USAID relies on local civil society organizations (CSOs) to play important roles in the development and humanitarian efforts that we support worldwide. However, current trends of governments placing restrictions on CSOs are requiring donors to find new and better ways to support civil society in difficult circumstances.
Following the release of the latest USAID Civil Society Organization Sustainability Index (CSOSI) reports for the Sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and Europe and Eurasia (E&E) regions, USAID organized and hosted a panel discussion entitled, “Closing Civil Society Space: Implications for Civil Society Sustainability,” for practitioners, experts and CSO leaders to discuss the report findings.
Without exception, a free and active civil society remains vital to a nation-state’s health. According to the findings of the CSOSI, however, civil society and CSOs in many countries around the world faces burdensome financial and legal restrictions carrying out their work.
In light of the growing trend of similar restrictive CSO/NGO laws appearing in countries around the world, the CSOSI tool “is more important than ever in helping us to understand the challenges and constraints CSOs face,” explained USAID’s E&E Bureau Assistant Administrator Paige Alexander who moderated the discussion.
Douglas Rutzen, the President and CEO of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) said that we are on the cusp of a “tipping point,” where civil society constraints become a social epidemic. Referencing Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Mr. Rutzen noted the importance of the “messenger” and that constraints are being adopted and transmitted by well-connected, influential countries, such as Russia, Egypt, Ethiopia, and Venezuela. He then noted the “stickiness factor,” commenting that these governments have been adept at casting constraints in rhetorically appealing terms, such as sovereignty, counter-terrorism, and aid effectiveness. Mr. Rutzen concluded on an optimistic note, stating that it is possible to reverse the tipping point. Indeed, he referenced numerous examples where the tireless efforts of local civil society, supported by long-term USAID assistance, have had significant, positive impact on civic space around the world.
Claire Ehmann of USAID’s Bureau for Democracy Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, Center of Excellence on Democracy, Rights and Governance, provided an overview of the CSOSI methodology and highlighted global patterns in sustainability . For example, financial viability continues to be the weakest area of CSO sustainability in both the Africa and E&E regions while advocacy is one of the strongest.
CSO leaders in Egypt, Ukraine and Ethiopia weighed in with the realities on the ground. According to Egypt’s Mohamed Zaree of the Cairo Institute of Human Rights Studies, just getting CSOs registered remains practically impossible in his country. Funding is also a significant problem in Egypt, where NGOs are prohibited from accepting foreign funding, on national security grounds.
In Ukraine, where CSO-led protests were occurring in real time, challenges lay in the relationship between citizens and the government. In her presentation, Lyubov Palyvoda of the CCC Creative Center asserted that in comparison to CSOs’ strengths to advocate on behalf of citizens, service delivery lags far behind.
In Ethiopia, the trend is reversed, with the great majority of CSOs working in service delivery. There, CSOs are burdened by the restrictions placed on the sourcing and utilization of funds. Debebe Haillegebriel, an independent legal service professional with CSO experience, explained that stipulations in the CSO regulations further constrain organizations from effectively carrying out their work.
The Aga Khan Foundation U.S.A. (AKF USA), a financial supporter of the CSOSI in four countries, remains committed to improving the enabling environment and promoting the sustainability of CSOs globally. In his presentation, the CEO of AKF USA, Dr. Mirza Jahani, elaborated upon the Foundation’s commitment to developing the financial viability of CSOs in participating countries. Through ‘community philanthropy’, public institutions can recognize and develop material resources locally to engage and change their countries for the long term. Building trust within CSOs and between citizens and the public sector is the second area of AKF’s work related to the CSOSI. For that, AKF USA supports an accreditation process, starting in Kenya and Pakistan. In those cases technological innovation such as e-platforms can help promote community responsiveness and resource-building.