Derek Caelin, Innovation and Data Senior Specialist
The past five years have not been kind to civic space defenders. Today, public freedoms of speech, assembly, and association are more constricted than they have been for many years. Members of Innovation for Change – a global network of civil society organizations (CSOs), activists, journalists, and technologists – work tirelessly to reverse the steady global restriction of civic freedoms.
In 2014, Counterpart International was awarded a component of the “Innovation for Change Program,” or “I4C” — to network organizations in closing civic spaces and provide peer-to-peer support. Since that time, Counterpart and our partners, CIVICUS and the Tides Foundation, have seen our colleagues in the I4C network face a number of civic space challenges. This list highlights the issues that they face today, drawing from interviews and reporting of network members and an analysis of the problems they tackled in the innovation gallery, the I4C’s catalogue of innovative actions and activities.
7. Government Restrictions of Civil Society
One of the most powerful tools authoritarian governments have to protect themselves from accountability is legislation that restrict CSOs. At Networked Innovation in January 2020, Africa Hub member Charles Vandyck outlined how governments around the globe are learning from each other and passing legislation restricting CSO access to funding, creating an onerous registration process, curtailing protests and targeting particular groups and minorities, increasing surveillance on the operations of civil society, and passing public order acts, as well as legislation authorizing the interception of communications in the name of security.
To address this issue, network members have campaigned to overturn or prevent the passage of local restrictive laws, researched and documented the spread of these laws on a regional level, and planned the creation of regional think tanks to create opposing pressure on governments.
6. Citizen Mistrust of Civil Society
Many CSOs and actors experience mistrust from the public, not just their governments. This creates a cyclical challenge in which civil society struggles to mobilize the population, and struggles to achieve sustainability through support from local audiences.
“The public doesn’t stand in solidarity with CSOs,” says Rajae Boujnah, Manager of the MENA hub. “People need to know about us and [the] things that civil society [have done], – laws for participatory democracy – but the people don’t know this was our role in making this happen.”
“In [Latin America and the Caribbean] we don’t trust institutions,” says Guillermo Correa, of the LAC hub, head of the Argentinian nonprofit RACI, and CIVICUS Board Member. “We don’t trust the government and we don’t trust NGOs. Thus, people don’t make donations to NGOs because they don’t know of the money will go to the beneficiaries.”
Efforts by the I4C network to build public faith in civil society include transparency projects like Plataforma Para Transparencia in Guatemala and public awareness campaigns in Morocco and Iraq.
5. Lack of Coordination Between Civil Society
Solidarity between actors is a key component of any successful movement. But today, many CSOs struggle to find common ground or ways to coordinate and combine efforts or information even when they share a common objective.
To adapt to this, hubs have spent a lot of effort dedicated to building local networks. Boujnah shares that the MENA hub dedicated a great deal of effort to the “regional collaboration model and explaining to CSOs a new approach of implementing projects based on collective inputs and co-creation. This created a lot of frustration in the early stages [of the MENA Hub] given the time and efforts it consumed but it ultimately played a huge role in the network’s growth and maturity.” Coordination and connection between civil society has been a primary focus of the Central Asia hub. The hub has invested heavily in their TechBootCamp model to bring together technical and non-technical members, and they host an annual Innovation Festival to bring civil society actors together across regions, generations, and sectors to exchange information and ideas.
4. Lack of Access to Public Information
When CSOs lack information, particularly public information, it’s difficult to campaign or advocate for the government to change things. Many of the grant proposals Counterpart received over the years highlighted civil society’s lack of access to information, whether it is data about attacks on minority populations or the frequency with which the government blocks access to critical media websites. A good dataset and publicly available information can transform an incident or anecdote into an example of broader trends.
Even when governments are interested in making available data that is relevant to civil society, it can be a struggle to get quality information on matters of public interest. “Not all government agencies are aware of importance of publishing data online,” said one I4C network member. “Most often, they employ older generation specialists who consider newspapers as the main source of information and provide access to information only upon request.” Because of this, many projects Counterpart funded focus on data capture, research to fill information gaps, and building more reference points for public campaigns. I4C members have developed databases about attacks against LGBT+ communities (Argentina), tracked internet shutdowns (Tajikistan), and developed websites to showcase both government (Kyrgyzstan) and civil society (Guatemala) spending and activities.
3. Civil Society Organization Capacity
The world is an increasingly complicated place, and CSOs need to develop more skills and capacities in order to succeed. “Capacity building is number one for sure,” said Mouna Ben Garga, the lead of the CIVICUS team dedicated to supporting the Innovation for Change network. CSOs need to be able to handle everything from managing operations, to collecting and managing data, to handling digital security, and innovating in their processes, or they risk falling behind and failing to meet their objectives.
To that end, much of the Innovation For Change network’s efforts have been dedicated to measuring CSO capacity and making concrete improvements. The Afghan CSO Porsesh developed the Civil Society Innovation Index to help CSOs identify ways they can innovate better. Makaia developed a service for measuring and building an organization’s digital transformation. Wingu’s service measures digital skill capacity and recommends tools and skills to acquire. ICD and Transparencia por Colombia even created tool to measure and improve CSO accountability in order to improve trust. By creating resources for improving capacity, network members can help each other to improve.
2. Internet Freedom Restrictions
From the restriction of freedom expression online, to censorship and intimidation, and to mass surveillance of citizens online, civil society faces a new era of Digital Authoritarianism. As governments seek to control their citizens through technology, CSOs struggle to act, coordinate, and communicate safely. In an age when websites are blocked and messages are monitored, CSOs aren’t sure how to work together to campaign, what information they can send safely, or where they can upload their files. Last year, as the Central Asia hub’s Innovation Festival took place in Kazakhstan, government Internet shutdowns hampered the coverage of violent suppression of protests outside.
Much of the work of Innovation for Change network has been to prepare for the threats of the digital world. Network members have organized almost 30 digital security trainings for nearly 450 people across MENA, South, Central, and East Asia. Citizens have learned to use better tools and better practices to navigate a difficult world.
CSOs have long struggled to diversify their funding streams and achieve sustainability in their journey to self-reliance. CSOs often lack the capacity to develop clear, well-thought-out proposals for funding. International politics also play a role. A major source of income for many CSO has been funding from foreign donors – either traditional government and foundation bodies, or funds obtained through online donations from international networks. Governments have increasingly sought to clamp down on foreign contributions to local nonprofits, claiming such funding makes them instruments of external powers and undermining recipient legitimacy.
To address financial pressures, network members have used a variety of methods. Social Innovations Advisory (SIA) in East Asia, WASCI in Africa, and SMEX in MENA have each created guides and other documents related to fundraising. SIA created a number of repository of case studies and a guide for obtaining alternative sources finance. WASCI created a similar guidebook for the Africa context, and SMEX developed an overview of the state of crowdfunding in MENA. Other organizations have taken a different tack – Innpactia created a Project Writing Wizard that guides young organizations in developing proposals.
It is not easy being part of an organization defending civic space in the world today, but members of the Innovation for Change network and CSOs around the world are working hard to try to make the world a better place.