In the wake of the widespread authoritarian crackdown, we are witnessing a confluence of factors affecting the sustainability of different aspects of civil society (its organizations, actors and actions) in different places in different ways, notes Rachel Hayman, Head of Research at INTRAC, a UK-based NGO that works to strengthen civil society groups worldwide. A group of scholars and practitioners explored this in a recent issue of Development in Practice, she writes for Open Democracy:
Take Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, where we have managed to get local government officials involved in joint research and reflection on social and economic issues with representatives of local NGOs. This work often touches closely on governance questions, but it is done in ways and within spaces that can produce mutual respect and trust. For example, between 2012 and 2015, we helped CSOs in four cities across southern Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to carry out research and initiatives on youth employment, identified as a root cause of conflict in the Fergana Valley. …Ethiopia is another example, where the Civil Society Support Programme….has provided small grants and capacity development initiatives to over 500 local organizations.
These initiatives are …essentially about organizations having agency to find their own ways to navigate space to bring about localized change, Hayman adds:
This is about prying open small spaces in which relationships of trust can be formed where lines between political, civil and private spaces are very blurred. It is a long-term approach that contributes to social and civic awareness-raising, and to convincing people throughout society of the value of civil society. Our experience calls for more nuance in the debate on closing space. The recent conference of the International Society for Third Sector Research featured numerous panels, papers and round table debates on aspects of civil society space, including foreign funding, civil society sustainability and democracy interventions…Head-on campaigns and global movements in defense of civil space are important, but tackling closing space head-on can also backfire for local activists and human rights defenders.
“Funders of civil society need to think much more creatively about how they support organizations in ways that enhance their long-term viability, credibility and sustainability, and help them to navigate the regulatory frameworks and political environments that surround them,” she concludes.