Posts with the tag
“civic space”

Anticipate, Adapt, Act: Shaping a resilient future for civil society

13th February 2024 by Mareyah Bhatti, Eva Gondor, Patricia Mugenzi

It is widely understood that the civil society sector faces undue restrictions and threats to its operating space globally. To help strengthen the capacity of civil society actors, we need to develop the ability to anticipate the future and act in a proactive manner to shape the future. The International Civil Society Centre and Forum for the Future recently collaborated on this issue at the International Civic Forum (ICF) 2023, a two-day workshop in Brussels joined by 40 actors from across the civil society sector. 



How do civil society organisations (CSOs) accustomed to fire-fighting crises imagine more adaptative and agile ways of preparedness and planning?

In mid-2023, we joined efforts to design a replicable methodology that offered a creative and engaging way to use future stories and scenarios leading to 2034. The purpose of this was to help CSOs design current and future strategic plans and inform their practices. The objectives offered participants a way to explore a range of possible futures and identify potential action areas to navigate those varied futures on three distinct levels: as individuals, organisations, and as a sector. We hoped to use the ICF 2023 to test the methodology and receive feedback on how it can be developed to support future planning for CSOs. 

The sessions took the attendees on a journey… first immersing them in the present and exploring current trends, then travelling to alternative possible futures based on the set of trends, and finally bridging the gap between possible futures and their actions, resources and mindsets. While the workshop surfaced several sectoral actions, the sessions were designed to ensure a focus on the attendees present and their specific agency and role in driving the change needed.

How could they as individuals in their respective roles contribute to their organisation’s resilience? And how could their organisation work with others to reduce sector-wide vulnerability? 

We designed the sessions to be generative spaces that led the group to bring their experience and expertise while stretching beyond what exists in the present and imagining more ambitious (yet tangible) actions for possible futures. 

“As CSOs, we need to get used to ‘futurisingas this informs current actions and helps us to avoid ‘routinising’.ICF participant


The participants produced a range of ideas at the sectoral, organisational, and individual levels that we summarised below:

Sector-wide actions

  1. We need to empower and involve local communities

Anticipation is about participation and if we want to build a better future, we need to listen to local communities, invest in community relations, and change approaches to collaboration. Local partners need to be involved from the beginning of processes; communities need to be turned into co-investors and co-designers rather than receivers. 

  1. The language we use needs to shift to remove barriers to involvement

As raised by a participant and echoed by many around the room, the language around development is “colonial-centric”. It is often in English, French, or Spanish and filled with jargon that can be difficult to interact with. How can we expect to involve people in decision-making and hear their voices, if the language or medium of conduct is inherently exclusionary? For communities – and the youth in particular – to be deeply involved, we need to think about access to such spaces and especially the language we use.

  1. We need to apply a more holistic approach and deepen collaboration on intersectional problems

The challenges we face in the civil society sector are complex and interconnected, and therefore require intersectional approaches. Rather than approaching challenges in isolation, we can use a similar concept to the “whole child approach” or “one health approach” to recognise intersectional identities, needs, and experience.

  1. We need to craft futures across the civil society sector and together with other sectors

Foresight needs to be ‘humanised’ and made approachable. It was viewed by many as a key skill to prepare for the future, and therefore needs to be done by a wider range of stakeholders. Thinking about the future is inherently a human act. Instead of approaching uncertainty with the usual sense of fear, foresight allows us to plan and stress test approaches against potential futures in a more informed manner. 

The process led to some aha’ moments for me which will have a significant impact on my planning.” ICF participant

Organisational actions

The participants worked in pairs or peer groups to draft tangible organisational plans they can contribute to. The ideas revolved around two aspects:

  • Strengthening participation and inclusiveness in decision-making processes International and local CSOs need to invest more into co-creation, reflection, and exploration of alternatives with partners and communities.
  • Building foresight capacities and applying foresight within organisational activities
    The participants left motivated to involve their colleagues, partners, and allies in further collaborative foresight processes and exercises.

Individual actions

Building foresight capacities and their application were further underlined in concrete individual actions that the participants expressed their interest in developing such as:

  • Promoting and prioritizing knowledge sharing about foresight to broaden perspectives
  • Planning a foresight exercise for colleagues to strengthen organisational capacities 
  • Integrating futures thinking into existing processes and upcoming strategies

The individual actions identified during the ICF 2023 underscore the importance of fostering foresight at multiple levels — empowering local communities, shifting organisational language, and humanizing foresight for broader stakeholder engagement to ensure plans, projects, and strategies reflect our hopes for the future.

“Futures thinking is a systemic process and should be given due attention.


So, what does this mean? 

Being a systemic process, futures thinking should be approached comprehensively, considering all interconnected aspects. In essence, it means recognising the need for a thorough strategy when addressing global challenges in the civil society sector. By practicing futures thinking, we take a proactive stance in tackling the complex issues faced by the sector, while fostering resilience, collaboration, and inclusivity. It is about developing the capacity to not only monitor trends but also to envision, through a participatory approach, how they might unfold providing us with a powerful tool to break away from conventional crisis management practices. Futures thinking urges us to be strategic, forward-looking, and adaptable in our approach, ensuring a more effective response to the evolving landscape of the civil society sector. 


Find out more 

The ICF 2023 was part of a wider three-year initiative “Anticipating futures for civil society operating space (2022 – 2025) led by the International Civil Society Centre. The initiative aims to strengthen anticipatory capacities and future readiness of civil society professionals who are working to defend and expand civic and civil society operating space. Check out this website to find further information and resources from this initiative and possibilities of involvement. 


Mareyah Bhatti

Change Designer

Forum for the Future

Mareyah is a Change Designer at Forum for the Future, with an academic background in medical geography and personal passion for food systems and their cultural significance. She works closely in the Food and Futures teams at Forum, managing and delivering their programmes. She was recently seconded to Singapore for the 'Protein Challenge Southeast Asia,' a runner-up for the esteemed Food Planet Prize. Beyond this, Mareyah contributes to Forum’s Future Centre platform as an editor, identifying emerging signals and authoring blogs on topics from the future of protein to human rights in the fashion supply chain.

Eva Gondor

Senior Project Manager

International Civil Society Centre

Eva leads on the Centre's civic space work - the Solidarity Action Network (SANE) aimed at strengthening resilience of and solidarity among civil society actors, and the International Civic Forum (ICF), our annual civic space platform to network and identify opportunities for collaboration. Prior to joining the Centre she worked at the Robert Bosch Stiftung (Foundation) in Stuttgart where she managed the foundation’s projects focusing on civil society and governance in Turkey, the Western Balkans, and North Africa.

Patricia Mugenzi

Strategic Foresight

International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC)

Patricia is the coordinator for Strategic foresight (Africa Region) at the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC). She helps IFRC’s National societies explore possible futures to address upcoming challenges. Before joining the IFRC, Patricia served in various positions in both international and governmental organisations, including the Government of Quebec. In this role, she provided invaluable insights and guidance on geopolitical matters, playing a pivotal role in shaping government policies and strategies.

Global Perspectives 2023 – Moments of Truth 

22nd November 2023 by Miriam Niehaus

Prolonged humanitarian crises, the rise of generative artificial intelligence, the use of disinformation to polarise societies and manipulate elections, the suppression of civil society from state and non-state actors and decreasing funding… are just a few of the ever-growing challenges that social justice, humanitarian, and development organisations must contend with. As progressive and rights-based civil society organisations – from local to international level – are grappling with these crises of the past few years, the International Civil Society Centre once again had the honour of curating our yearly conference, Global Perspectives on these topics. “Global Perspectives – Moments of Truth” happened on 9 November and brought together hundreds of online participants across five different sessions to not just ponder these challenges but provide concrete examples and explore ideas on how we can collaboratively tackle them.  

Though each session was independently curated, three overarching themes emerged. 

The Future of Civic Space is Now
Anticipating the factors that will constrict our civic space a decade from now demands our attention today. Civic Space has been in decline and is likely to continue on this trajectory. Are we adequately addressing the issues that will likely shape our societies in the next decade, impacting our civic engagement? In the session titled “Learn From and Engage on Futures Scenarios for Civic Space” participants learned about the outcomes of the Centre’s “A History of Civic Space 2024-2034”, exercise, where representatives from 15 civil society organisations collaborated to develop possible future scenarios for civic space. Session participants engaged in the scenarios and identified actionable steps to either advance or prevent undesirable outcomes. For example, a likely scenario of artificial intelligence (AI) first enabling a lot of good work at scale and then backfiring on civil society as “obstacles to progress”, highlighted the urgency to get into the AI game now. Later in the day at the “Digital Dialogue – AI: Solution or Threat to Mis-/Disinformation?” drove the point home: two scholars Liz Orembo from Research ICT Africa and Admire Mare from the University of Johannesburg, called on civil society organisations to address AI now, as governance advocates, watchdogs, as well as helping to increase media literacy. This is especially needed as there are a number of key elections coming up next year where we will likely see sophisticated disinformation campaigns. Henry Parker from Logically, informed us that there is a lot of potential to use AI to identify disinformation campaigns and reprimand the actors responsible. During “A Sector Conversation”, Stéphane Duguin from CyberPeace Institute warned us that we need to create a comparable countermodel if we wish to increase our capacity to oppose disinformation campaigns. Read their approach to responsible use of artificial intelligence here and watch this space as we are launching our Sector Guidance on Mis-, Dis-, and Mal-information: Insights and Foresights in early 2024.    

Representation Matters
Two sessions, “The Truth is in the Telling” and “Exploring Personal Realities (of Marginalisation)”, delved into the importance of representation. Insights from individuals working with and identifying as members of marginalised communities underscored the need for more direct dialogue with those in power. Nana Afadzinu from WACSI emphasised in “A Sector Conversation” the need for introspection and acknowledgement of systemic inequity. Festus Odingo from the SDG Kenya Forum emphasised the significance of partnerships as a key force for change, emphasising how they may broaden the scope and effect of community-based initiatives. Representation of course also happens through communication pieces – donor reports, flyers, fundraising advertisements and much more. Undeniably, communication about Global North-financed Global South projects has been a big part of manifesting white saviourism and entrenching power imbalances. By now, several organisations have begun to examine this reality and make changes. The Ethical Story Telling Guideline, a toolkit that PATH and Metro Group DRC contributed to, was presented by the speakers. It can assist companies in determining how to, for instance, become more ethical by making concrete adjustments to the planning process. Communication audits, such as the ones conducted every two years by CARE International, can be useful in holding teams accountable and providing incentives for improvement. As part of its bottom-up strategy to alter various communication channels, CARE has made significant efforts to maximise informed consent and minimise unconscious bias. Yet, there are still incredibly difficult dilemmas when organisations must weigh communication subjects’ agency against their safety, for example when portraying female CSO workers in Afghanistan. The emphasis is on respect. A key takeaway from our sessions is to aim to do no harm but failing forward is inevitable as we push one another to improve and recognise ethical storytelling as a fundamental  component of power shifts within the industry. 

Weathering a Perfect Storm
Our speakers highlighted this year a shrinking civic space, humanitarian crises piling up and worsening, colonial structures still fostering inequity, and growing cybercrime and disinformation adding to the complexity. All of this is happening in the face of a challenging global economy with a sharp decline for our causes. Are we experiencing a perfect storm? Yet, for most in the sector, there is a firm resolve to plough on despite difficult circumstances. There is no alternative. It has been inspiring to see among others, leaders from ICVA, CIVICUS, WACSI and the CyberPeace Institute sharing resources, knowledge and honest invitations to collaborate more, helping each other to overcome our deficiencies and capitalise on our respective expertise and strengths.  

To continue surviving the storm, the International Civil Society Centre will keep bringing attention to the incredible innovations that are being developed in the field. As Mirela Shuteriqi from ICVA said in her closing statement, we must also transform ourselves. We must encourage a culture and bring about changes at the UN level, using this as a chance to collaborate and tackle social justice issues. We remain dedicated to facilitating dialogue, sharing innovations, and fostering collaboration within the sector. It is through collective determination, thoughtful introspection, and ethical storytelling that we can face the challenges that lay ahead, transform ourselves, and forge a path towards a more just and equitable future. The journey is ongoing, but together, as a united force, we embark on it with unwavering resolve. 


Special thanks to all our speakers – Jennifer Abomnger, Nana Afadzinu, Stéphane Duguin, Patrick Gathara, Arnold Gekonge, Eva Gondor, Heather Hutchings, Wolfgang Jamann, Lysa John, Hussam Joudah, Admire Mare, Shalini Moodley, Patricia Mugenzi, Levis Nderitu, Nana Nwachukwu, Festus Odingo, Elizabeth Orembo, Henry Parker, Neha Rayamajhi, Mirela Shuteriqi, Clare Spurrell, David Verga, and Rachel Wilkinson.



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Miriam Niehaus

Head of Programmes

International Civil Society Centre

Miriam leads the Centre’s programmes. She started at the Centre as Executive Assistant in 2014 and then, as Project Manager, developed and implemented the Centre’s projects on civic space between 2016 and 2019. Prior to joining the Centre Miriam worked for VSO International and GIZ in the Palestinian Territories. She holds a BA in Islamic Studies and Social Anthropology from the University of Freiburg and an MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies.

Discover the ‘Anticipating Futures for Civil Society Operating Space’ report 

10th November 2022 by Eva Gondor

This report contributes to the Centre’s multi-year initiative Anticipating Futures for Civil Society Operating Space to strengthen the anticipatory capacities and future readiness of civil society professionals who are working to defend civic and civil society operating space. It is intended to provide a basis for further activities, especially in identifying gaps that require collective sector commitment. 

The report is the outcome of an exercise to map the current landscape: the issues impacting civic space, the strengths and weaknesses of civil society organisations’ (CSOs) responses and their reflections. 

Download Report

Eva Gondor

Senior Project Manager

International Civil Society Centre

Eva leads on the Centre's civic space work - the Solidarity Action Network (SANE) aimed at strengthening resilience of and solidarity among civil society actors, and the International Civic Forum (ICF), our annual civic space platform to network and identify opportunities for collaboration. Prior to joining the Centre she worked at the Robert Bosch Stiftung (Foundation) in Stuttgart where she managed the foundation’s projects focusing on civil society and governance in Turkey, the Western Balkans, and North Africa.

Solidarity and freedom of expression – How can we protect and harness online spaces?

20th October 2021 by Sarah Pugh

Freedom of expression is a basic requirement for maintaining democracy and open societies where citizens are able to stay informed, express opinions and participate actively in public life. Over the summer the Solidarity Action Network (SANE) explored different aspects of freedom of expression through a series of curated conversations looking at the role that international civil society organisations (ICSOs) can play in protecting and increasing free expression and civic space, particularly in relation to digital space and freedoms. 

The first example came from Takura Zhangazha and Arthur Steiner from Hivos, who shared how Hivos has played an ‘incubator’ role in supporting young artists and makers to champion free expression, and to increase and even celebrate civic space. Through its R.O.O.M. Program Hivos has designed interventions that support young creatives, strengthening their resilience to remain critical and independent so that they can continue to challenge damaging narratives and shrinking civic space. Beyond the solidarity shown through this form of ‘incubation’ and direct support, Hivos has also made use of facilitation as a method of solidarity. The programme has facilitated the convening and connecting of young makers and creative hubs, enabling cross-fertilisation between these makers and other actors in support of Pan-African solidarity that can counter closing civic space. 

These forms of solidarity are brought to life through stories of R.O.O.M Program partners – in particular, the Magamba Network based in Zimbabwe. The network focuses on the arts, digital media, activism and innovation. It has opened up space for free expression online through supporting and incubating young bloggers and new media start-ups speaking truth to power, and has inspired the creation of other, similar hubs in Southern Africa. As one of its activities, the network has convened discussions around the topic of internet access and ownership, inviting makers and creative hubs across the region to discuss the rise in internet regulations, cyber-crime laws, internet shutdowns, and – in some countries – the increasingly prohibitive costs of internet access.

(Still from video: Who owns civic space? by Hivos featuring Magamba Network) 

How international actors can show solidarity through support to local civil society actors to maintain and defend freedom of expression online, and protect online civic space, led us on to the next curated conversation with Felicia Anthonio from Access Now. Felicia shared insights on the role that Access Now has played in coordinating and convening #KeepItOn, a global campaign and coalition that aims to end internet shutdowns.  

Members of the #KeepItOn coalition work together to prevent shutdowns through awareness-raising, advocacy, capacity-building and litigation. Access Now further builds resilience among affected communities through technical support and grassroots grants, and applies multiple forms of solidarity at local, national and international levels. 

(Graphic from: #KeepItOn update: who is shutting down the internet in 2021? by Access Now) 

The campaign uses public solidarity to tackle shutdowns, for example through advocacy at the global or national level calling for specific internet shutdowns to be ended. Tensions can arise between public solidarity on the one hand, and access on the other, and risks to access, staff or partners’ safety can act as barriers to ICSOs signing on to open letters or speaking out publicly on the issue of internet shutdowns. However, as the #KeepItOn coalition’s work demonstrates there is a spectrum of different modes of solidarity available to ICSOs.  

There are different examples of more ‘quiet’ acts of solidarity that ICSOs can take, such as helping to document restrictions in a particular context, or supporting local communities or groups affected by a shutdown. The coalition itself employs multiple modes and levels of solidarity; for example combining awareness-raising at the multilateral level with litigation or advocacy at the national level, alongside strengthening of local capacities to deal with the impacts of shutdowns. So, whatever their appetite or capacity for risk might be, ICSOs can contribute to the protection of digital space and freedoms, and joining the #KeeptItOn Coalition can be an effective first step. 

Further details about these two examples can be found in the Solidarity Playbook, in the case studies on Hivos and Access Now which cover strategies for the protection of online free expression, as well as its potential to bring about social change, revealing different strategies for solidarity in the face of closing civic space. We encourage you to delve deeper into these topics by reading the cases!  


Sarah Pugh

Research Consultant

RINGO Project

Sarah Pugh, Research Consultant, has worked with activists, grassroots movements and storytellers internationally. She has conducted research for both funders and civil society organisations, including human rights and women’s rights NGOs based in India and Burma, and has over a decade of experience in the human rights and social justice philanthropy sector, having worked with a variety of funder collaborations whilst based at Global Dialogue. She has managed pass-through grants and pooled funds for human rights and social change in the UK and globally, and supported the inception of the Funders’ Initiative for Civil Society (FICS). Sarah is currently acting as Project Manager for the RINGO Project - a systems change process aimed at reimagining the INGO.

What does ‘solidarity’ around civic space mean in the light of the Indian response to COVID-19?

7th June 2021 by Deborah Doane

This blog post is written by Deborah Doane, who along with Sarah Pugh, authored the Solidarity Playbook, a collection of case studies and best practices on how organisations and coalitions have developed resilience and solidarity mechanisms to civic space restrictions and changing operating conditions for civil society.

The tragedy that is befalling India in real-time as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic is also a consequence of a government intent on trying to destroy its own civil society, both through a crackdown on foreign funding, one of the typical tactics in closing civic space; and by suppressing dissent through whatever means possible.  

Foreign funding restrictions imposed in 2013 under the previous government were just the start of this severe assault on civil society that saw international civil society organisations (ICSOs) Amnesty and Greenpeace seriously targeted, with Amnesty ultimately withdrawing from the country, no longer able to function effectively.  

The intimidation that befell foreign ICSOs eventually impacted local CSOs too, as the crackdown on dissent accelerated. In the last six years, over 13,000 NGOs’ licenses were cancelled, as the government made a concerted effort to stem the flow of foreign funding.  

Much of the assault on civil society came to a head just prior to the pandemic, which saw strong and sustained protests against the new Citizenship Amendments Act (CAA) which put Muslims at a disadvantage and more vulnerable compared to Hindus in having to prove their Indian identity, perceived by many to be a direct assault on the secular underpinning of the Indian State.  

COVID-19 provided the perfect opportunity for the government to halt the protests altogether and dampen the voice of civil society even further. Protests were virtually outlawed, movement was restricted, and activists were silenced or arrested, whilst the government pressed ahead with even more restrictions on foreign funding coming into the country, even as late as last September, in the midst of the pandemic. As Vijayan MJ writes for the Carnegie Endowment for Peace, “The government converted a health crisis into a law-and-order issue, and democratic governance slid into a police raj.”   

Thus, it’s clear that civic space – and our response to it in global civil society – is at the heart of a solidaristic pandemic response in India. 

Even in the absence of foreign funding and in spite of imposed restrictions, local civil society actors have been heroic in their efforts providing much-needed emergency relief across the country.  Communities have stepped in, whilst rights-based groups moved from advocacy to relief mode quite swiftly in response to the rising disaster impacting migrant workers and many of India’s poorest. But local CSOs have also highlighted that because of the civil society crackdown, they have been entirely (and needlessly) hampered in their efforts. Indeed, they point out that without such restrictions – either on funding or on dissent, the COVID-19 crisis in India could have been far less severe. 

National organisations in India have been able to place some pressure on the government to try to at least delay some new foreign funding restrictions and registration requirements so that much-needed humanitarian relief funding can make its way more easily to smaller, responsive local CSOs. As of the time of writing, this is as yet unresolved.  

Internationally, pressure exerted from the now global People’s Vaccine campaign, involving many ICSOs, has been a tremendous effort to challenge patent protection which could make a massive difference for India. This is an obvious value-add role for ICSOs in the face of a pandemic, but it doesn’t speak to the issue of civic space per se. Given the layer upon layer of complexity, well documented by the likes of Arundhati Roy and others, it’s very easy to feel that anything ICSOs can do is all but meaningless.  

However, the case studies in the Solidarity Playbook have shown that there are multiple actions that ICSOs can take when it comes to civic space, ranging from quiet solidarity to more public, political solidarity. The risk for ICSOs in India has often been that speaking out can do more harm to their efforts – and to local actors – than good. But the countervailing risk is that remaining silent can also enable an already repressive regime to become even more repressive. So how can ICSOs navigate this complexity?  

Here, two key broader lessons from the Solidarity Playbook are relevant. First, that ‘civic space’ is a strategic opportunity to shift an organisational strategy. COVID-19 has demanded a real shake-up in how ICSOs are organised, as the freedom to travel and send expats from the north everywhere is virtually off the table. In most parts of the world where ICSOs are present, traditional business models have turned upside down. ICSOs are finally starting to ask themselves how to collaborate with partners differently and better, in light of the new normal. It’s not about ‘empowering’ or ‘capacity building’ anymore. Instead, it’s about recognising the power that communities have and identifying ways to create new forms of collaboration – and build solidarity alongside those on the ground.  

Where foreign funding is allowed, this can mean shifting to providing more funding mechanisms that enable communities to plan and allocate resources, something the #shiftthepower movement has long been advocating as a strategy to respond to closing civic space. COVID-19 only makes this more urgent. 

This is where the second lesson from the Solidarity Playbook becomes equally relevant. Whatever solidarity mechanism an ICSO adopts in the face of closing civic space, it must be negotiated with national and local civil societies – and the communities in which they are working. Speaking out through international advocacy or diplomacy may be the best course of action, as would prioritising international fundraising, but they may not be. How ICSOs collaborate equally with national and local partners, whilst helping to share any associated risk, is at the heart of what ‘solidarity’ really is. This will help in the long-run too – by strengthening local civil societies and local communities alike, and putting them in the driver’s seat.  

 “In India, the battle against the pandemic cannot be separated from the battle to regain democracy, the rule of law, constitutionalism, and human rights,” Vijayan MJ goes onto say in his essay for the Carnegie Endowment. It’s difficult to watch the dual crises of closing civic space and a global pandemic. But it’s heartening to know that as ICSOs, it’s still possible to act deliberately and in solidarity as allies with those at the forefront of local responses, and that our efforts in the short-term can have a positive long-term impact too.  

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.

Civic Space is shrinking. Here’s how we can protect fundamental rights

24th September 2020 by Deirdre de Burca

Current research shows that civil society in over half of the countries of the world is facing serious and growing restrictions on its freedom to engage, express itself and be heard. Activists and human rights defenders in formal and informal spaces are building new bridges of solidarity to move forward, but these are challenging times for our community.

With increased surveillance, persecution and even violence against activists, many civil society organisations have come under attack, particularly those advocating on behalf of excluded groups and minorities, for democratic rights and in defence of the environment.

Human rights defenders in Africa, Latin America and Asia, as well as in other parts of the world, have been targeted and attacked. 212 environmental and land rights defenders alone were killed during 2019, and 219 human rights defenders are estimated to have been killed or died in detention in 2016. Technology advances have brought increased surveillance on civil society and create new risks for civic space.

The civic space case studies contained within the recent Forus report “Realising the potential of Goal 16 to promote and protect civic space” highlight the many restrictions civil society currently faces in different parts of the world. From Nepal to Colombia, it has become increasingly difficult to exercise rights of association, assembly and expression.

Now the question is –  how can we protect fundamental freedoms, essential to the creation of  a healthy, functioning civic space, where people’s voices are being heard?

The recent Forus report, Realising the potential of SDG 16 to promote and protect civic space, highlights how a particular Sustainable Development Goal (SDG)can provide important leverage for civil society everywhere in its efforts to create and defend civic space, and to be more effective in monitoring and implementing the 2030 Agenda.

Many in the human rights community are sceptical about what they regard as the weak potential of the SDGs to advance a universal human rights agenda. In his foreword to the report on Goal 16 and civic space, the former Special Rapporteur for Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, Philip Alston, claims that despite almost 20 mentions of human rights in the text of the 2030 Agenda, no reference is made to any specific civil or political right.

Alston argues that human rights in general remain marginal and invisible in the agenda. He points to the behaviour of many governments who have side-lined or even rejected the inclusion of human rights in national SDG programming. He also refers to SDG reports by the UN and World Bank which he claims pay little or no attention to human rights, with the exception of the issue of gender.

Such ambivalence towards the 2030 Agenda has led some human rights activists and practitioners to overlook or disregard the role that SDG 16 could play in promoting civil and political rights globally. Here’s why SDG 16 could be effective in promoting and protecting civic space.

The effective implementation of SDG 16 can have profound implications for civic space in countries across the world. The goal broadly focuses on issues of governance and aims to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all, and build effective accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”. A specific target of SDG 16, Target 16.10, commits UN member states to “Ensure access to public information and protect fundamental freedoms”.

These freedoms, which include basic rights to associate and assemble peacefully and to express views and opinions, are themselves fundamental human rights protected under international human rights law, and they are essential to the creation and maintenance of civic space.

And yet, the two global-level indicators which have been adopted to date by the international community, do not adequately assess progress in protecting and promoting fundamental freedoms.-In particular, because they do not directly measure the extent to which fundamental freedoms of association, assembly and expression are being protected in day-to-day civic life as citizens attempt to engage with issues which impact on their communities and wider societies.

This failure to monitor and measure the extent to which citizens are free to participate in the civic life is a significant omission where SDG 16 is concerned.

There is an urgent need for the international community to extend the scope of SDG 16 civic space indicators which are currently limited to an outcome indicator measuring the extent to which activists, human rights defenders and others have been kidnapped imprisoned or murdered. Additional global indicators must be developed which measure the extent to which citizens can exercise their rights to freedom of association, assembly and expression in their communities and societies, in accordance with international human rights standards and national human rights laws.

Following the launch of the Goal 16 report at the UN High Level Political Forum in 2020, Forus and its partners intend to collaborate with interested civil society networks and other groups on a new global advocacy campaign. This campaign will call for a wider range of  civic space indicators to be adopted by UN member states as official Goal 16 indicators and to become part of national regional and global review processes of the 2030 Agenda. For this we need human rights defenders.

The involvement of human rights activists and practitioners in this global advocacy campaign, and in the wider monitoring and review of SDG 16 implementation, will be crucial as it could bring its considerable technical expertise, advocacy capacities and political influence to bear on the process.  Let’s join forces to launch a broad dynamic strategy for fundamental freedoms to be promoted and protected.  Please contact me on if you wish to discuss this proposal further!


Deirdre de Burca

Forus Advocacy Co-ordinator

Forus International

Deirdre de Burca currently works as the Advocacy Co-ordinator with Forus (formerly known as the International Forum for National NGO platforms). Forus is a global network of 69 national development platforms and 6 regional coalitions. Deirdre previously worked as Director of Advocacy for World Vision's Brussels office. She was also a member of the EU Steering Committee of Concord's Beyond 2015 EU Taskforce which played an essential role in influencing the position of the EU and its Member States during the UN negotiations on Agenda 2030. Deirdre was one of the founding members of SDG Watch Europe - a broad alliance of European civil society organisations established in June 2015 and which works to ensure the full implementation of Agenda 2030/the SDGs by the EU and its Member States.

PM Turnbull: Civil society must be represented at the G20

29th March 2017 by Thomas Howie

Dear Prime Minister Turnbull,

We write to you as leaders of Australian civil society, appointed by the Australian Government to form the Civil 20 Secretariat during Australia’s G20 presidency in 2014. As you prepare to represent Australia in Hamburg, we wish to alert you to the dire reality facing civil society actors in many G20 member states and ask you to raise the issue of the shrinking space for civil society at the upcoming G20 Summit.

According to the CIVICUS Monitor more than 100 countries actively limit the space for, and in many cases violently repress, civil society. Peaceful and democratic civil society organisations – from grassroots movements to large international NGOs– and their staff face undue vilification, threats, arrests, frozen bank accounts, revoked licenses, blocked websites, coerced registrations with government bodies, and the closure of their offices. In many countries today, civil society activists fear for their lives, with many disappearing or murdered at the hands of government or government-supported forces.

Australia has a long and proud history of promoting the important role of strong and robust civil society in advancing social and economic development and securing human rights and social accountability around the world. Through its aid program, Australia has supported transformative civil society strengthening efforts in many developing countries and through ongoing bilateral human rights dialogues, Australian leaders have been steadfast in expressing concerns about the suppression of civil society in many of our neighbouring countries. As Australia continues its campaign for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, we have no doubt that these issues will continue to be a high priority for your Government.

The G20 need a peaceful, organised, and protected civil society to help achieve the goals established through the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement. The active engagement of people in all societies contributes to alleviating poverty, protecting the environment, achieving gender equality and countering the dangers of extremism and violence by working with the marginalised and disenfranchised. Repressing civil society creates an unstable economic and political environment and obstructs the transition towards a just, equitable, and sustainable world.

During the past year, civil society organisations from around the world have come together to create a Civic Charter, which clearly articulates the globally established obligations of states to secure civic rights for all people. We hope to see Australia and all other governments around the world acknowledge and fully implement the Civic Charter. As an important step in doing so, we ask you to implore your fellow G20 leaders to ensure that the issue of civil society participation features prominently on the G20 Agenda.

We would welcome the opportunity to meet with you or to provide further information on this important issue in advance of the Summit. Please don’t hesitate to contact Dermot O’Gorman: 0438 222 114 or to discuss.


Dermot O’Gorman CEO

Marc Purcell CEO
Australian Council for International Development

Dr Cassandra Goldie CEO
Australian Council of Social Service

Tim Costello Chief Advocate
World Vision Australia

His Honour Judge Rauf Soulio
District Court of South Australia

Helen Szoke CEO
Oxfam Australia

Rev. Tara Curlewis Minister
Uniting Church of Australia

Sally Sinclair CEO
National Employment Services Association

Janelle Weissman Executive Director
UN Women National Committee Australia

Colonel Kelvin Alley
The Salvation Army

Greg Thompson Executive Director International
Transparency International Australia

Communications Manager

International Civil Society Centre

Angela Merkel: Put Civil Society on G20 Agenda

2nd March 2017 by Thomas Howie

Dear Chancellor Dr. Angela Merkel,

As you prepare for the G20 Summit under your presidency, we urgently want to alert you to the dire reality of many civil society actors in the G20 member states and ask you to place this concern at the heart of the G20 Summit agenda.

According to the CIVICUS Monitor all G20 member states, except for Germany, narrow the space for civil society or even repress civil society violently. Peaceful and democratic civil society organisations – from grassroots movements to large international civil society organisations – and their staff face undue vilification, threats, arrests, frozen bank accounts, revoked licenses, blocked websites, coerced registrations with government bodies, and the closure of their offices. Civil society activists have to fear for their lives, with many disappearing and becoming victims of murder.

The perpetuation of this negative trend for civil society actors over the last years causes serious concern for civil society, enlightened governments, farsighted business, philanthropy and the media. As the global community is confronted with persistent poverty, growing inequality, violent extremism, and climate change, we are in dire need of the active engagement of civil society.

The G20 countries are dependent on peaceful organized civil society if they want to tackle the challenges you laid out and address the priorities you set out for this year’s G20 agenda: Organised Civil society plays an important role in communicating the needs of the people to the government and thus ensuring the usefulness and sustainability of political and economic measures. Civil society actors expose corruption and human rights violations and hold the state accountable – all of which are prerequisites for a just and peaceful society. Moreover, the active engagement of people in their societies contributes to alleviating poverty, protecting the environment, achieving gender equality and countering the dangers of radicalisation and violence by working with the marginalised and disenfranchised. Repressing democratic civil society makes for an unstable economic and political environment; and without the active and unrestrained engagement of
people around the globe, the transition towards a just, equitable, and sustainable world as laid down in the 2030 Agenda and the Paris Agreement will not be possible.

During the past year, the International Civil Society Centre facilitated a global civil society process which created a Civic Charter. The Civic Charter contains national governments’ obligations to secure civic rights for all people, as enshrined in UN conventions and international law. We expect all governments worldwide to fully implement the Civic Charter.

As the host of this year’s G20 Summit, we ask you to remain true to the respect we know you hold for civil society: please make sure that the topic “Civil Society Participation” features prominently on the G20 Agenda and implore your fellow G20 leaders to guarantee all people the right to fully participate in shaping their societies.


International Civil Society Centre – Burkhard Gnärig, Executive Director
Heinrich Böll Stiftung – Barbara Unmüßig, President
ADRA – Jonathan Duffy, President
ActionAid – Adriano Campolina, CEO
Care – Wolfgang Jamann, Secretary General/CEO
BRAC – Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, Chairperson
Caritas – Michel Roy, Secretary General
ChildFund Alliance – Meg Gardinier, Secretary General
HelpAge Interational – Justin Derbyshire, Interim CEO
IPPF – Tewodros Melesse, Director-General
Islamic Relief – Naser Haghamed, CEO
SOS Children’s Villages International – Norbert Meder, CEO
Transparency International – Cobus de Swardt, Managing Director
Terre des Hommes – Ignacio Packer, Secretary General
VSO – Philip Goodwin, CEO
World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts – Anita Tiessen, CEO
World Vision – Kevin Jenkins, President/CEO
World YWCA – Malayah Harper, General Secretary

Communications Manager

International Civil Society Centre