Civil society faces global funding crisis

(Originally published by Equal Times)
Translations: Spanish | French

Putin has been criticised for clamping down on civil society. Photo by
Six out of seven people live in countries in which civic freedoms are under threat, according to a report by the global alliance of civil society organisations, CIVICUS.

The 2015 State of Civil Society report claims CSOs around the world face a funding crisis and 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 CSOs 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 (CSOs) 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.”

“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 $166 billion spent on official development assistance (ODA or aid) by OECD-DAC countries in 2013, only 13%, or $21 billion, went to civil society. 

Some human rights workers claim part of the reason for this is that governments are aiming 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, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of 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% 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.

Marta Pardavi, a leading Hungarian human rights advocate, told Equal Times that CIVICUS’s findings are also 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 politicization of essentially non-partisan activities.”

Dr Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah, Secretary-General of CIVICUS, said that the global trends regarding civil society are 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,” Dr Sriskandarajah 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,”