The European Foundation Centre (EFC) and the Funders’ Initiative for Civil Society (FICS) have published a paper on the trend of closing civil society space and its impact on funders and frontline organisations, along with potential solutions for dealing with the issue.


The paper, Why Shrinking Civil Society Space Matters in International Development and Humanitarian Action, is the result of a one-year joint EFC/FICS collaboration involving funders and non-profit organisations. Participants also contributed through roundtables and interviews to develop possible responses for reversing the trend.


Among its findings, the paper shows that the rise seen in recent years in restrictions on civil society’s ability to operate, especially in developing countries, is occurring due to a range of government measures. These include constraints on freedom of assembly, red tape, and limitations on NGOs receiving funding from foreign donors. It found that for international development funders, including international NGOs (INGOs), these restrictions can seriously impede their ability to support local organisations, undertake advocacy work or implement even basic service delivery programmes.


As a result, the paper shows, many international philanthropic foundations and INGOs appear to be taking an ‘adaptation and mitigation’ approach to these constraints, with few philanthropic development organisations engaging in advocacy to challenge shrinking space. However, the report suggests that while conciliatory actions aimed at respecting increased regulatory demands in order to maintain access to a country may seem sensible, they can in fact do the reverse and harm development’s aims.


The paper also explores potential ways forward and states that leaving the defense of civil society space in developing countries to a handful of organisations on the ground is unlikely to be sufficient. The paper also notes that approaches will differ greatly from country to country with oppositional or advocacy measures not always the best way to approach the challenge of closing space. It suggests that appropriate strategic responses should be agreed jointly with domestic and international partners wherever possible.


The paper is accompanied by a series of examples and experiences of how different organisations are responding to the issue, including around specific restrictions and drivers as well as in specific contexts and regions.  These focus on their responses to the closing space via alliance building and engagement in country specific contexts and the work around security policy and de-risking.