Donors face challenge of closing civic space


Around the world, space for civil society is closing, requiring donors to respond with new, innovative approaches, notes Barbara Smith, Senior Associate (Non-resident) at the CSIS Human Rights Initiative:

Current donor approaches have at times made civil society organizations more vulnerable to attacks and restrictions in different country contexts, she adds, in a CSIS report that examines the flow of financial support to civil society, and analyzes different methods of support that are effective at enhancing the sustainability and resilience of these groups, especially in restricted environments.

The report identifies several key challenges related to donor engagement, faced by CSOs and donors:

  • Funding. This includes the need for long-term funding so that CSOs can improve program planning; flexible funding so that CSOs can adapt to changing contexts; and core funding so that CSOs can retain qualified staff during periods of financial instability. In addition, donors are still learning how to help CSOs diversify funding, such as assisting CSOs in leveraging domestic resources like local private philanthropy and working with other blended finance models to fund programs
  • Vertical and Horizontal Networks. Donors have highlighted that significant barriers still remain regarding the creation of sub-national networks that have sufficient access to funds and technical assistance, and of cross-regional networks that can serve as a way to share information and lessons learned for engaging in country contexts that pose legal or financial threats to CSOs. Working across sectors has been emphasized as an area where significant effort could lead to improvements in CSO collective action.
  • Program Design, Implementation, and Evaluation. While some donor trends indicate a recognition that an iterative and adaptive program is necessary for successful project implementation, this is in tension with pressure experienced by some donors for specific and measurable impact set forth in initial design and measured over time. This demand for a guarantee of specific and concrete results is often then passed onto CSO partners as fund recipients.
  • Adaptability. Adapting to changes in the environment, whether the growth of restrictions associated with social media or other changes in the financial or legal environment, puts increased demand on donors to be nimble and creative in their engagement.


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