How resilient are our pilot partners to civic space threats?

Soulayma Mardam Bey & Jack Cornforth



In recent years, “Resilience” has made its way into international development’s buzzword bingo board. Yet despite its increasing popularity, the concept often remains poorly understood. In this article, and during our upcoming Resilient Roots event at ICSW 2019 (Wednesday afternoon ), we will take a closer look at what this concept means for civil society organisations in the context of closing civic space.


As we have discussed previously, in the broader civil society context resilience relates to the skills and capacities that enable organisations to respond effectively to potentially disruptive events and trends. In many cases this relates to the ability of organisations to respond to threats in order to continue working towards their objectives, but it can also include how well they can adapt their approach or focus to simply survive, especially for those in more restrictive environments.


Through Resilient Roots, we are specifically testing whether organisations that are more accountable to their primary constituents are also more resilient in the face of threats related to civic space – i.e. their freedom of expression, to associate and assemble.


Our pilots partners organisations are based in a wide range of civic space contexts. Using the CIVICUS Monitor’s rating system, this translates into: 1x “Open” (Costa Rica); 3x “Narrowed” (Greece, Serbia, Argentina); x4 “Obstructed” (India, Peru, Benin, Madagascar); and 7x “Repressed” (Zimbabwe, Uganda, Mauritania, Russia, Nicaragua, Thailand, Palestine). To examine this hypothesis, we have now measured baselines with our 15 pilot partners for both accountability and resilience. Here, we outline some findings from the resilience baseline process:


Resilience is a complex concept and will mean different things to different people, even within the same organisation. So we engaged a range of people at our pilot organisations, first via an online survey where staff identified which types of civic space-related threat they have faced during the past year, and scored how severe the threat was. This included both bureaucratic threats[1], such as challenges related to NGO registration, receiving funds, or the ability to criticise government, and repressive threats[2] such as travel bans, harassment, violence and detention. Subsequently, we conducted in depth interviews with respondents to dive deeper into their survey answers and categorise the organisation’s response(s) to these threats, choosing either “resist”[3], “adapt”[4], “desist”[5] or “disband”[6].


While time consuming, this proved to be an enlightening experience! Regarding the process, we quickly learned that the way we initially phrased the survey made it appear we were only interested in threats that were directly experienced, at the expense of threats which were rather perceived, even if they still had an impact on an organisation’s decision making. For example, most organisations were wary about openly criticising the government, especially in more closed civic spaces, and therefore adapted their messaging and advocacy approaches accordingly, even if they themselves hadn’t ever directly experienced any consequences of being too critical. We therefore modified our language to account for this important nuance.


One of the first things we noticed from the data collected was that most organisations are responding to the same threat in various ways. When considering the need to “self-censor”, for instance, some pilot partners feel comfortable calling out those in power on certain ‘safer’ issues, while toning down their discourse or changing their approach in other areas to steer clear of trouble (e.g. focusing on social or environmental outcomes rather than probing their political causes). So in these situations, they can be both “resisting” and “adapting” to a perceived need to self-censor. This would seem to suggest a hierarchy of threat significance, with the “thematic issue” in question determining decisions about the need to “self-censor”.


We have also observed that organisations operating in vastly different contexts are often experiencing some of the same threats, plus deeming them highly significant. For example, multiple organisations in both narrowed and repressed contexts are being labelled as “foreign agents” in attempts to undermine their activities. Another threat that scored highly in different civic space contexts is the ability of organisations to receive funds; sometimes because of legislation that explicitly limits access to certain (usually international) sources of finance, but in several cases because this was due to more subtle administrative challenges.


As expected, bureaucratic threats and limitations were more prevalent than repressive ones. However that is not to downplay their significance, with false or defamatory reporting, working on particular thematic issues, and the ability to access information about other actors, for instance, scoring high for many of our pilots. Furthermore, when asking each interviewee to choose the single most significant threat faced, in terms of its impact on the work of their organisation, the vast majority of these were bureaucratic threats.


In a few cases, we noticed similarities in the ways very different organisations are reacting to the same bureaucratic threats. For example, when governments withhold important information, some organisations working in narrowed, obstructed or even repressed civic spaces are adapting to obtain the data they need, including by organising themselves into networks and sharing information gathered from their respective contacts. On the other hand, in more closed contexts, some pilots are choosing to desist certain aspects of their work in order to mitigate threats related to their thematic focus. For example, an organisation may speak out against government policy on SRHR, but choose not to do the same on LGBT rights, as this is deemed simply too controversial, even if the issues are directly linked.


We were however slightly surprised by the frequency of organisations adapting and resisting in obstructed and even repressed contexts, in addition to those in contexts where these responses would be more expected. This often seems to relate to the focus and approach of the organisation in question – many are not working on ‘political’ issues, giving them greater licence to push back against the government. Or in other cases, those working on political topics go to great lengths to present their findings and recommendations in apolitical ways.


Stay tuned for further analysis, including on the effect accountability could be having on the resilience of these organisations.



[1] We have identified these as:

  1. NGO registration;
  2. Ability to maintain a bank account or receive funds;
  3. Excessive scrutiny on operations, such as unnecessarily frequent fiscal audits;
  4. The specific thematic issue(s) the organisation work on;
  5. Restrictions on the ability to associate and assemble ;
  6. Restrictions on the ability to criticise the government;
  7. Ability to organise or take part in mobilisations, protests, or demonstrations;
  8. False or defamatory reporting by the media, or censorship of the media in relation to its reporting on your work/issue(s);
  9. A perceived need to self-censor your work ;
  10. Ability to access information about the activities of other actors (government, businesses etc);
  11. Subversion or infiltration by any hostile actors;
  12. Excessive monitoring of your activities or surveillance of your staff, whether electronic or otherwise.

[2] These include:

  1. A travel ban/restriction being placed on your staff/board
  2. Personal harassment/intimidation (including of family by a representative government, business, or any other hostile non-state actor
  3. Detention of your staff /board
  4. Any form of violence in response to your work

[3] An organisation continues or increases the amount it challenges the actor responsible for the threat, by continuing its advocacy or prohibited activity, as means of visibly disregarding the restriction/threat(s).

[4] An organisation continues challenging the actor responsible for the threat, but does so by adopting an alternative advocacy strategy or approach to project delivery, in light of restrictions.

[5] An organisation stops advocating or working on a particular sensitive issue and refocuses activities in light of restrictions.

[6] An organisation disbands and ceases operation altogether as a result of restrictions, including to protect individuals involved with the organisation.

Share this article!