Shrinking space for civil society

Imagine yourself in a big room. Slowly you realise that the walls and ceiling seem to be moving closer. As you dash to the back wall to stop its movement, the front wall creeps forward, too.

The government gives you a set of new rules that should keep the walls where they are. You implement the rules and strive for total compliance, and for a while, it seems to work. However, in the back of your mind, you are constantly trying to determine how small space you can continue to work in in a meaningful way. When do you step out of the door and close it behind you, maybe forever?

In recent years, the international debate on humanitarian assistance and development cooperation has brought up the issue of shrinking space for civil society. Physical threats have increased and aid workers in conflict zones are no longer safe like before. Deaths occur every year. Sometimes humanitarian access is denied, which is contrary to International Humanitarian Law.

More subtle means are also used. Even when a country is experiencing a drought, its government does not declare a state of emergency. This prevents humanitarian organizations from conducting needs assessments and coordinating potential relief efforts with sub-national authorities. The situation provides an opportunity for politicians to take advantage of vulnerable people: “Vote for me in the upcoming elections, and I’ll bring water to your field.”

The shrinking space concerns not only humanitarian assistance but also longer-term development cooperation in countries that can be considered to be on a reasonably good path of economic development. And that’s where the sophistication of how restrictions are enforced comes into play.

To start with, it is possible to slow down the processes of registration or of granting operating licenses for non-governmental organisations. The process can be stretched over a period of months or even years. During this time, if the previous license expires, an organization will fall into a delicate state of legal non-compliance. This, in the world of Kafka-like administrative processes, provides a government with a theoretical possibility of closing down the organization. Some organizations have a higher tolerance for this uncertainty than others. Organizations whose activities a government considers too critical because they e.g. defend human rights or raise environmental concerns are particularly affected.

The implementation of project activities may also be subject to authorization by government officials. All meetings of more than three people must be pre-approved. The authorities give themselves permission to suspend any event they deem inappropriate – even on something as benign as a training on vegetable growing.

Obtaining work permits for expatriate staff can be made difficult as well. It is understandable that some countries want to limit the number of foreigners working for NGOs and guarantee employment opportunities for their own nationals.

But after a long waiting period for a work permit, without permission to exit the host country before your paperwork is done, your thoughts start to centre around concerns. If there was a need for an emergency medevac, would I be allowed to leave the country? If a work permit is impossible to get for the new staff member, does the employee live in a neighbouring country and commute regularly to the country of employment? What are the economic, ecological and staff well-being costs of travelling between the two countries?

Sometimes, the administrative requirements on NGOs should in principle be supported. For example, building up taxation is a necessity for each country, because no government can develop better and more comprehensive services for its citizens without a broad tax base. International NGOs also need to contribute to taxes, even though it seems that taxes are being collected, but services are not increasing.

But when new taxes increase operating costs by ten per cent during a single year, even the usually happy taxpayer Country Director will be challenged when trying to balance budget figures. Many organizations have to give a second thought on their cost structure and continuity. Not every organization will continue.

Every international organization with operations in developing countries is faced with these issues. In some countries more often than in others.

When are the walls too close and meaningful operations no longer possible? What is the cost of aid? When do we reach the point where we need to hire more administrative staff just to ensure we are able to meet new administrative and legal requirements?

Each organization defines its own limits, and it may not be easy. Sometimes the reflection is daily or weekly, sometimes there are several good months in a row. It takes away valuable time from more productive work: coordination with other actors, improving quality, tracking results, developing new initiatives to better serve the people in need.

And that is exactly the purpose of shrinking the space for civil society.

Saara Lehmuskoski works as Country Director for Finn Church Aid in Cambodia. The examples mentioned in the text are a collection from her long career in development cooperation, not necessarily from the current country of employment.