The quest for resilience

By  Patricia Deniz, Senior Research and Development Officer CIVICUS 

Civil society, more than ever, is in dire need to reinvent itself, at least figure out how to be flexible, adaptable and resurgent in an ever-changing, uncertain and increasingly restrictive environment. Sustaining the status quo or surviving a crisis are no longer sufficient in contexts in which change happens unpredictably and drastically, requiring innovative responses to old problematics and new complex challenges. Instead, civil society aspires to becoming resilient, a term well known in the environmental and humanitarian spheres that is yet to be further analysed and explored in the CSO world.   

Resilience in the face of closing civic space refers to the ability of CSOs to not just survive but thrive and grow in the face of disruption. It’s a strategic capability that allows us to manage imbalances and seek an opportunity in a crisis. CSO resilience is essential to defending democratic principles and achieving social justice, and therefore the need for us to start further investing time and effort in supporting it from within the sector.

We’re facing an emergency on civic space that is unlikely to recede soon; threats to civic freedoms are no longer just happening in fragile states and autocracies, mature democracies are also the stage of strenuous abuses of power. These threats manifest themselves in different shapes and forms throughout the world, and while there seem to be certain commonalities across countries on how they affect our sector, CSOs experience them in different ways depending on their context and own internal circumstances and characteristics.

While countering these restrictions and trying to protect their civic space, CSOs begin to grapple with the practical complexities of becoming resilient, wondering how to secure something that is so multidimensional and complex in nature. The concept has certainly become a buzzword nowadays, and there’s constant reference to resilience and civic space in the international development agenda; but how do we move from conceptual grounds to eventually ensuring that we are truly resilient organisations?

There’s no one size fits all when it comes to resilient practices, nor can we continue as a sector justifying our failures or successes at it based on the scale and gravity of external threats only. We also need to start paying attention to our internal risk factors and our own vulnerabilities as organisations, adopting a systemic lens that understands and recognises the links between these external and internal elements. 

We can’t expect to build our organisational resilience only focusing on diversifying our sources of unrestricted funding if we don’t count with strong internal financial capacities and don’t pay attention to the external environment in which we operate. Likewise, we can have outstanding accountability systems and procedures in place towards our primary constituency, but if we don’t invest in strong partnerships within and outside the sector, and don’t prioritise understanding and preparing for the possible negative effects of an unstable legal and political environment, we might find ourselves in trouble. 


It’s the balance in this dual approach that can help us take further steps towards becoming more resilient. Over the last few decades a lot of emphasis has been placed in reinforcing organisational capacities to increase CSO sustainability over time, looking at internal systems and procedures, human resources management and development, strategic leadership and planning, etc. And while this more traditional approach is still indispensable, the state of current affairs is forcing us to also start gearing organisations with the necessary skills to prepare for and respond effectively to changing and severe external circumstances. 

This establishes an inevitable interaction between what CSOs face externally (civic space threat) and how they function as organisations (organisational threat); it requires CSOs being aware of their circumstances, vulnerabilities and risks, and establishing a culture that helps them minimize problems and grasp opportunities.

From this perspective, CSO resilience becomes not a defensive/reactive strategy, but a positive/preventive strategic enabler which allows our organisations and leaders to take measured risks with confidence. This approach to resilience requires the commitment from the entire organisation, as it’s founded in values, culture and behaviours that need to be led from top to bottom, but also require bottom-up engagement.

Resilience 2

As the above graphic showcases, the resilience process calls for establishing a continuum between prevention, response and adaptation. In the current civic space landscape, it is imperative that organisations and other CS actors put more emphasis in understanding and assessing their present conditions, monitoring the system they are part of and the interactions between its multiple components. This will enable them to take the pulse of possible different scenarios, anticipate potential risks, and plan for preventive or responsive strategies depending on the type and level of threat they are facing at a given point in time.

Paraphrasing Aldous Huxley, “Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him.” The same could be said of resilience: it is not what happens to civil society, it is what civil society does with what happens to it. It is a long-term process that requires continuous learning and trial-and error models around how we function and the environment in which we operate, demanding organisational and individual willingness to change, learn and improve, as well as innovation, flexibility and self-critique.

Being part of broader networks that promote peer learning and sharing has proven to be vital when CSOs are exploring new territories and learning how to challenge themselves to become more resilient. This is why CIVICUS wants to strengthen its support around this topic to the members of the Alliance, not only formal CSOs but the wide range of actors that compose our rich and diverse civil society universe (CBOs, CFOs, social protest movements, individual activists, etc.). We aim at doing this from a capacity development perspective but also through the several work streams already in place that look at CS resilience from different angles and as part of different projects. 

These CIVICUS initiatives (Resilient Roots, Organisational Resilience Framework, Resourcing Dialogues, Sustainable Protest Movements) have evolved in the last two years as a natural step in achieving our 2017-2022 organisational strategic goals, as new alternative approaches to our partner’s needs, and the increasingly complex, uncertain and troubling times that the sector faces.

All of them have originated under the assumption that promoting and achieving CS resilience in the face of closing civic space needs to take into consideration the following elements in a coordinated manner:

  • ü The multi-dimensional nature of resilience and the elements that affect it (sectoral, organisational, individual, contextual; internal/external; cultural, technical, procedural)
  • ü How different civil society actors face civic space constrains and experience resilience (CSOs, community organisations, social movements, individual activists, etc.)
  • ü The varied ways in which resilience can be supported and tackled through different thematic lenses (accountability, resourcing, network and solidarity building, organisational and staff development, psychosocial support, etc.)

As we embark ourselves in this new journey towards supporting the resilience of the sector, we would like to call upon our members and partners to engage with us in this exciting challenge and share with us your views, ideas and suggestions on how we can best achieve this goal. We look forward to your inputs at