How can Civil Society respond to government crackdowns around the world? New Oxfam paper (and hello to Oxfam GB’s new boss)

September 12, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

Danny Sriskandarajah

Oxfam GB announced yesterday that Danny Sriskandarajah (right) will be its new boss. V exciting, and not just because he’s a mate. He comes to us from Civicus, the global alliance of civil society organizations. Here he is writing on this blog last year on the role of INGOs, if any, in defending civil society space. This is gonna be fun.

While we’re on the subject, Oxfam just published ‘Space to be Heard’, a paper on how to respond to ‘shrinking civic space’ – the relentless squeeze in dozens of countries on the activities of civil society organizations and activists. Two sections struck me:

Firstly, the diagnosis: What are the global drivers of shrinking civic space?

  • Shifting balances of global power: the growing discourse of national sovereignty and non-interference
  • Rising inequality: political and economic elites cracking down on civic action that challenges powerful vested interests
  • The changing nature of security: counter-terrorism and polarized societies
  • Civil society legitimacy being questioned: weak accountability and missing links with citizens
  • Changing development discourse: questioning the integral value of civil society
  • Populism, authoritarianism and nationalism on the rise: eroding the values of freedom, democracy and diversity’
Space to be Heard briefing note

Secondly, five areas that ‘civil society actors should consider if they are to become more resilient and effective in contexts of shrinking and shifting civic space.’


Civil society organizations need to adopt the same transparency and accountability standards that they demand of others, both to governments and donors and to citizens and constituencies. Building grassroots legitimacy should go beyond minimum public engagement strategies towards transformational change in ways of working, involving constituencies and mobilizing people. Strengthening transparency and accountability reduces the likelihood of being wrongly accused of mismanagement, tax avoidance and fraud, and enables more effective responses when being discredited.

Resilience and risk preparedness

Civil society actors must be prepared for risks such as arrests and harassment of outspoken individuals, freezing of financial assets, attacks on the reputation of individual activists, civic groups and organizations, and other tactics to restrict their activities. This includes having effective risk management and holistic security skills and systems, budgets reserved for mitigation, prevention and emergencies, and strong support networks that provide access to legal, political and psychosocial support. Building the resilience of local civil society organizations can also mean diversifying their funding streams, including through domestic resource mobilization.

Alliance building

Protesters and police

We have found that threats to civic space are most effectively addressed when diverse civil society actors join forces. Alliances should be as broad and inclusive as possible – including formal and informal civic actors with various identities, faith-based organizations, trade unions, media, universities, business associations, community groups, online activists and others. These alliances often need to be unbranded to provide space for diverse actors. Working in diverse alliances to protect and strengthen civic space enables civil society actors to protect the most targeted or vulnerable CSOs and activists; and to defend our common space more effectively. To do this well, we must adhere to the principles of feminist leadership and movement-building, including investing in strong capacities and mechanisms for managing internal differences.

New activism and tactics

Civil society actors need to explore new strategies and tactics that are effective within shrinking and shifting spaces to contribute to transformative change. Particularly, informal (youth) movements have shown high flexibility and creativity in exploring new ways and spaces to organize and express themselves. The International Youth Day 2017 gives a flavour of this creativity. A Café Politico in Honduras, a Facebook live programme with a top-level government official and rural youth in Bangladesh, a PechaKucha event in Somalia and an animation video to share the Global Youth Manifesto to End Inequality are only a few of the initiatives around the world to provide young people a platform to express themselves. Connecting to and learning from these actors can help more institutionalized civil society organizations refresh their ways of working so that they can still achieve their visions within contexts of shrinking and shifting spaces.

Diversity and solidarity

Protest in Istanbul
Thousands of people gather in solidarity outside Zaman newspaper in Istanbul, Friday, March 4, 2016 after a local court ordered that Turkey’s largest-circulation, opposition newspaper, which is linked to a U.S.-based Muslim cleric, be placed under the management of trustees _ a move that heightens concerns over deteriorating press freedoms in Turkey. The move against Zaman newspaper comes as the government has intensified a campaign against the movement led by Fethullah Gulen which it accuses of attempting to topple it.(AP Photo/Emrah Gurel)

As civil society, we must ensure that our space is open for all people. This requires valuing diversity, expressing solidarity across groups with various identities and agendas, and challenging any forms of discrimination based on gender, age, sexual orientation, ethnicity, nationality, and other identity traits within our own ranks, the broader society and the government. Powerful international and national organizations must ensure that they do not take the space of less powerful or more critical activist groups. Influential organizations should instead use their power to give less powerful actors access to their networks and support them in building capacity to raise their voices.

An inspiring example can be found in Tunisia. Following increasing violence against individuals and associations among the LGBTQI community in 2015, the ‘Collective of Individual Liberties’ was formed, involving LGBTQI associations and activists as well as feminist and human rights associations. In 2016, the Collective supported the LGBTQI community in celebrating May 17, the World Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia. Turning from secrecy to an open event, the day was an important milestone for the LGBTQI community to create public awareness for their struggle.’

I would have liked to see more in depth case studies, but I guess the whole point about resisting shrinking civic space is that it’s hard to talk about without putting people at additional risk.

I’d appreciate suggestions for further reading, in particular on how CSOs and others are adapting and evolving in response to the crackdown.

September 12, 2018
Duncan Green