Claiming Civic Space: Five Things Civil Society Should Do

June 15, 2023

#5 – Affirming Civil Society’s Right to Funding

co-authored by Clement Nyaletsossi Voule, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association, and Ryota Jonen, Director of the World Movement for Democracy

In 2022, the office of the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of freedom of peaceful assembly and of association (UNSR on FoAA) and the World Movement for Democracy convened a series of consultations with civil society partners around the world to identify global trends influencing the shrinking of Civic Space. This blog is part of a five-blog series that analyze these global trends while outlining strategies for Civil Society to push back and expand citizens’ rights and engagement in the public sphere.

In our previous blogs, we analyzed how authoritarian actors have become more sophisticated, often learning from each other, to crack down on civil society organizations, limit freedom of speech, control the online space, and undermine democracy. Against this backdrop, it is crucial to strengthen the relationship between civil society organizations and the donor community to secure the sustainability CSOs and pro-democracy movements.

The right of citizens to form associations and receive funding to pursue their missions is enshrined in international human rights law. Yet, in recent years an increasing number of states have adopted or amended laws and regulations constraining the right of CSOs to access funding, particularly foreign funding. These measures severely constrain the ability of CSOs to implement programs that serve their communities and ultimately threaten their sustainability.

Recognizing this negative impact, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association (one of this blog’s authors) published his reportreport in June 2022, asserting that the right for civil society “to freely access human, material and financial resources –from domestic, foreign, and international sources – is inherent in the right to freedom of association and essential to the existence and effective operations of any association.”

In fact, there has been a growing recognition of this right by the UN human rights body. In the June 2020 General Comment No. 37 on the International Covenant of Civil And Political Rights (ICCPR) , the UN Human Rights Committee argues that States have obligations to protect individuals right to mobilize resources to exercise their freedom of peaceful assembly. In addition, the UN Human Rights Council also passed a resolution recognizing civil society’s right to receive funding as civil society plays a critical role in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and its negative impact on society.

Building on this momentum, our community of democracy advocates should push for establishing civil society’s right to funding and for helping civil society exercise this right fully. To this end, it is imperative for civil society advocates to consider building cohesive collaboration with donor agencies. Donors have been strong advocates for defending civic space. Yet, donors’ practices are not always enabling. During our civil society consultations, we’ve heard that some donors’ grant-making processes and administrative requirements are onerous; thus, making it difficult for many CSOs, especially those working at a community level, to access or manage funding. As reported to the Human Rights Council in June 2022, donors largely prefer short-term projects, which often don’t align with the ways civil society seek to achieve their long-term impact.

We recognize the increasing openness and willingness among donors to address these concerns. In 2021, the OECD Development Assistance Committee (DCA) issued a set of recommendations on enabling civil society in development cooperation and humanitarian assistance, which calls upon donors to “streamline administrative requirements for civil society support to lower transaction costs for civil society and providers, and incorporate adaptive and flexible processes into results management of civil society funding.” In addition, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) recently announced a new initiative “Powered by the People” to “strengthen the agency, resiliency, and efficacy of activists and people-powered social movements that advance human rights, social justice, democracy, and inclusive development.” Through this initiative, USAID intends to promote locally led approaches.

Building on these positive developments, we need to continue creating learning opportunities for donors and civil society organizations to assess existing support mechanisms and practices. Such opportunities would also help ensure donors’ support is in line with changing political environments and evolving challenges on the ground. Through candid dialogue, we hope donors continue to stand firmly with civil society organizations when they face government intimidation and harassment.

As our history shows, people naturally want to enjoy freedoms. In recent years, we’ve seen people in some of the most politically restrictive places, such as Sudan, Russia, Belarus, Cuba, China, and Iran, organizing themselves to defend their freedoms against the brutal actions of the regimes. Civic space is fundamental for people to exercise and claim those freedoms that are deeply rooted in the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We must reinvigorate our efforts to defend civic space around the world and assist those who are on the frontlines of the struggle.