By Kingsley Orievulu and Jack Cornforth
When ActionAid Uganda faced attacks from the government for their work, including freezing the organisation’s bank account, unrelenting support from local partners and credible local leadership ensured massive popular support during the ensuing legal battle (and eventual victory) against the government.[i]
The persecution of ActionAid in Uganda is by no means unique. Across the world, civil society organisations (CSOs) and individuals face increasingly closing ‘civic space’, the fundamental civic freedoms that allow people organise, mobilise and take action. Inadequate funding, challenging legal environments, and state repression threaten CSOs very existence.
In ActionAid’s case, the organisation's broad support base can be at least partially attributed to their long-standing commitment to being accountable to their constituents. In short, their accountability contributed to their ability to resist the attacks.
Against the global backdrop of increasing restrictions on civil society, CIVICUS is researching ‘resilience’ - or ‘sustainability’, as some put it - specifically within the civil society context. Simply put, this means trying to better understand how CSOs absorb shocks or threats and remain viable, effective and true to theirs goals. By understanding how organisations in different contexts are becoming more or less resilient, we hope to work with our members and the wider civil society sector to help CSOs become more prepared, more durable and ultimately more effective organisations.
This research is a crucial piece of foundational work for CIVICUS’ Resilient Roots initiative, which is testing whether ‘organisations which are more accountable and responsive to their primary constituents, ie.e their roots, are more resilient against external threats’. The research is also part of numerous other research initiatives and projects CIVICUS is undertaking to better understand resilience in our sector, and how to better support it from the civil society perspective. These includes our work with PartnersGlobal, which aims to ‘design, test, and implement a capacity-building process to increase organizational resilience in the face of closing political spaces worldwide’, along with other efforts related to civil society resourcing, social movements, and more.
So far, the research has spanned an eclectic range of sources, including literature from academia, the development world (especially the humanitarian sector), corporate thinking (such as risk management theories), along with perspectives and case studies of organisational resilience strategies drawn from CSOs themselves. An initial goal has therefore been to synthesise the information emanating from these diverse places and try to apply it to the CSO context.
One thing we quickly learned is that resilience is a multifaceted concept, with different meanings and applications in different fields. But a central thread consists of disruptions, risks and uncertainties that are consequences of changes, shocks and threats to systems, whether at the community, national, sectoral, regional or even global level. The research also points to some common skills and capacities that enable CSOs to effectively respond to potentially disruptive events and trends. These are crucial to developing practical strategies towards effectively managing such ‘threats’.
For CSOs in particular, we’ve found that resilience implies the capacity of an organisation to absorb shocks and effectively respond to threats, in order to continue advancing their goals and ultimately safeguarding its very existence. This means the ability to remain stable despite:
- Increasing state antagonism and repression[ii]
- Intimidation of CSOs and activists by the private sector (often in collusion with governments)[iii]
- Reduced funding available to CSOs, plus funds becoming harder to access[iv]
- An accountability deficit and associated legitimacy crisis for CSOs among their constituents[v]
- Labour mobility away from the sector - a trend associated with low funding, as well as other internal risks to organisational health[vi]
In the face of these challenges, some of the strategies and practical steps CSOs are using to strengthen their resilience include:
- Strengthening local trust and support by being more accountable to the communities they work with[vii]
- Diversifying funding sources beyond reliance on the same external donors[viii]
- Building strong networks and increase peer to peer support, especially around capacity development[ix]
- Using strategic litigation opportunities through the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) systems against restrictive laws[x]
- Collaborating with national human rights institutions[xi]
- Leveraging international pressure[xii]
- Modifying and adapting operational strategies to be more flexible in response to rapidly-changing contexts[xiii]
- Develop early warning systems to recognise and respond to the closure of civic space.[xiv]
For Resilient Roots, perhaps the most pertinent insight here is the benefit of broad-based citizen support to CSO resilience. This comes at a time when many organisations have been accused of losing touch with the people whom they are trying to serve. The experiences of Dejusticia (Colombia), Centro de Estudios para la Equidad y Gobernanza en los sistemas de Salud (CEGSS, Guatemala), and ActionAid (Uganda) as mentioned above each provide insights into how organisational legitimacy, gained through transparent practices and meaningful local engagement, have made a vital contribution to the resilience of these organisations.
Dejusticia, for example, prioritised transparency and strengthening its local base to dispel government accusations that the organisation was merely a mouthpiece for interfering Western interests. This involved focusing on collaborations, partnerships and coalitions which elevated the voices of environmental, women rights and indigenous Afro-Colombian organisations, whilst eschewing the tendency to simply speak on behalf of these groups.
For CEGSS, legitimacy was built through the organisation’s decision to avoid government funding in its delivery of services to its target populations. Also critical to this organisation’s strategy was revising its advocacy strategy from “speaking on behalf of the communities they support” to providing capacity building services to community-elected representatives so that they can engage with government at different levels by themselves.
These examples demonstrate that CSO resilience also requires crucial capacities for effective implementation of strategies, whether available in-house or leveraged from elsewhere. These range from operational abilities like financial management and legal skills, to the ability to engage media outlets and rapidly mobilise supporters.
The Resilient Roots process that partnering organisations are undertaking not only intendeds to maximise the likelihood of increasing accountability to primary constituents, it also aims to increase their resilience to threats. Furthermore, a strong finding from our research is that membership based organisations, or those with the largest networks of allies, seem to generally be the most resilient because of the financial, legal or campaign-related support and solidarity they are able to draw on, especially at times of crisis.[xv] This chimes well with CIVICUS’ wider efforts to enable CSOs to respond to threats both collectively and quickly via the Vuka! coalition. In addition, we hope that organising our Resilient Roots pilot projects into a community of practice will enable these organisations to share and learn from one another, including to address specific vulnerabilities they have identified.
The link between a CSO’s accountability to its primary constituents and its resilience against disruptive pressures or shocks remains a challenging thread to follow due to the myriad of factors at play, and varies from one location to the next. The Resilient Roots initiative aims to make a contribution to a growing yet fairly modest evidence base, in pursuit of an increasingly nuanced, experienced-based interpretation of the accountability-resilience nexus in different contexts.