What should INGOs do when Civic Space is closing around them?

October 13, 2022

     By Duncan Green     

Very interesting conversations last week on how INGOs are responding to closing civic space (Chatham House rule, so no more detail than that, I’m afraid). Some headlines:

In India, and probably many other countries, the attack on civil society organizations is just one facet of a wider offensive against liberal democracy and liberal values. Elsewhere it is just one part of the Bolsonaro/Duterte/Trump type assault on any source of criticism and opposition.

It’s not just about governments. In Bangladesh or Pakistan, if you blog, someone could kill you for saying something they disagree with.

Where it got interesting was when we got to the ‘so whats?’.

Firstly the need to be credible/legitimate, necessary in itself and also to help reduce (though not eliminate) the risk of being closed down or worse. For international NGOs, that means ‘being connected with the pain of the country’.

Secondly some more practical advice (also for INGOs)

  • Avoid inflammatory job titles like ‘policy’ or ‘advocacy’, let alone ‘campaigns’ – keep things as technical as possible. Tell officials ‘I work on the SDGs’, because no-one understands what they’re about ….. 😉
  • Assume you are under surveillance. Use multiple phones.
  • ‘Speaking together is better than speaking alone’
  • Pay a lot of attention to when it is better to go unbranded, and when, on the contrary, using your brand might afford some protection to partners who are risking their necks
  • Invest in getting the right messengers to talk to decision makers – who do they fear or respect? (non-INGO people are often better for this, if you can persuade them to help)
  • Be patient and ready to wait for better times – local partners can advise on how they weather the ‘cycle of atrocity and wickedness’, digging in for the long haul, finding ‘pockets of hope and survival.’
  • Better monitoring of emerging crises – ‘we can’t wait til someone gets hurt’. Instead look for signs of a ‘progressive weakening of social empathy, polarization and violence’ that can tell you dark days lie ahead.

Third, there is a trade off here that every organization and individual must wrestle with: ‘Do we live with closing space and shut up, in order to maintain access (for example for humanitarian relief), or do we speak out at increased risk?’ At some point, speaking truth to power may be so essential to an organization’s mission and identity (or those of its partners), that risking being banned, exiled etc is necessary – but do so with eyes open, rather than by accident.

If there’s no quick fix, we’re talking about investing in young people and new ideas, including helping build a ‘new culture of politics’ that does not contribute to the levels of entrenched polarization that we now experience.

That poses some big challenges to conventional campaigning. When I got to Oxfam, I was taken to one side and handed the ‘secret sauce’ of a successful campaign – you need a problem, a solution and a villain. Heroes optional.

But what if that recipe, even if it works for an individual campaign, contributes to ongoing polarization and ‘othering’? It’s a bit like the debate on poverty porn – images of malnourished children may raise more money in the short term, but what are their long term impact on norms and politics?

On the other hand, with such a noisy media environment, some kind of ‘let’s all hold hands and imagine a better future’ narrative is likely to sink without trace (as Oxfam found with some of its well intentioned efforts to do ‘positive framing’).

In a follow-up email, one of the participants elaborated on this point:

‘You can’t just put out these ‘let’s all change the world’ statements –  ‘everyone….use less energy!’ ‘Everyone….fight inequality’ …you have to create the detailed, local infrastructure and building blocks that make that tangible in people’s daily lives.

My point being, that when we talk about closing civic space we are saying that the civic space we are used to fighting in – the air wars – isn’t working for us any more, and rather than just think of different tactics in that space we have to do the hard work of actually building, creating, carving out the spaces again that we want to use.’


Other recent posts on this topic: the impact of the pandemic on civic space; how to defend it better; trends and drivers. Plenty more in the archives – the search engine works really well.

October 13, 2022
Duncan Green