the project Solidarity Action Network (SANE) which aims at strengthening resilience of and solidarity among civil society actors.

COVID-19, European Cities and Climate Action – How Participation Makes Our Cities Clean and Healthy

17th June 2020 by Nadja Nickel and Aleksandar Brezar

Following on from their recent guest blog on populism and civic engagement, linking to the themes of our 2019 Innovation Report, the Democratic Society shares their experiences of another exciting project looking at climate action in European cities, as we look ahead to our upcoming 2020 version of the Innovation Report looking at urban inclusion.

By inviting and empowering residents to take informed decisions, we can ensure a collective responsibility around challenges that affect our communities, and we are able to strengthen the democratic foundation of the places we live in. 

Demand is growing for climate action that matches the scale and urgency of one of the biggest challenges of our generation. We need to ensure that this transformation process is adaptive, democratic and fair for everyone, but particularly marginalised groups in societies. At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a need for new ways of working and a different angle on existing climate action endeavours. These huge challenges require response structures within our democracies that are agile, local and informed by evidence. However, these are of risk of being eroded within a state of emergency.

At the Democratic Society (Demsoc), we already knew we needed a longer-term, more conversational approach for changes to be planned and delivered with people, and a stronger civic infrastructure to allow this to happen. We are fully engaged in making sure that everyone in Europe – not just the eloquent and the sharp-elbowed – can access those opportunities, and that their voices are heard in a fair balance.

This is where our work together with EIT Climate KIC, called ‘Healthy, Clean Cities’ – Deep Demonstration’, comes to the fore. With 15 of the most ambitious mayors, municipalities and city communities in Europe, we are designing joined-up innovations to unlock wholesale transformation across all city systems – from mobility to waste to energy to health and the built environment.

As a design partner, the Democratic Society is set to bring participative methods into play in order to make sure that changes are made with people at the centre of the process in these 15 European cities, each with its own specific challenges and goals.

Experimentation builds long-term democratic and participatory capacity where we are working 

Our experiments in each place support both grassroots- and government-led efforts to ensure cities are becoming healthy, clean places to live, with methods that allow everyone’s voices to be expressed and heard. This has the underlying goal of building up the long-term democratic and participatory capacity and structures in the places where we’re working. In each city, our Local Connectors invest in localised and long-term efforts to empower residents and civil society. Here, we share some experiences from three cities: Kraków, Vienna and Madrid.

  1. Kraków, Poland

The role of residents in climate action is acknowledged by the city of Kraków as a high priority topic. Our Local Connector, Aleksandra Ziętek, sees the transition to a post-Covid-19 ‘new normal’ as an ”…unexpected experience which should benefit the whole process in the long run”. It is creating opportunities for us to use and build on the city’s existing public participation mechanisms to implement innovative and coherent working methods with communities. “COVID-19 and the resulting lockdown shed a light on the city’s resilience issues,” says Aleksandra, which sparked conversations around how residents use the city – how they travel, work and play – and how this resonates with the existing models and whether they live up to people’s current and future needs.

It also touches upon questions on how residents participate in the city’s life and how we can shape its future: “These issues led us to come up with five potential Kraków missions to pursue, one of them being a ‘flexible and responsive society’ which directly addresses the new circumstances we have experienced,” Aleksandra concluded.

  1. Vienna, Austria

Vienna has only recently added resident participation to its main strategy for sustainable development. Our Local Connector there, Daniela Amann, also sees the opportunity to build on the city’s existing capacities by identifying how participation can be better embedded in the city’s structure to enable governance learning, improved collaboration between city departments and – as a result – better participatory processes.

Daniela explains, “While some city departments have high standards in participation and experiment with innovative actions, others are still taking their first steps in public participation. In particular, city departments whose responsibility include climate action, such as energy, are lacking personal and financial resources to develop strategies to conduct participatory processes.”

Sarah Haas, the City of Vienna’s Deep Demonstrations Programme Manager, explains that: “Decarbonising Vienna – the aim of the Deep Demonstrations programme – is impossible without ensuring a just transition. [Demsoc brings] new perspectives and their years-long expertise in participation and social inclusion.”

  1. Madrid, Spain

Our work in Madrid is moving in two directions:

  1. Focus on existing community initiatives, which Local Connector Juan López-Aranguren explains as: “we want to check how…local initiatives link with each other, how flexible they are and how they could be escalated to a more ecosystemic approach.”
  2. Focus on city government and its needs, which Juan describes as “Sometimes the administration and private sector have really good programmes but they don’t know how to link these resources with [the work done by the] civic society… We can find a lot of creative solutions, research, etc. in informal proposals, such as civic action. Our role is to connect the needs with the responses and facilitate the connection and a good understanding to establish protocols or methodologies.”

One of these is the design of a ‘learning by doing’ methodology called “Communities in Practice” for a group of civic experts working on big issues, such as mobility or zero waste, to take an ecosystem approach to design their response. The city is now looking into how mobility can be reduced by learning from the current pandemic measures, and allowing for more teleworking and community workspace engagement.

Promoting ‘climate neutrality in collaboration’

In these cities and beyond, we are keen to promote ‘climate neutrality in collaboration’ to improve the quality of local projects, increase trust in government institutions and create local jobs and positive economic impacts. Holistic and sustainable changes in these cities will only be achieved if done together and with everyone in mind, with the residents being the ones to gain the most.

Follow the Democratic Society on Twitter and Facebook (@demsoc) to find out more about the project or visit to sign up for our newsletter and stay updated.

Nadja Nickel

Director for Climate

Democratic Society

Nadja Nickel is the Director for Climate of the Democratic Society, Europe’s leading democracy non-for-profit. Previously, Nadja was the Managing Director of WithoutViolence, a non-profit communications and advocacy agency for the social sector. At WithoutViolence, she applied lessons learned from research and from existing behavioral science insights to solutions-focused advocacy on the issue of ending violence against women and children. In past positions at Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), she advised former Federal President Horst Köhler in his role on the UN Secretary General’s High-level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda. Nadja holds an MA in Peace and Conflict Studies from Uppsala University, Sweden.

Aleksandar Brezar

Western Balkans Network Lead/Communications

Democratic Society

Aleksandar Brezar joined the Democratic Society in 2019. His work with the Democratic Society involves finding novel ways of approaching democratic governance and citizen engagement in the Western Balkans and Eastern Partnership areas of Europe, while addressing a variety of key topics, from climate change to European membership perspectives. Coming from a background in media and culture prior to joining Demsoc, Aleksandar worked on projects in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the wider Western Balkans area, with partners including USAID, TI, OSF, the European Commission and British Council.

Solidarity in Times of Scrutiny: Key Learnings for Civil Society Coalitions

9th June 2020 by Eva Gondorová

Presented below are key learnings for civil society coalitions from our Solidarity Playbook pilot case studies, authored by Deborah Doane and Sarah Pugh.  The case studies review best practices, challenges, and lessons learned from three ICSOs’ internal mechanisms and three coalition’s responses to scrutiny and attacks. The key learnings for coalitions focus on best practices and challenges. You can also view the key learnings for international civil society organisations. 

The civil society coalition case studies analysed in Solidarity Playbook pilot case studies show clear patterns of challenges and lessons to consider when working in coalition:


  • Trust – CSOs are, in some contexts, coming together for the first time to act in coalition across thematic sectors. There are differences in approach, agenda, appetite and attitude, and it takes time to overcome those differences and learn to work together. Principles such as ‘one member – one vote’ and ‘everyone contributes according to their capacity’ can help in allowing for organisations of all size and style to feel comfortable within a coalition, and can help to build trust and good working relationships.
  • Clear governance and structures – setting out the protocols, processes, membership criteria and mandate of the coalition helps groups to work together. For example, having clear guidelines on how decisions are made helps to maintain trust.
  • Coordination – information-sharing is useful in and of itself, but it is vastly elevated when there is a coordination function that can synthesise information and identify gaps and opportunities. A dedicated coordination mechanism, whether that entails staff within an independent entity or dedicated staff time from member organisations, drives the work of a coalition forwards. Good coordination can enable bi-lateral connections between members and enable formalised joint work and projects.
  • Common ownership – individual organisations can struggle to feel comfortable signing up to ‘someone else’s coalition’; suspicion and concerns that the work will not align with their own mandate stalls collaboration. Avoiding the language of leadership, and instead working hard to find the common ground and concerns that resonate across organisations can create a sense of common ownership and buy-in that ensure the sustainability of the collaboration.


  • Maintaining collaboration – civil society coalitions have crystallised in the face of direct attacks and restrictions, giving groups something concrete to coordinate around. Maintaining that coordination and collaboration during relatively quieter periods, when there is not a direct and immediate threat to resist, can be difficult. How can coalitions continue to shift between short term priorities of resistance and longer-term priorities for resilience, and ‘plan for peace times’?
  • Opening civic space – civil society is experienced in resisting restrictions and fighting back against scrutiny and attacks; however, it is less clear on how to coordinate a response to opening’ civic space. When a country has been closed for some time and there is a sudden opening for civic action, how can ICSOs coordinate to support civil society in that context, to ensure space remains open and that opportunities are taken?

Eva Gondorová

Project Manager

International Civil Society Centre

Eva coordinates the project Solidarity Action Network (SANE) which aims at strengthening resilience of and solidarity among civil society actors.

Solidarity in Times of Scrutiny: Key Learnings for International Civil Society Organisations

9th June 2020 by Eva Gondorová

Presented below are key learnings for international civil society organisations (ICSOs) from our Solidarity Playbook pilot case studies, authored by Deborah Doane and Sarah Pugh. The case studies review best practices, challenges, and lessons learned from three ICSOs’ internal mechanisms and three coalition’s responses to scrutiny and attacks. The key learnings for ICSOs focus on three layers, The Individual, The Organisation and The System. You can also view the key learnings for civil society coalitions.

Drawing out the common themes from Solidarity Playbook pilot case studies, we see that ICSOs must consider strategies across three linked layers when building their resilience in the face of increasing scrutiny.

  • The Individual – individual staff members and activists need safeguarding and capacity building. This requires:
    • Training in order to better understand the civic space context that they are in;
    • Information about what risks they may face and what protocols have been developed to mitigate those risks;
    • Effective internal communication during times of crisis, to reassure staff and keep them safe;
    • Support and coordination from international offices to national or regional offices.
  • The Organisation – the organisation’s resilience must be strengthened. Strategies for this include:
    • Ensuring compliancy with all relevant legislation to avoid ‘back-door’ attacks to legitimacy and scrutiny over operations;
    • Scenario-planning in order to understand organisational risks, so that contingencies can be mapped out;
    • Ensuring that the infrastructure and resources required are available to enable any necessary contingencies, for example budgeting for rapid legal and lobbyist support;
    • Mapping key stakeholders and investing in engagement, so that the organisation has good relationships with those individuals and groups who can in turn strengthen their resilience and act in solidarity.
  • The System – the systemic resilience of broader civil society, whether that be local, national, regional or international, must be strengthened. Strategies for this could include:
    • Working collectively to create a unified sector voice, and to increase the reputational cost to those seeking to restrict CSOs;
    • Adding a civic space lens or focus to programmatic work, for example by earmarking resources for supporting partners, activists or constituents targeted by restrictions, and factoring in coordination to bring different actors together on this topic;
    • Ensuring that the organisation or sector’s mandate is relevant to society and to people’s needs, in order to build legitimacy and support;
    • Raising awareness of the importance of civil and political space, and of why it should be defended and expanded;
    • Mapping the risks that organisations cannot mitigate in isolation, and working in coalition with others to address those risks, e.g. bank de-risking and ALM measures.

Eva Gondorová

Project Manager

International Civil Society Centre

Eva coordinates the project Solidarity Action Network (SANE) which aims at strengthening resilience of and solidarity among civil society actors.

The Anxiety of the Twenty Twenties: The Quest For Relevance of Civil Society Organisations in a Digital World

29th May 2020 by Karl Steinacker

The roaring 20s are long gone. A century exactly. Todays’ Twenty Twenties add to the already existing anxieties of financial meltdowns, downward social mobility, random violence, unwelcome migration, and global warming that of fear of a virus stricken planet. But this fearful narrative knows a silver lining too: Digitalization. In the absence of a medical cure or preventive immunization, digitalization is regarded as the second best option: telework and video conferencing, virus tracking, and digital health.

Progrom against jews in medeval Europe during the times of “Black Death”
Progrom against jews in medeval Europe during the times of “Black Death”

Well, one might argue that hope is the better option in responding to collective anxieties given that desperation and conspiracy theories around pandemics have in history often ended in outbreaks of barbaric violence. Hope is not to be dismissed but a fundamental feature of continued human existence. Nevertheless, unkept promises and false expectations might exacerbate an already volatile situation. Where does this leave Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) and where lies their relevance in a world of increasing anxieties and digitalization?

Digitalization before Covid-19

In recent years a number of ideas emerged on how digitalization and globalization, as intertwined processes, affect people. Short and sketchy theories were developed, such as on the Globals, Mobals, and Locals[1].

Stratification, as a result of both digitalization and globalization, has produced winners and losers: « losers of the globalization process seek to protect themselves through protectionist measures and through an emphasis on the maintenance of national boundaries and independence. Winners, by contrast, who benefit from the increased competition, support the opening up of the national boundaries and the process of international integration.»

The industrial revolution of the 19th century brought with it the labour movement, the trade unions, and collective bargaining.  The decreasing importance of industrial production in Western Countries, the ascent of a neo-liberal ideologies also helped CSOs to gain importance. These organizations fill the void left behind by a retreating State and a weakened labour movement. Bargaining power was replaced by advocacy while fund raising and private philanthropy took the place of welfare programmes financed by taxes.

The economic consequences of digitalization and neoliberalism have resulted in cultural and political conflict, amplified in digital spaces, whereby one side holds universalistic conceptions of community and advocates individual autonomy while the other emphasizes the right to preserve traditional communities and their moral understandings. In extreme cases this » nativism » combines nationalism and xenophobia. The antagonism between winners and losers of globalization has been described as a conflict between integration and demarcation.

Some scholars suggest that digitalization and globalization lead to a dual labor market: one consisting of insiders and outsiders. Insiders have long-term contracts and secure well-paying jobs; they support status quo. Outsiders, who are unemployed or in temporary work, form of the basis of populist reaction[2]. The social problems of the gig economy have been widely described and researched[3]. The gig economy is the frontline in the battle for the future of industrial relations. It is about the ability of employees to retain rights and benefits for themselves and their families. And there is little hope that advocacy[4] can do the trick: The gig economy needs new power relationships that allow for effective collective bargaining.

In the current Covid-19 crisis new cleavages have been observed between the (privileged) “Remotes” and the more disadvantaged “Essentials, Unpaid, and Forgotten”[5]. In France, the trade unions launched a public debate on the perceived injustice of white collar workers allowed to earn income by distancing themselves from potential infection, while blue collar workers are still called to the shop floor risking their health[6].

In short, at the outset of the 2020s, digitalization often drives discontent and resentment linked to modernization and globalization. It feeds anxieties. In fact, some analysts go even further and interpret the entire Covid-19 response policies in western countries as guided by the interest of an aging electorate imposing an economic lock-down policy to the detriment of younger and economically active segments of society and their children, for their own physical protection and channel resources into the build-up of extended health sector capacities for groups at risk, which means mainly for themselves[7].


20th Century Flashback

There have been times of collective anxiety and conflict before. And while we should not overstate the gravity of problems of our generation, such as a pandemic, an economic downturn and a serious ecological crisis, it might help to look back. Let’s remind ourselves that the 20th century wasn’t spared of crisis situations either and offers clues for today and the future. First, during that period of time, technological innovation continued and the industrial revolution wasn’t reversed despite all differences in ideology and governance. It was with regard to the latter, that major differences occurred: On the one hand, authoritarian and violent models that propagated class struggle, racism, and social Darwinism pitching, on the other hand, against capitalist expansion, a new deal and the idea of the welfare state, structural exploitation through markets, and social engineering that maintained democratic and participatory discourses. This in turn allowed for the inclusion of women and social minorities into the mainstream of socio-economic development.

It is important to stress that both 20th century solutions were State driven. It is the “strong State and big Government” that resolves anxiety and conflict weighing on the collective mind of societies.


Why people-centred digitalization?

If the Covid-19 pandemic is the defining moment of a new era of anxiety that will become the 2020s, then CSOs are facing a number of serious challenges: First and foremost, anxiety breeds the desire for a “strong State” which might be tempted to curtail the space for CSOs but not necessarily. Secondly, CSOs need to be aware that digitalization and globalization is not in all cases perceived positively by those marginalized groups they aim to serve. To the contrary, ICSOs may even be seen as part of the “integration camp”, i.e. experience problems of legitimacy, acceptance, and trust.

While it may be true that CSOs have subscribed to digital rights, ethical standards and alike, digitalization can’t be a purpose in itself but must take into account the real and perceived consequences it has on the people for which CSOs advocate, serve and seek to empower. Operationalizing a people-centred approach to digitalization and globalization is the only way to give credence to the universal principles driving the work of CSOs. They must address power imbalances in the digital space and try to create bargaining power. Advocacy that relies on the funds of the philanthropic power holders is unlikely to be successful. Hence, the digitalization efforts of CSOs should focus on advocating for, serving and empowering people. CSOs have an obligation to fight marginalization caused by digitalization. Digital tools have to serve the socio-economic inclusion and self-determination of otherwise disadvantaged and disenfranchised strata of the population. CSOs cannot accept a gig economy that is disempowering and a digital space where the individual is reduced to a digital consumer and/or worker rather than having the attributes of a cyber citizen.


Sectoral Issues: Covid-19 Response and Digital Health

The Covid-19 crisis is often cited as a water shed, showcasing the benefits and, thus, accelerating the digital transformation of our societies. That can only be true if CSOs succeed in operationalizing people-centred digitalization strategies.

Given the critical public health situation most countries are currently experiencing, it seems fitting to choose an aspect of digital health to explain what is meant in practical terms by people-centred digitalization. Well before the Covid-19 crisis, the promotion started of a “Consumer-centric Health Care System”: Rather than the inpatient, the outpatient setting will become the optimal medium of care. One’s home will become an important new location of care, and virtual care will broaden access to healthcare in rural areas, especially in emerging economies[8]. When the Covid-19 crisis hit the Italian town of Bergamo earlier this year, local doctors published an open letter stating:

“The example shows that leveraging innovation in digital health may lead to different outcomes:  The term consumer hints towards a concept that regards health care as a commodity, part of a value chain that delivers revenue while the open letter talks about patients and health workers. In the end terminology means little as long as it is understood that only digital health delivered in the framework of universal health care is empowering.« This disaster could be averted only by massive deployment of outreach services. Pandemic solutions are required for the entire population, not only for hospitals. Home care and mobile clinics avoid unnecessary movements and release pressure from hospitals … This approach would limit hospitalization to a focused target of disease severity, thereby decreasing contagion, protecting patients and health care workers, and minimizing consumption of protective equipment … This outbreak is more than an intensive care phenomenon, rather it is a public health and humanitarian crisis. It requires social scientists, epidemiologists, experts in logistics, psychologists, and social workers. We urgently need humanitarian agencies who recognize the importance of local engagement.[9]

The example shows that leveraging innovation in digital health may lead to different outcomes:  The term consumer hints towards a concept that regards health care as a commodity, part of a value chain that delivers revenue while the open letter talks about patients and health workers. In the end terminology means little as long as it is understood that only digital health delivered in the framework of universal health care is empowering.

And what applies to digital health is equally valid for other sectors, such as eLearning, digital identity, the digital labour market, etc., where people-centred approaches aim to empower many rather than generating revenues for few.


[2] Mayer, Nonna, Allison Rovny, Jan Rovny and Nicolas Sauger. 2015. “Outsiderness, Social Class, and Votes in the 2014 European Elections.” Revue européenne des sciences sociales 1(53)

[3] and

[4] Check for global principles for fair work in the platform economy






Karl Steinacker

Digital Advisor

International Civil Society Centre

Karl joined the Centre in June 2019 after a professional career in institutions of German technical co-operation and as humanitarian manager in the United Nations. He spent years in conflict zones, such as the Gaza Strip, the Great Lakes region in Central Africa, and in the Sahel. He led multi-sectoral teams on data management, refugee registration and biometrics. At the ICS Centre he will work pro bono on issues relating to artificial intelligence, digital transformation, identity and trust as well as their impact on civil society in general and ICSOs in particular. Karl, born in 1960 in Germany, is a graduate of the Political Science faculty of the Free University of Berlin and studied Public International Law at Cambridge University.

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. 


Deborah Doane



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.

COVID-19 puts the spotlight on the relevance and effectiveness of civil society 

20th May 2020 by Charles Kojo Vandyck

Since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the world has witnessed a tumultuous couple of months. This pandemic has changed in diverse ways relations and interactions among community citizens and between citizens and institutions. Most countries have been at the mercy of this rampaging pandemic, and a key sector that has been put in the spotlight is civil society. 

It is important to state that the intrinsic value of civil society is attributed to its mission and power to mobilise citizens and communities to support social causes. COVID-19 has presented an existential threat to civil society’s relevance and legitimacy. These are vital principles that enable the sector to find expression, meaning and impact. 

There have been several discussions and conversations on various virtual platforms about the response of civil society to the COVID-19 pandemic in terms of adaptation of operations but also how effectively the sector is engaging with communities. The question that needs to be interrogated is, to what extent is civil society representative, responsive, collaborative, resilient and influential? And how do these elements relate to the sector’s effectiveness?


There are a serious of questions that need reflection and consideration as civil society seeks to ensure that representation brings tangible benefits to communities in these difficult times. They include, but are not limited to:

  • Has civil society responded to the crisis in a way that shows that it is representing the interest of communities? 
  • To what extent has civil society been able to “listen” to communities that it represents and integrate these engagements and ensure they are reflected in initiatives, programmes, and projects to respond to the needs of these communities? 
  • What does representation mean in a pandemic situation? 
  • Is representation only about numbers and metrics? Does it go beyond the notion that civil society gives voice? 
  • And what does it mean to give voice to marginalised groups within a pandemic scenario? 
  • Can we continue to do business as usual advocacy, or we need to think like “there is no box” and create new engagement tactics to navigate this uncertain future?
  • What are the new forms and strategies for building solidarity that we need to employ? 

While reflecting on these questions, it will be pertinent to recognise that civil society as a sector encompasses a wide range of actors. 

Whereas, diversity should have been synonymous with strong representation power, the lack of clear and consensual standards and mechanisms by which citizens can authorise representation and ensure accountability and responsiveness constitutes a significant impediment to the sector’s representativeness.


Several actors have argued that in the first two months when the pandemic garnered global attention, civil society was in a “coma” like state. The sector was clearly at a loss as to how to react, help and engage with its various partners and communities. Even though projects implemented by civil society usually have a component of risk management, the ongoing pandemic can be described as a black swan, a metaphor that often describes an event that comes as a surprise has a significant effect.

Admittedly, some projects may have included in their risk assessment the possibility of a local epidemic outbreak as a major risk that could affect project outcomes. However, it would be highly unlikely that project designs considered the possibility of a global pandemic and mitigation strategies to respond to it. 

Therefore, it has become apparent that civil society must develop a collaborative to conduct scenario analysis and emergency response planning quickly. It also appears that civil society as a sector has a lot to learn. Therefore, there is a need to ensure that there are comprehensive learnings and documentation of the current COVID-19 responses to guide more effective and responsive future interventions in crises. 


COVID-19 has demonstrated that pockets of excellence and passionate individual efforts are welcome but are not enough. The pandemic has shown that the greatest possibility for change will be civil society’s collective efforts. Civil society is being challenged to elevate its ways of working and operational strategies. Civil society must deepen its partnerships and work more intimately beyond thematic and cluster interests.

The challenge is for social justice, humanitarian, and environmental groups to work together in a seamless and coordinated way to leave no one behind. Indeed, this is a time for a cohesive and coordinated response to the issues that affect humanity. Civil society should not approach issues in an insular manner, but work collectively using individual strengths, with mutual respect and most importantly bringing communities along, ensuring they are at the forefront of the changes that need to happen. This is the season to develop cross-sector innovative partnerships with government and the private sector that stretch beyond civil society’s inner circles. 


Civil society can achieve the above milestones if the sector itself is resilient. To do so, means groupings in both organic and organised forms are strong and robust. This includes having the capability to adapt quickly to emergencies, sustain their causes and more pertinently the “engine” for achieving these social outcomes. Therefore, the issue of financial and non-financial resources becomes critical. The challenge is for civil society especially in the global south to explore different avenues for mobilising funding and expertise, reducing the dependence on external aid but looking internally, building capacities to access financing from domestic communities. This would help to build sustained resilience, not resilience to implement projects but resilience to sustain social change. 


Positively, civil society continues to influence major social and policy changes in communities around the world. However, COVID-19, and the impacts arising from the virus, challenge civil society to scale up its influence and ability to make a significant dent on reducing poverty and inequality in communities. It has become crystal clear that as a sector, civil society cannot achieve major transformations working alone. 

For civil society to contribute significantly to the achievement of the sustainable development goals and to ensure that no one is left behind, the sector must engage in a robust, respectful and collaborative manner with governments, the private sector, traditional communities, religious bodies and family associations. 

Civil society’s ability to act as a catalyst and as a platform for citizens to share their views is vital. The sector must ensure that its influence shapes the culture of governance, democratisation, and the promotion of basic freedoms. Civil society’s influence must extend beyond policy prescriptions, open letters, advocacy campaigns and reports to real, relevant, and tangible progress, especially of marginalised communities. 

Opportunity in Uncertainty

History has shown us that within times of uncertainty; there is always opportunity. These are challenging times, but it also presents an opportunity for civil society to harness its years of experience of organising, enabling community engagement, holding government and stakeholders accountable to step up to the current challenges. Civil society must respond to this “new normal” to ensure that beyond rhetoric, it leverages its assets, including its representative and responsiveness nature, collaborative potential, resilience, and influence. This is the time for civil society to cement its position as an indispensable catalyst for sustained social change and community-led action. 


Charles Kojo Vandyck

Head, Capacity Development Unit

West Africa Civil Society Institute

The Author, Charles Kojo Vandyck is West Africa Civil Society Institute’s Head, Capacity Development Unit

Populism and Civic Engagement: Engaging citizens to strengthen Europe’s democratic foundations

14th May 2020 by Bernardo Jurema

Ahead of an upcoming update to our 2019 report on ‘Civil Society Innovation and Populism in a Digital Era’, the Centre has invited guest blogs from new contributors we have heard from about their interesting initiatives to respond to the challenges posed by populism. Since last year, The Democratic Society has been involved in the ‘Populism and Civic Engagement (PaCE)’ project running citizen ‘democracy labs’ across Europe. We asked Bernardo Jurema, Research & Project Officer, to tell us more about this experience so far.

A project to understand populist movements across Europe

The ‘Populism and Civic Engagement (PaCE)’ project, a Horizon 2020 project funded by the European Commission, involves us at the Democratic Society and eight other partners across Europe. We are aiming to understand different aspects of populist movements, identify and build upon lessons from positive examples of connecting with citizens, and through this play a part in constructing a firmer democratic and institutional foundation for Europe.

Over the last decade in Europe, particularly after the 2008 financial crisis, there has been a rise of political forces loosely labeled as “populist,” that question the prevailing liberal order of the last 40 years. PaCE intends to respond to the illiberal and un- or anti-democratic tendencies of these populist movements.

By involving people’s voices throughout the project, especially those of minorities and under-represented groups, in a transparent, open and welcoming way, PaCE aims to strengthen our research process and legitimise our results.

Putting dialogue and ‘democracy labs’ at the centre

The polarisation of societies across Europe at the root of populism — particularly between perceived “elites” and an imagined “ordinary people” – makes the need for a structured process for dialogue between decision-makers, researchers and the public especially necessary. PaCE has therefore put dialogue at the centre of our actions, recognising the general public and civil society actors as key interlocutors with legitimate views, concerns and claims that will benefit our research.

These dialogue forums, our ‘democracy labs’, seek to overcome the distance, whether actual or imagined, between the general public and the economic, political and intellectual elites that fuel populist movements. Through them, we aim to better understand how citizens’ attitudes towards democracy are shaped, how they access and evaluate which information they can trust, and how this process influences their voting decisions.

Local civil society organisations (CSOs) are key partners for our labs because of the role they play within local communities. As multipliers, they reach specific target audiences, and can also incorporate the research findings into their own work aiming at strengthening democracy across Europe.

The labs will take place in several European countries to both complement and disseminate our research findings. We have held two so far: one with under-represented members of the public in Messina, Italy, and one in Brussels, Belgium, with stakeholders from EU institutions.

Our first democracy lab with members of the public in Messina, Sicily, Italy

The last few decades in Italy has seen a decline in party-based representation, a rise in populist protest movements, and new media dynamics leading to personalisation and anti-intellectualism. Former Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni has explained that the traditional political parties have failed to address citizens’ concerns whilst populist parties are seen as posing the “right questions”.

Since 2017, the island of Sicily has been governed by the Diventerà Bellissima party, a regional affiliate of the Brothers of Italy (FdI), the national party seen as the main heir to the Italian neo-fascist conservative movement. Messina, the third largest city on Sicily, was therefore a particularly interesting location for our first citizen democracy lab.

Our lab took place in the city’s public library, a neutral meeting space for participants of all backgrounds and affiliations, in September 2019. Our two local civil society partners – Associazione Ionio Messina and Startup Messina – brought in their language skills and local expertise to help ensure representative participation, reduce the barriers to civic engagement and take ownership of the process beyond the lab itself.

Local participants were of different age groups and social backgrounds. One woman found the  experience ‘very significant and motivating’: “ …I got the chance to talk with people I didn’t know before, of which I have absolutely no idea about their political opinions. With them, I have argued about relevant topics, such as conscious approach to voting….These meetings should be planned more often, involving more people…it would be nice to be able to discuss our ideas with many others”.

Our second lab with EU policymakers in Brussels, Belgium

In contrast to Messina, our Brussels lab was attended by professionals already working on democracy issues, and included policymakers and EU staff, as part of the 2019 European Public Communication Conference (EuroPCOM). The session was a real-time simulation of citizen participation around the question of how we can make our democracy stronger, with our specific focus on: ‘what needs to be done to ensure informed voting?’

The discussion revolved around innovative new forms of citizen engagement to address populism in the EU, the need to include emotions and values in our communication, and the responsibilities inherent to citizenship.

The main takeaways that emerged from this lab were the importance of:

  • access to neutral, objective, non-partisan information,
  • tackling disinformation and prioritising transparency,
  • fostering better relations between citizens and politicians, and
  • focusing on broader education that includes critical thinking and media literacy.

Join our upcoming labs!

With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we have moved the next upcoming democracy labs across Europe online. This gives us the opportunity to bring stakeholders from different countries together to discuss the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak based on the varied governmental response measures and strategies experienced across the continent.

With these upcoming labs, we will continue to engage with local CSOs to learn and put into practice innovative ways to engage with citizens. The report of each event will be shared publicly, and we also plan to present our broader findings at events and conferences to inform wider research efforts.

Local CSOs from across Europe interested in taking part or hosting one of our online labs can contact me at:

Find out more about the project on Twitter and Facebook @popandce, or visit to sign up for our newsletter and stay updated on research developments.

Bernardo Jurema

Research & Project Officer - Populism and Civic Engagement (PaCE)

The Democratic Society

Bernardo Jurema is the Research & Project Officer (PaCE) at The Democratic Society. Previously, he worked at the International Crisis Group in Guatemala and Brussels, and with other non-governmental organisations in Brazil.

Sharing is caring: #SolidarityPlaybook case studies

12th May 2020 by Thomas Howie

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Learn how civil society organisations and coalitions are developing resilience and showing solidarity in response to undue scrutiny and clampdowns.

Producer: Julia Pazos

Solidarity Playbook: Discover and Learn from our Pilot Case Studies –…book-case-studies/
Solidarity Action Netowrk (SANE) –

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Thomas Howie

Communications Manager

International Civil Society Centre

Thomas joined the Centre in June 2017 as the Communications Coordinator. He is responsible for developing and implementing the Centre’s global communication strategy, as well as the Disrupt & Innovate platform – a place for civil society professionals and activists to discuss current innovations and future trends in the civil society sector. Prior to the Centre, Thomas worked for 5 years in the European Parliament firstly as the Digital and Social Media Coordinator for the Socialists and Democrats Group in the European Parliament, and then, after the 2014 European elections, for Jude Kirton-Darling and Paul Brannen as Head of Communications, where he worked on issues such as the EU-US trade deal, issues around Brexit and as a specialist on the Petitions Committee. Thomas graduated from Bristol University with BSci in Geographical Sciences and holds an MA in Peace Studies from the University of Bradford, where he completed research into the role of civil society in the post war peace settlement in northern Uganda.

The Opportunity

7th May 2020 by Wolfgang Jamann

This article, by our Executive Director, is part of a collection of think-pieces by civil society leaders called “The Future of Civil Society Organisations” co-ordinated by International Council of Voluntary Agencies and the International Civil Society Centre, with a foreword by their respective Executive Directors. The writings focus on current challenges and opportunities brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. They are conversation starters over the transformations we want to see in society, and the humanitarian, social justice and environmental sector.

The Future of Civil Society Organisations (PDF)


In his book ‘The Great Leveller‘, the historian Walter Scheidel analyses how inequality in societies around the world has continuously, since the stone ages, worsened. His compelling piece describes the only three scenarios which have reduced inequalities significantly: wars, natural catastrophes and pandemics.

Scheidel is cautious in saying that a historical analysis does not predict the future. And frankly, reading his book in 2019 did not inspire hope and confidence for a concerned reader.

In April 2020, six weeks into the Corona pandemic, this feels different. While we’re still grappling with the painful comprehension and immediate management of the situation, our thoughts around a desired future start moving into the foreground. Doing away with inequalities, eliminating the gap between haves and have-nots and creating perspectives for people with lesser opportunities, is definitely part of that desired future.

Inequality is just one of the global injustices we want to overcome. Each of us, irrespective of organisational mandates, could name half a dozen threats to global justice – from ruthless wars to a broken food system, from the doom of climate change to political oppression. Over the past years, it has been painful, slow, sometimes seemingly hopeless to move forward on such big themes. And now? Is there a sudden opportunity to overcome these and heal the broken systems?

Well, certainly not by magic nor quickly. But the current crisis has shown previously unimaginable actions and reactions, and might as well be a watershed unfreezing of what we think is possible and not. Do we dare to articulate, with a stronger voice and determination, the transformations we want to see in the global societies?

Futurists and foresighters are currently looking at weak and strong signals on the post-Coronavirus situation. The most unlikely scenario will be ‘business as before’, once a solution – vaccine or treatment – is found. The biggest questions appear around so-called ‘systems changes’. Is the globalist, capitalist, financial and political system good enough in times of increasing global challenges? Where will our societies drift – back into nationalist and inward-looking behaviours, or forward towards global solidarity, interconnected actions and multilateral governance? And how will the current experience affect our dealing with ‘the other’ large global crisis around climate change?

Highly relevant to these future systems will be the role of organised civil society, whether it is aid, social discourse, political decision-making or framing the narratives that hold our societies together. We should not let others define the future of the values and systems that matter for civil society around the world.

Civil society’s most significant contribution to overcoming this crisis will be working in collaboration, focusing on solidarity and empathy. The humanistic values that bind us, and the societies we work in, demand that we are forward-looking and strategic in our actions, irrespective of the high operational pressures out there. Putting people, unorganised and organised civil society at the centre of post-Coronavirus planning is the task we need to unite behind and show collective leadership.

But we need more. To start with, the vision of a just and healthy planet, as articulated in the Sustainable Development Goals need refreshing. Following on from that, all major political and societal decisions need to be guided by that vision, by the ambition for a just society and clean environment.  

Here are some ideas. What if:

– People in the service sector, the formal and informal gig economy, are paid a living wage;

– Mass mobility is drastically reduced in lieu of ecologically sustainable ways to meet and communicate;

– Taxation is directed towards a stronger common good, and tax avoidance loop-holes closed and tax evasion penalties are enforced with lasting consequence;

– Reformed multilateral crisis mechanisms effectively ceasing wars and sanctioning crimes against humanity;

– Production and consumption patterns support local economies, protect the environment and foster healthy diets;

– Inclusion of the ‘bottom billion’ in digitalisation, job creation and public health care becomes a priority for development ambitions;

– Human rights principles and civic freedom move back into the centre of societal values discussions?

The list can be expanded. We need the courage and the determination not to waste this crisis. Only then, can we bring people together as a society that shows solidarity and cohesiveness in the current crisis and goes beyond the fragmentations and antagonisms that have characterised the past years. 

Wolfgang Jamann

Executive Director

International Civil Society Centre

Dr. Wolfgang Jamann is Executive Director of the International Civil Society Centre. Until January 2018 he was Secretary General and CEO of CARE International (Geneva). Before that he led NGO Deutsche Welthungerhilfe and the Alliance 2015, a partnership of 7 European aid organisations. From 2004-2009 he was CEO & Board member of CARE Deutschland-Luxemburg and President of the CARE Foundation. Previously, he worked for World Vision International as a regional representative in East Africa (Kenya) & Head of Humanitarian Assistance at WV Germany. After his Ph.D. dissertation in 1990 he started his career in development work at the German Foundation for International Development, later for the UNDP in Zambia. As a researcher and academic, he has published books and articles on East & Southeast Asia contributing to international studies on complex humanitarian emergencies and conflict management.