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Enabling Environment for Civil Society

BY: Bernd Steimann
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Today, civil society is under significant pressure. This is undermining inclusive sustainable development. Action is needed to protect, promote and expand this environment.

'Enabling environment for civil society' essentially is the political, economic and social space in which civil society representatives operate. Today, in many parts of the world, this space has come under serious pressure, leading to the exclusion of civil society from public debates, thus hampering the work of Helvetas and its local partners, and seriously undermining inclusive sustainable development as a whole. We need to take concrete, coordinated action to protect, promote and eventually expand the enabling environment for civil society.

Civil society and civil society organizations (CSO) play a vital role for development by way of providing citizens an opportunity to gain, gather, hold and exchange information, to participate in shaping development policies and partnerships, to initiate and oversee the implementation of these policies, and to claim their legitimate rights as citizens. For many decades, CSO have contested existing power structures and defended the rights of vulnerable people. However, since around 2010 civil society has observed an opposite trend that portrays growing efforts to restrict citizens’ engagement and CSO operations in many countries around the world.

Today, more and more CSOs work in an environment where their operational and political space is considerably limited ('closing space'). Those include legal as well as arbitrary measures such as restrictive administrative procedures, which hinder registration or access to funding, stigmatization, criminalization, intimidation as well as physical harassment.

At the same time, Western governments and donor agencies have acknowledged CSOs as development actors in their own right and have committed themselves to actively working towards a more enabling environment for civil society. However, little has happened at both international and national level to actively reverse the worrying trend and better protect and support civil society actors.

Why is this important?
Effective advocacy requires certain preconditions. In contexts where the right to form interest groups and associations, to access information, to speak up and to participate in development-related political debates do not exist, advocacy can become highly difficult if not impossible – and at times even dangerous. This is not only true for us as an INGO, but the more so for our local development partners and for civil society representatives in general. The ‘enabling environment’ is underdeveloped or even absent in many of our partner countries: lack of recognition or weak local actors, a disabling environment (e.g. restrictive legislation, suspicion/fear, lack of information, spaces and resources), as well as limited participation and representation in policy drafting  and implementation in various sectors. This seriously limits the prospects of our local partners and allies, primary stakeholders and ourselves to advocate on certain issues, and to deliver on project implementation and advisory services in an effective manner.

In order to create a more conducive environment to facilitate implementation, ease replication, ensure sustainability and enable advocacy on specific issues, we strive to create an enabling environment for civil society representatives (including INGOs such as Helvetas) and other relevant actors of change.

What exactly is an Enabling Environment for Civil Society?
'Enabling Environment for civil society' refers to the political and policy context created by governments, donors and other actors that affect the ways civil society actors might carry out their work. In this respect, civil society actors encompass CSOs and other less structured entities, recalling that formal CSOs form only a tiny part of civil society. The European Commission (2012) defines Enabling Environment very broadly as:

«(…) a functioning democratic legal and judicial system – giving them [CSO] the de jure and de facto right to associate and secure funding, coupled with freedom of expression, access to information and participation in public life.»

The European Commission

In the run up to the 2011 High Level Forum on Development Effectiveness in Busan, the Open Forum for CSO Development Effectiveness elaborated five Minimum Standards for an Enabling Environment for Civil Society Organizations:

  • The fulfilment of human rights obligations affecting CSO action
  • Enabling financing
  • Accountability and transparency for development
  • Democratic political and policy dialogue
  • CSO as development actors in their own right

For more conceptual background and a detailed list of activities in countries, in Switzerland and at global level, see our Advocacy Concept Note (June 2019).

Our International Alliances
Helvetas joined CIVICUS, World Alliance of Citizen Participation in 2012, and has been associate member since 2015. CIVICUS mission is to "promote a worldwide community of informed, inspired, committed citizens who are actively engaged in confronting the challenges facing humanity."  CIVICUS has launched the CIVIC Space Monitor, a real-time, interactive database on the state of civil society freedoms in all countries. Since December 2018, Helvetas is a member of the new Vuka! coalition, which emerged in response to the growing consensus that civil society needs greater coordination of efforts and to develop new forms of organising to fight back against the closing of civic space. Vuka! seeks to coordinate civil society responses to reclaim civic space and mobilize diverse civil society sectors. It consists of over 140 organisations and networks spanning a broad spectrum of civil society actors, including social movements, labour organisers, humanitarian groups, development organisations, environmental groups and human rights defender coalitions.

Joint Learning Process between the Swiss NGO Platform and SDC
In 2014, the Swiss INGO Platform and SDC launched a joint learning process around the 'Enabling Environment for Civil Society'. The aim is to build a joint understanding of the concept and of related challenges in Swiss partner countries, and to increase and improve exchange and cooperation between SDC, Swiss INGOs and local CSOs in order to protect, promote and expand the space for civil society in general. From 2015 to 2018, five case studies were conducted in Honduras, Laos, Tanzania, Myanmar, and Cambodia, serving as an input for mutual learning and exchange in these countries and in Switzerland. Two joint learning events were held between SDC and members of the Swiss NGO Platform in Berne. Prominent keynote speakers included Maina Kiai, Dr. Danny Sriskandarajah, and Clément Voule. 

ACT – For an Active Civil Society Together: From 2019-2023, 100 civil society organizations will receive support to better connect with the citizens, boost civic activism, improve cooperation with local self-governments for better public services, as well as increase networking and efficiency of Serbian CSOs. Through the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, the Swiss government supports the consortium of Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation and Civic Initiatives, Belgrade to realise the goal to contribute to an active civil society for the benefit of all people and higher citizens’ engagement in decision-making processes, particularly at the local level. The ACT project will support CSOs in Serbia through different grant schemes, capacity building, and constituency building.

Our Vision and Mission

Our vision is of a just world in which all men and women determine the course of their lives in dignity and security, using environmental resources in a sustainable manner.