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Global pressure on civil society “untenable”

by Mischa Wilmers

Six out of seven people live in countries where their civic freedoms are under threat, while the organisations that work to defend them are being squeezed by a funding crisis, political pressure and other harassment, according to a new report.

The 2015 State of Civil Society Report, produced by CIVICUS, the global alliance of civil society organisations, claims that all over the world civil society organisations (CSOs) have also been affected by attacks on freedom of expression in what CIVICUS chief executive, Dr Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, describes as an “untenable situation.”

Head of Policy and Advocacy at CIVICUS, Mandeep Tiwana, told Equal Times that CSOs – which include non-governmental organisations (NGOs), trade unions and faith-based groups – have struggled to cope on the frontline of numerous major humanitarian emergencies over the past year, including the Ebola crisis and the bombing of Gaza.

“Although civil society organisations have been consistently proving their value in relation to global crises including humanitarian relief in disaster situations, conflict resolution, post-conflict reconstruction and addressing the pervasive global democratic deficit, the civil society sector as a whole is facing serious resourcing challenges,” he said.

“These include a paucity of funds especially for smaller CSOs to ensure their long term sustainability as well as restrictive regulatory environments that impede resource-mobilisation from domestic as well as international sources”.

The report also found that state funding for civil society is worryingly low. Out of the US$166 billion spent on official development assistance (ODA) by major donor ies in 2013, only 13 per cent, or US$21 billion, went to civil society.

 

Dissent interrupted

Some human rights workers claim part of the reason for this is that governments want to undermine and restrict funding to CSOs which express dissent and campaign to change policy.

In an essay entitled The Clamp-down on Resourcing, Maina Kiai, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of assembly and association, writes that: “Cutting financial resources off is an easy way for a government to silence a CSO that’s a bit too critical.”

Kiai cites the example of Ethiopia which enacted a law in 2009 prohibiting CSOs from working in gender and children’s rights from receiving more than 10 per cent of their funding from foreign sources.

Other culprits include Pakistan, Turkey and Russia where President Vladimir Putin was criticised earlier this year by Amnesty International for introducing a law which brands foreign organisations in Russia "undesirable" if they are deemed to present a threat to Russia’s constitutional order or security.

Márta Pardavi, a leading Hungarian human rights advocate, told Equal Times that CIVICUS’s findings are consistent with the experience of organisations in Hungary.

“The independent NGO sector that is reliant on foreign funding and often voices advocacy positions critical of government policies, is facing a series of unprecedented government agency controls, such as tax investigations, as well as being labelled with discrediting political insinuations,” said Pardavi.

“Coping with all these attacks, unfounded criticism and legal actions pose extra burdens on many NGOs making it more difficult to perform project tasks and also results in the politicisation of essentially non-partisan activities.”

Sriskandarajah describes the global backlash against civil society as deeply concerning.

“Despite the incredible work that civil society does, it remains under attack. In 2014 alone, we documented serious violations of `civic space’ – the freedoms of expression, association and assembly – in a staggering 96 countries around the world,” he said.

“To make matters worse, organisations that need funds the most, largely based in the Global South, receive only a fraction of the billions of dollars of funding that goes to the sector. It’s an untenable situation. Many funders know that civil society is doing essential work but we need more bravery from them to ensure the survival of those on the frontline.”

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