We know it’s a cliché, but the world continues to shrink. Events, trends, and emerging ideas in other countries have the potential to affect us all. This is just as true for charities and nonprofits as it is for other parts of society. Whether it’s proposals to end the restriction on partisan activities by charities in the United States, potential curbs on lobbying by charities in the UK, limits on charities accepting foreign funding in Russia, or the day-to-day challenges organizations face in countries like Turkey or Venezuela, we can learn from – and in some cases be warned by – the happenings outside our own borders.
CIVICUS, a global NGO, provides a forum for organizations around the world to share and learn from each other, and offers a valuable perspective on these issues. I sat down with Secretary General Danny Sriskandarajah to discuss broad trends affecting civil society spaces globally.
BJ: Are there any global trends in civil society space today that concern you?
DS: What’s been troubling for me over the last 4 years that I’ve been at CIVICUS is that the number of countries where we’re concerned about civic freedoms being threatened and the types of threats being faced just seem to be exploding. Colleagues of mine call this a global emergency on civic space - when it comes to freedom of assembly, we’ve seen brutal crackdowns on peaceful protest, including in some of the most mature democracies. When it comes to freedom of association we’ve seen government after government using cyclical regulatory measures to undermine citizens’ ability to come together to form associations. So across the board when it comes to civic freedoms we’re very worried, and we’re worried about threats in a growing range of countries, not just in dictatorships and in authoritarian regimes, but including in very mature democracies.
Is technology assisting in organizations’ ability to navigate these challenges?
It has never been easier to organize. With the click of a button, at almost no cost, we can raise awareness for public engagement on social media and other platforms. We can boost memberships, raise our profile in ways that were unimaginable a few years ago. The cost of this is that technology has meant that people can organize and mobilize themselves, leaving people to wonder what is the role of the NGO. People are also able to dip in and out of causes and issues, rather than joining as members for life for a particular organization.
It also comes with heavy forms of surveillance, interference, and makes the public space in which some of this happens far more chaotic and harder to police.
How is the relationship between formal and informal civil society evolving, from your perspective?
I worry that we’re not seeing enough symbiosis between the formal and informal civil society, and any healthy democracy needs both. We need citizens to be able to organize spontaneously, but we also need institutions to be there long after to continue pressing on a particular issue or hold governments to account. But far too often, these two parts of society treat each other with distrust and disrespect. People inside NGOs say, “ah, these social movements come and go, but we’re here to fight the real fight.” And people inside these social movements say that NGOs are part of the problem, they’ve become co-opted and are too busy competing with government grants or with each other for money, and have forgotten the real reasons why they exist.
We need to harness the potential of new tools and techniques for mobilizing, but we can’t lose touch of old forms of community organizing. The importance of building meaningful relationships with people and working together over long periods of time, rather than simply dipping in and out. In the coming years, successful civil society actors are going to be able to combine the best of both worlds.
Years ago, my colleagues at CIVICUS wrote a fantastic report called “Bridging the Gaps”, which is about trying to build those positive, constructive linkages.
Do these informal actors have a point? Is there a sense that the charitable model has become outdated?
There’s been a particular reliance on charities in the Anglo-Saxon world, ever since Britain’s Charitable Uses Act of 1601, there’s been this notion that the registered charity has this special status. And that’s been this amazing model used around the world especially in Britain’s former colonies, but what’s being increasingly realized is that charities don’t have the monopoly on social change and never did. Increasingly they’re one of many actors pursuing social good. There is a lot of shape shifting going on that I see, and there is an argument that is being made, that the days of the registered charity are numbered. As a civil society sector it’s important to preserve what’s special about charitable status, but not get ourselves overly defensive; the charitable sector like every other sector in that it has to change with the times.
How are organizations adapting to new resourcing challenges?
For the moment I’m seeing a few particular challenges emerging. One is around contracting. Lots of growth in civic space in the global north in recent years is driven by government outsourcing what used to be public services to civil society organizations. And that’s been good on the one hand because it’s allowed us to scale up our operations, but its been disastrous in terms of the independence of civil society due to their reliance on government contracts and the conditions imposed by these contracts.
There is a term - donor “logframitis”, that relates here. Many of us have had to comply with donor regulations to access funding, have had to programitize our operations in order to do so. And we need to break free, we need to say we’re in this for the long changes, not the incremental changes, and we need to say we can’t put what we want to achieve into a simple time frame or project, and challenge donors on some of the unrealistic expectations they’re placing on civil society.
A second challenge has been around the concentration of resources going to fewer and fewer, larger and larger entities. We see funding going to the big players, leaving smaller organizations and more spontaneous formations struggling to access resources, in an era where the bigger beasts control more of the landscape.
So if you believe in the diversity of civil society, then we need to find better ways of distributing the money we have to create a next generation of “fundamediairies” - organizations that can receive those larger and larger cheques and be very good, very agile at distributing those funds to smaller, southern and maybe even spontaneous organizations, and not simply hoard those resources to build bigger and bigger NGOs.
As trends in the charitable sector change, do you think it makes sense anymore for intermediaries to focus solely on cross-sector policy?
When it comes to civil society organizations, it’s been fantastic to see the specialization and focus of issue-based organizations that have been able to show civil society leadership and contribution on a particular issue. But this hasn’t left us necessarily with a value add when it comes to achieving systemic based change on a particular issue. That’s led in many parts of the world to a civil society that’s siloed, and looking rather out of touch. I do think that civil society as a whole needs to get much better at working together, and that’s become much clearer in an era where citizens are often mobilized spontaneously, and on emerging issues.
I think that civil society platforms, national ones like Imagine or issue-based ones, can have a really big role to play because they’ve become the facilitator of some of that work, practically by hosting discussions, or by plugging members into wider movements, wider initiatives. Especially in times when civil society is under threat in so many ways in different countries, I think having robust infrastructure, the scaffolding for civil society, is going to be incredibly important.
Is there a particular policy issue that global civil society should be rallying around?
I think two big things on the horizon for me are civic space and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). With respect to civic space, for the things I’ve been discussing, we really have to stand together on these issues. No longer can organizations working in one area ignore the threats facing organizations in another area. Tomorrow, it could be their issue, their organization that is affected by some of these threats. We have a positive responsibility to work together to support everyone across civil society. If we are going to defend ourselves in this global emergency on civic space then we have to stay together.
But then more positively, if you take the SDGs, civil society has to play a leadership role to show its not going to be business as usual. We are going to work together to create creative solutions to allow us a chance at building a more sustainable world.