Working together to protect, expand and reshape civic space

Inga Ferber Active citizenship, General, Governance, Influencing

Civic space is vital to defeating poverty. Inga Ferber introduces a new briefing on the importance of protecting and expanding spaces where people can raise their voices and be heard without fear.

Voluntary members of the Oxfam water and sanitation committee, Jamam refugee camp, South Sudan. Credit: John Ferguson

Voluntary members of the Oxfam water and sanitation committee, Jamam refugee camp, South Sudan. Credit: John Ferguson

Poverty reduction – an increasingly dangerous endeavour

Defeating poverty has never been easy. Nobody knows that better than our local partners and allies around the world who dedicate their work to tackling the root causes of poverty. In recent years however, defeating poverty has become more dangerous. In an increasing number of countries, citizens who raise their voices against power abuse are injured and detained. Activists who fight for gender justice are arrested and community leaders who defend their people’s sustainable livelihoods are assassinated.

These attacks are part of a recent global trend  which is reversing some of the democratic gains made during the 1990s and 2000s. In 71 countries around the world, the space for people to speak out, organize, and act on issues of interests to them is shrinking. This occurs not only in authoritarian states, but also in democracies, and all major regions in the global North and South.

Formulating a strong response to reshape civic space

International development organisations like Oxfam need to partner with local civil society to protect and expand civic space. Oxfam’s new Briefing Note, Space to be heard: Mobilizing the power of people to reshape civic space, sets out some ideas for how to do this based on learning from staff and partners.

Shrinking civic space is a global phenomenon, yet civic space does not shrink in a unidirectional or irreversible way. An Oxfam Country Director put it like this:

‘We should not see “shrinking space as the new normal” that we need to adapt to. It is a historic moment of transition, where history can swing either way’
‘We should not see “shrinking space as the new normal” that we need to adapt to. It is a historic moment of transition, where history can swing either way – we could be worse off, or we could get to something much better in the future.’

Civic space is what one of our partners from Asia describes as ‘elastic’: It is constantly shaped and reshaped through the dynamic interaction between policy-makers, civil society (including active citizens), the private sector, and others in a particular context.

To navigate this context, we must understand the drivers that shape civic space at local, national, regional (e.g. Horn, East and Central Africa and Latin America)  and global levels. Analyzing and tackling some of these drivers, such as rising levels of inequality, is among Oxfam’s core aims. The dynamics of other drivers, such as the rise of populism, we have started much more recently to unpack and examine.

How can we take action and reverse the trend?

Civil society (including grassroot groups, social movements, trade unions, civil society organizations and others) plays a key role in protecting and expanding civic space. We as civil society can mobilize and take action as active citizens to defend our basic freedoms. We can influence policy-makers to provide legal and political space. We can urge global institutions to uphold norms and accountability on civic space, and we can hold businesses accountable for the respect of civic freedoms.

Not all of us will have to engage in everything. Looking at the wide range of Oxfam’s partners and their diverse initiatives to protect and create civic space, I am convinced that it is the diversity and vibrancy of civil society that has the potential to reclaim civic space.

Looking at ourselves

It is also important that as civil society actors, we look at ourselves and our own ways of working. We must ensure that we live up to the principles of partnership, empowerment, inclusiveness, accountability, and integrity that we demand from others.

For international organizations such as Oxfam, that means constantly asking a range of questions: How do we ensure that we do not take the space of local civic actors? How do we practice good partnership, including recognizing each other’s autonomy and sharing risks? How do we involve and represent the people we work for and how can they hold us accountable? How can we connect with and support broader social movements for people’s rights?

To protect civic space, we must find appropriate answers to these questions and adapt our ways of working accordingly. What this could look like in particular contexts became visible during Oxfam’s Global Civic Space Learning Event in July. For three days, staff and partners from 26 countries exchanged experiences and explored ways to protect and expand civic space.

Working together is the way forward

Hearing the inspiring stories of our staff and partners convinced me that whether as civil society we are going to be successful in reshaping civic space, will very much depend on how we go about the struggle: as a fight for one’s own institutional survival, or as a collective struggle about fundamental human rights and everyone’s ability to determine his or her future.

While the first option leaves every actor isolated when crackdowns occur, the second one is what will help us protect and expand our shared civic space.

Download the briefing

Jonathan Parkinson