Globalt Fokus is a platform for all of the Danish development organizations. It plays a key role in various advocacy activities in Denmark, and it also organizes discussions on issues of importance for civil society. On this particular occasion, Globalt Fokus had invited some of the Danish ambassadors (who are back in Copenhagen for consultations in August every year) to discuss the challenge of the shrinking space for civil society we have been  experiencing for many years in many countries around the world, including many of the countries where Denmark is active with development cooperation.

In his introductory remarks, the Director of Globalt Fokus mentioned that this challenge is no longer one that is likely to disappear soon – on the contrary, it seems to be worsening by the year. We therefore need to discuss how we can respond, and we need to consider if there is a special role for Denmark, considering the importance of civil society in our strategy.


I will first mention some selected highlights  given by the 7 members of the panel. Unfortunately there was very little time for discussion, which is what often happens in meetings like this!

The Danish ambassador to Kenya – Mette Knudsen – took a rather refreshing (some would say ‘surprising’) position by questioning to what extent, if at all, you can actually argue that there is ‘shrinking space’ in Kenya? Yes, she was aware that NGOs talked about it, but maybe this was just the type of complaint NGOs have become used to. Yes, the government had taken some initiatives to curb NGOs, but they had not been successful. Yes, a proposal for new CSO legislation would shrink the space, but so far it had not been approved. However, the ambassador was open for closer cooperation with Danish NGOs, to discuss local initiatives.

The ambassador to Ethiopia – Mette Thygesen – naturally had a different take than her colleague from Kenya, because Ethiopia has for several years been one of the examples always mentioned when shrinking space is being discussed. The country has in many ways become a ‘donor darling’, and much economic and social progress has been impressive. Unfortunately, it is clear to all observers that the political and human rights have seen less improvement. Denmark supports human rights, and the embassy does it best to support local organizations.

Ambassador Anders Tang Friborg has just ended his term in the Representation to the Palestinian Territories in Ramallah, and he admitted that the pressure on civil society is a reality. The politics of what is happening in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is extremely complicated and also very sensitive. He mentioned that it has been valuable to work closely with Danish organisations active in the area.

The ambassador to the Danish UN mission in New York – Peter Lehmann Nielsen – took a more general perspective, looking at how the UN system had become increasingly open and inclusive, and the process of developing and agreeing upon the Sustainable Development Goals and the recruitment of the UN Secretary-General were examples of this. There is a strong agreement (although not shared by all member states) in the SDGs that partnerships are required to deliver on the goals set. Denmark tries to show the way in areas where we can make a difference, like women’s rights.

Finally, three representatives from Danish civil society were asked to comment on the presentations by the ambassadors, and to also add their own perspectives. Secretary General for DanChurch Aid – Birgitte Qvist-Sørensen – agreed that the strategy for Danish development cooperation was ambitious regarding human rights, and both the ministry and the ambassadors were committed to deliver on this. Palestine was a good example of good cooperation with the embassy, while Ethiopia was difficult territory. The Deputy Secretary General from Sex and Society – Tania Dethlefsen – highlighted that everything they get involved in could be considered sensitive. They see it as important to help partners in the South to be visible internationally. The Director of  International Media Support – Jesper Højberg – pointed to the well-known fact that journalists and media are targeted in many countries, so they are used to work under difficult circumstances.


Listening to the presentations, I got the impression that not all of the participants fully understood the serious state of affairs. To clarify my own understanding, I am presenting some sections from an article that will be published in a magazine in Bhutan later this year.

We hear about it on a daily basis, and the news is no longer coming from only those countries that have a long tradition of authoritarian rule, like Egypt, Eritrea, Zimbabwe, and Ethiopia. In one of its recent reports, the highly respected International Center for Not-for-Profit Law presents disturbing updates on how development and humanitarian CSOs are also threatened in countries like Kenya, Panama, India, Nicaragua, United States, and United Kingdom. [The information is based on the article “Closing Civic Space: Impact on Development and Humanitarian CSOs”, in Global Trends in NGO Law, a quarterly review of NGO legal trends around the world, Volume 7, Issue 3, 2016, published by the International Center.]

In fact, the number of books and articles with titles like civil society under assault, civic activism in flux, protecting civil society space, and groups facing crackdowns have increased dramatically during the last decade. The same is true for the number of countries failing to respect the three basic and interdependent rights required to carry out the work of the CSOs: the rights to peacefully assemble, freely associate, and openly express themselves. There will no doubt be different degrees of restrictions levelled against the CSOs by the state in the countries mentioned above. However, the worrying sign is that we now also experience this in countries considered fully democratic.

The International Center monitors developments around the world very closely, and I agree that the most serious threats to CS can be categorized in the four groups of constraints and challenges they present in the 2016 report.

Burdensome legal requirements: this is probably the oldest trick in the book of the state on how to make the life miserable for a CSO or NGO – delay registration arbitrarily, interpret and enforce the law harshly, and request excessive reporting, just to mention a few of the tricks.

Restrictions on foreign funding and affiliations: a devastating weapon against the numerous CSOs that have received and depended on funding from international donors, and a weapon, which has been used a lot in the ‘viral-like’ spread of new CSO legislation. Governments will argue that this is to protect state sovereignty or national security, but this is not always the real reason.

Counterterrorism legislation and policies: most of this started after 9/11 in 2001, when states needed to develop legitimate measures to make sure that transfer of money and other forms of communication with terrorist organizations could be monitored. Unfortunately, as stated by a reports from the UN, counterterrorism laws have blocked and stalled CSO funding and projects.

Vilification, distrust and violence: this is when the relationship between CSOs and government becomes very political and messy, with offices being raided, property seized, leaders imprisoned on false allegations, and generally efforts to marginalize and harass the most visible organizations in particular.

From the optimism of the 60s and 70s, it seems like we have now reached a crossroads of some sort. I have always argued that a strong, vibrant and effective civil society able to deliver in those areas where civil society has comparative advantages, not least depends on a strong and legitimate state. Both sectors need to understand and experience from practice that cooperation between them is a win-win situation rather than a zero-sum game for society as a whole.

If state institutions are weak, political parties lack legitimacy, politicians pursue populist sentiments, elections are a farce, inequality is growing, ethnic conflicts result in violence and war, nationalism is seen as the way to go, then it becomes difficult to create the necessary level of trust required for civil society to plays its important role. Then you will easily get to a situation where civil society is seen as a threat to the institutions of the state, and whether this is true or mostly a perception does not really make a difference. The state will unleash its arsenal of repressive ammunition, as we have seen happen around the world. This will also lead to people being arrested, jailed, tortured and at times killed, as we have also experienced in recent years.

civil society at a crossroads?

I have just painted a rather gloomy picture of the state of affairs of civil society, and it is therefore important to add that there are millions of small, informal, and volunteer based associations that survive despite the challenges outlined. In a sense, they exist under the radar screen, precisely because they are small, and because they keep a distance to anything that smells of politics. They are humanitarian in nature, not political. They comfort the elderly in the local communities. They organize dinners for the hungry in inner cities. They make sure single mothers get a helping hand. They organize exchange visits between countries. They advocate for the protection of plants and animals.

The list of useful activities performed by hundreds of thousands of organizations and millions of people for the benefit of society is impressive. It is, I believe, fair to conclude that most societies around the world would not be able to function as well as they do without the contributions from civil society.

This should be remembered, when we embark on the last stages of this journey into the fabric and state of affairs of civil society globally. The truth is that the analysis of civil society shifts, challenges and options is a critical and necessary exercise for a rather small part of civil society, but an important part indeed. This has in fact been taking place on a regular basis since the 1980s, with each decade having its particular focus – the magic bullet syndrome, the need for capacity development, linking the national level with the global scene, how to engage with the political power, etc.

Because of the diversity of types of CSOs as well as political systems, it is close to impossible to come up with generic conclusions. However, I will refer to the summary from one of the most recent studies called Civil Society @ Crossroads because it involves organizations from both south and north, and because of my personal experience with some of the people involved. [The study “Civil Society @ Crossroads” was published in November 2012 by Society for Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), under the able leadership of Rajesh Tandon, who has been a key figure in civil society affairs for decades. The study was implemented in cooperation with several others – CDRA, PSO, INTRAC, EASUN and ICD.]

The project documented stories of civil society over several decades, in countries like India, Cambodia, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Netherlands, Russia, Ireland and the UK. It furthermore looked at issues like anti-corruption in India, land grabbing in Cambodia, citizens’ protest in Malawi and Uganda, student movement in Chile and many more. Based on this documentation, and discussions in seminars over a longer period, the following seven lessons emerged as reasonable conclusions in a global perspective:

The delivery gap: Citizen protest reflect the disconnect between citizens’ expectations and the performance of public authorities.

Old and new: New civil society actors are organized differently than the NGOs, expressing alternative values of inclusion, participation and innovation.

New media: Partnership of civil society with the old and new media both expands and regulates outreach and impacts.

Funding patterns: Contracting resource bases are reshaping civil society roles and relationships with government and business sectors.

Political influence: Political space for civil society and its relations with political society are simultaneously contracting and expanding.

National and global: Blurring north-south boundaries call for reassessing civil society roles and realigning relationships within and outside their countries.

Impact of interventions: Measuring the impacts of civil society actions entails expanded definitions of success over the longer term.

How to respond to these lessons in a particular country will depend on further analysis, because the importance of each lesson will necessarily vary from country to country. In a sense, to start with, you could even make a civil society diamond-like graphic presentation of how important each of the lessons are understood to be by civil society representatives, as well as outsiders in government and the private sector, because they are key to the performance of civil society.

some final reflections

I fully agree with the voices in the meeting that encouraged as much cooperation as possible to respond to [and to fight] the shrinking space we have been witnessing in recent years. But we need to do so with the right amount of realism, and this includes the following dimensions that were not covered adequately in the meeting:

Donor funding is no longer critical for many countries: Compared to two decades ago, many of the countries violating basic rights for civil society individuals and groups no longer depend as heavily on donor funding from countries in Europe that have traditionally been concerned about CSO rights. Today, they can turn to other donors, including China, which consider these rights to be less important. Denmark and other countries therefore need to be realistic about our influence.

Donors have rarely made a real difference: There are many examples of individuals and organizations being supported by donors, when they have run into problems, and support has come from both embassies and NGOs. However, I believe it is difficult to find examples of stricter NGO and CSO legislation being avoided due to interventions from embassies and Northern NGOs. In most cases, I would argue that the local resistance and willingness to fight the new legislation has been the key. This also underscores what the discussion in Copenhagen did not make clear enough: this is ultimately a political struggle! It is not really primarily a technical matter.

Remember the shrinking space in our own back yard as well: While discussing developments in the global south, we need to be mindful of what is happening in our own ‘democratic’ part of the world. The freedom to do what CSOs believe they need to do – especially those receiving funding from the state/government – is not endless. Even in Denmark, you will from time to time hear members of parliament state that organisations should not use state funding to critisize government positions.