Conference highlights - OECD Civil Society Days 2019
INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON CIVIL SOCIETY SPACE
6 June 2019 - OECD Conference Centre, Paris
The International Conference on Civil Society Space took place on 6 June 2019, on the occasion of the
first Civil Society Days1
(4-7 June 2019) organised jointly by the OECD DCD and the Task Team on CSO
Development Effectiveness and Enabling Environment (Task Team). Development co-operation
stakeholders, including members of the Development Assistance Committee (DAC), aid providers, partner
country governments, multilateral institutions, civil society organisations (CSOs) and academia came
together to tackle the challenges of shrinking civil society space. They discussed strategies to better
defend and expand that space, build trust and form multi-stakeholder partnerships for the
implementation of the 2030 Agenda, with a focus on SDGs 16 and 17. The discussions were informed by
the GPEDC’s 3rd
Monitoring Round of Results for Indicator 2 which assesses the enabling environment for
civil society to operate and contribute to development; the working paper on OECD’s Study: ‘How DAC
Members work with civil society’ which will form the basis of new DAC guidance for effective support to
and partnerships with civil society; and the Act Alliance / IDS / DFID synthesis report on the implications
of civic space for the SDGs.
The conference contributed to an effective, coordinated response to the trend of closing civil society
space, with interventions from the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
and of Association, Clément Nayaletsossi Voule; the Irish Minister for European Affairs, Helen McEntee;
the Secretary-General of Amnesty International, Kumi Naidoo; and the Deputy Attorney General of
Ethiopia, Geleta Seyoum, - among others2
1 Other events included: a DAC-CSO Dialogue Meeting in which CSOs and DAC Delegates held policy discussions and exchanged updates on their respective agendas
and priorities in line with the DAC-CSO Dialogue Framework; a brownbag lunch on the role of CSOs in South-South and triangular co-operation; a half-day workshop
with the first DAC Community of Practice on civil society, which gathered feedback from experts on new DAC guidance for effective support to and partnerships with
civil society; the b-iannual meeting of the International Donor Group; and the bi-annual multi-stakeholder meeting of the Task Team.
2 Opening remarks were delivered by the OECD Deputy Chief of Staff, Juan Yermo and the Director of the Development Co-operation Directorate, Jorge Moreira da
Silva. Addresses were also given by: the Assistant Director-General and Director of Partnerships and Innovation of Sida, Alan AtKisson; the Coordinator of the Malian
Office of the Prime Minister, Modibo Mao Makalou; the Executive Director of PIANGO, Emele Duituturaga; the Chair of the OECD Development Assistance Committee,
Susanna Moorehead; the Co-Chairs of the Task Team; and representatives of the Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation (GPEDC), the World Bank,
the Institute of Development Studies, the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam, and Funders Initiative for Civil Society.
Taking stock of the challenges facing civil society
● In recent years, civil society actors have come under increasing pressure in many parts of the world,
both in developed and developing countries. Freedom House documents more than a decade of net
declines in political rights and civil liberties in countries worldwide34
- including freedoms of peaceful
assembly and of association. Human rights and advocacy organisations – including women’s
organisations – are victims of this shrinking space.
● From around the globe, there are testimonies of the shutting down of civic space, the closing of
debate and dialogue, and the adoption of restrictive legislation5
regulating CSOs, including with
respect to their funding, registration, taxation, and burdensome procedures. Restrictive legislation
and repressive practices have led to stigmatisation, harassment, and even criminalisation of civil
● The measures taken by States to counter terrorism, violent extremism and money laundering have, in
many places, limited the ability of civil society actors to carry out their work.
● Restrictions to civil society space undermine the achievement of Agenda 2030, are incompatible
with the goal of leaving no one behind, and endanger development commitments to inclusion,
equality and sustainability.
Major outcomes of the discussion
● Civil society space is under pressure from several angles. Civil society faces attacks not just from
state but also non-state actors including corporations, religious actors, populist movements, and
organised crime. Closing space goes beyond restrictions on freedom of association and assembly – it
includes for example restrictions on digital freedoms ranging from surveillance and on-line
harassment to shutdowns.
● Space is both shrinking and changing: over the last few years we have seen the growth of
conservative civic movements and more fluid, informal, and decentralised citizen mobilisation and
popular organisation, including large-scale protest movements often times led by youth; as well as
new types of digital activism.
● New forms and new actors raise questions about how to promote an enabling environment across
all civic freedoms, and what are the mechanisms for challenging the actions of non-state actors.
● Too often, the shrinking of civil society space is followed by pointing finger at partner country
governments for adopting restrictive legal and regulatory frameworks. However, the responsibility is
shared across many actors, including development co-operation providers,
international/intergovernmental organisations, local governments, the private sector, and CSOs. Also
civil society actors play a role, with demands for accountability an ongoing challenge for their own
effectiveness, and power imbalances restricting space for important civil society actors, including new
civic movements. INGOs are contributing to shrinking space by using local civil society to advance
their own agendas and competing for funding and voice. Through their own practices - the way they
provide financial support in particular – donors/aid providers contribute to disenabling environments
for civil society. By using CSOs as implementing agencies, partnerships with CSOs become
3 Freedom House, 2017. Freedom in the World 2017
4 Regular updates available through CIVICUS Civil Society Monitor. See also CIVICUS, 2015. State of Civil Society Report 2015 and CIVICUS,
2016. CIVICUS Annual Report 2016.
5 Since 2013, 181 new civil society regulations have been proposed or enacted (ICNL), 67% of which were restrictive, negatively affecting CSO’s
ability to register, operate, advocate, and receive funding.
transactional rather than transformative; funding priorities and mechanisms are perceived as driven
by donors’ own programming interests, thus having a negative impact on civil society’s
independence, legitimacy and effectiveness.
● The close relationship between enabling civil society space, the realisation of human rights, and
fostering an environment conducive to development is essential and of great importance.
● An enabling environment for civil society that fosters inclusive dialogue and partnerships at the
global, regional and national levels - is an essential element to achieve the SDGs, in particular SDGs
16 and 17. Interaction, engagement and ways to identify opportunities for greater collaboration are
needed more than ever.
● Space for civil society engagement in policy dialogue has become more inclusive in global fora.
However it remains relatively limited at the national level. At both global and national levels – while
civil society voice and representation are increasingly accepted, participation takes place on a rather
ad hoc and superficial basis rather than in a systematic and meaningful way. Consultations are taking
place on national policies and donor aid policies, but CSO inputs are not consistently used to inform
policy-making nor are there clear feedback mechanisms6
. In addition, decision-making processes are
still exclusively government and donor-driven.
Creating enabling environments for CSOs: examples of good practice
Donor country governments
● The Citizens’ Assembly in Ireland which consisted of 100 citizens who considered and submitted
reports on a number of key national issues to the Parliament; and the Citizens’ Dialogues on the
Future of Europe which allowed individuals and organisations of all backgrounds in Ireland to make
their voices heard on the future direction of the European Union.
● Ireland’s new policy for international development - A Better World - which includes a reiteration of
Ireland’s firm commitment to support and protect civil society space.
● The guiding principles for Sida’s engagement with and support to CSOs which promotes core
support, long-term collaboration/agreements; and simplified reporting requirements.
Partner country governments
● The new law governing CSOs in Ethiopia which ushers in a new era marked by a more open
operating environment for civil society. The new law repeals and revises a series of past repressive
laws which restricted and controlled the activities/areas of engagement, forms of
coalitions/partnerships, and funding of CSOs. The Government took a bottom-up approach,
consulting and engaging civil society during the drafting of the law.
● Inclusive consultative processes led by the Government of Mali and its efforts to engage, through
dialogue and cooperation - civil society in the development and implementation of policies such as
the new development plan for 2019-2023.
● The role played by the Ugandan NGO National Bureau in terms of structuring the engagement of
CSOs and acting as an interlocutor for strengthened cooperation between CSOs, donors and
government at the country level.
6 GPEDC 3rd Monitoring Round of Results for Indicator 2
International / intergovernmental bodies
● The OECD DCD/DAC approach to development cooperation and the recent DAC reform process
which integrate civil society in its work and assist members toward more effective cooperation with
CSOs. This is marked by the implementation of the DAC-CSO Dialogue Framework since July 2018;
increasing engagement with civil society in DCD work streams; peer learning among DAC members in
a new Community of Practice on Civil Society; and changes that are being undertaken to improve
donor practices and policies including through the development of new policy guidance.
● The World Bank’s Global Partnership for Social Accountability (GPSA) programme - a multi-
stakeholder collaboration framework that supports civil society, governments, and the private sector
to work together to solve governance challenges. It connects civil society projects to state-led sector
reforms expanding opportunities for CSOs to co-create locally identified solutions to pressing
governance problems with the public sector.
● The UN-HRC 2018 resolution on Civil Society Space: engagement with international and regional
organisations, championed by a cross-regional alliance led by Ireland, Chile, Japan, Sierra Leone and
International / donor country-based CSOs
● Amnesty International’s efforts to shift power to the local level by building a more inclusive human
rights movement in partnership and alliance with local CSOs on the ground, as is the case in Ethiopia,
rather than trying to establish offices in all partner countries.
CSOs in partner countries
● In Jemna (Tunisia), community leaders put in place a transparent and accountable civil organisation
– the local board of trustees - to run a 180-hectare state-owned date palm plantation (oasis). The
board of trustees contributed to local development by returning profits from date auctions back to
the community and reinvesting these on needs identified by the community (i.e.: buying an
ambulance, renovating the school and rebuilding a covered market).
Multi-stakeholder dialogue and collaboration
● The Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation (GPEDC) and the Task Team (which
celebrated it’s 10-year anniversary) are examples of multi-stakeholder partnerships and efforts that
promote CSO development effectiveness and enabling environment.
● Re-think the support to CSOs and civil society at large, both individually and together in multi-
● Understand how new actors and spaces (national populist parties, protest movements, digital
platforms) are impacting on development; take stock of and review policies and practices of support
to and engagement with civil society.
● Make space more available for multi-stakeholder dialogue with CSOs, particularly at the
local/country level as a key element of civic space - to benefit from civil society’s insight and
experience and allow CSOs to contribute to defining and monitoring policies.
● Increase the effectiveness of consultations by making them more institutionalised, regular,
predictable and transparent.
● Strengthen multi-stakeholder partnerships for the SDGs with CSOs, including at the country level.
● Join forces and build coalitions across civil society, donors, governments and media. However, keep
in mind that not every engagement is an opportunity. Consider partnerships on a case-by-case basis;
identify the most progressive elements/actors in the most progressive countries.
● Refrain from distinguishing civil society from local community to avoid stigmatising local
community. Civil society is embedded in local community.
● Implement the Belgrade Call to Action: Positive Measures for Enabling Civic Space towards
Maximising Civil Society Contributions to the SDGs.
● (Governments and donors in particular) - Institutionalise CSO participation in their own processes
and provide the means for systematic consultations and meaningful engagement at global and
national levels (i.e.: translating documents into local language so they can be consulted by local
● Address both the symptoms and root causes of closing civic space which is part of a broader
backsliding of democracy, rule of law and human rights.
● Strengthen policy coherence and coordination – between sectors, between development actors,
and between the global and local/country levels. The last point implies aligning global commitments
with / translating global commitments into action at the local level (for example, some governments
who are parties to global commitments are the same governments who adopt restrictive legislation).
International mechanisms and advocacy have proven very useful for spreading awareness, building
norms, and placing pressure on governments. It is effective when complemented by strong action at
the national level that is locally-led.
● Change the rhetoric around youth: young people are not waiting to become the leaders of
tomorrow. They are claiming their right to action today. They play an important role in spurring mass
mobilisations of other segments of society to engage – including prior generations.
Partner country governments
● Ensure that their legal and regulatory frameworks facilitate people’s ability to organise and operate
CSOs, in theory and in practice.
● Improve how they dialogue with CSOs on national policies.
● Play a role in encouraging other partner governments to strengthen the enabling environment in
their respective countries.
● Provide effective development cooperation for CSOs that allows CSOs to be effective and responsive
to local priorities (local ownership of CSO programming is essential for development results).
Examples include: increasing core support to CSOs as independent development actors in their own
right; supporting civil society partners’ efforts to strengthen their own effectiveness, including their
transparency and accountability.
● Strengthen civil society as a sector by fostering a strong, vital, pluralistic and democratic civil society,
for example: by supporting change agents within partner governments who want to promote an
● Lead by example by strengthening policy coherence between foreign policies on civil society and
the promotion and protection of civil society space domestically. One example relates to the need
to improve space for dialogue with CSOs, including on development policies.
● Shift the focus to the local level / localise support: The most effective efforts to counter and block
restrictions to the environment for CSOs have been led by local civil society - often working in
coalition. The most effective way to strengthen civil society is through local support in order to build
a diverse and resilient civil society at country-level that serves marginalised communities. This
requires: shifting more resources toward initiatives that are locally anchored and nourish civil society
at ground level; core support and/or other mechanisms for channelling resources quickly and flexibly
to national and local actors; capacity building and stronger collaboration amongst civil society and all
● Distinguish access to power versus influence over power; avoid mistaking the opportunity to
dialogue with power as access to power. Rebalance CSOs’ gaze: not only look at those with power,
and if they are going to deliver on their commitments, but also turn the gaze to those who are
powerless and whose voices need to be brought into forums.
● Strengthen CSO effectiveness including the power balance in CSO partnerships, CSO transparency
and multiple accountabilities in line with the Istanbul Principles. CSO accountability is also an
essential leverage to counter the trend of restrictions on civil society space at country level.
● Formal INGOs and organised civil society need to address new civic activism; they need to reflect on
whether their structures are still fit for purpose and consider ways to decentralise power to
strengthen new civic actors.
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