Shrinking space- creating space!?


Addressing issues of inclusiveness, participation and accountability, aiming at influencing policy and political reform in the interests of peace and social transformation faces serious challenges. Ever more so in situations of violent conflict and fragility where political acceptance and operational space for civil society organisations from the global South and North is increasingly shrinking or merely serves vested interests. The external response by governments and donors to measures such as oppressive legislation or authoritarian governance in terms of intimidation, control, and regulation – often labelled counter-terrorism against external influence or harmonisation of national development priorities – is so far inadequate or needs to be further developed. The current trend is worrying as the international support and solidarity for civil society as peacebuilder is even declining.

Based on inputs given by Dr. Thania Paffenholz (The Graduate Institute Geneva, Switzerland), Nobokishore Urikhimbam (United NGO Mission Manipur, India), and Dr. Ursula Werther-Pietsch (Austrian Federal Ministry for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs) the discussion explored: What factors have an enabling or disabling impact on local civil society as peacebuilder? Which strategies does civil society in the global South and North use to protect and enlarge space in restrictive environments? What is needed to countervail limitations and obstacles such as the instrumentalisation of civil society, and what does this imply for external support?

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Adjustment of strategic partnership and external support is required!

The discussion clearly indicated the correlation between governments’ and donors’ policies on the national/international level and the impact on the space of civil society as peacebuilder. To countervail limitations and obstacles such as the instrumentalisation of civil society, relevant, timely and effective external support needs to:

  • Overcome compartmentalisation (“silos”) of sectors and develop complementary strategies;
  • Identify the right allies in the diverse field of civil society;
  • Strengthen protection for local actors and processes;
  • And develop funding structures and requirements which allow self-contained, constructive, but critical engagement in restrictive environments.


Potentials and limitations of civil society as peacebuilder depend on how national or local context conditions, the internal constitution of civil society, and the role of external actors and donors are played!

Firstly, the higher the level of violence, the lesser civil society’s room to manoeuvre. Secondly, even though the behaviour of the state roots very much in the role of powerful elites, evidence shows that attempts to buy-in with these elites or influential regional actors are rather rare. Thirdly, in case of oppressive legislation civil society lacks effectual outside support. The discussion verified that approaches of external actors are often not appropriate to the capacity and societal background of civil society. The ability of civil society to engage and cooperate as forces for peace is to a large extent founded in the internal constitution of civil society itself. Civil society’s diversity and power relations within civil society need to be taken into consideration. What is the historical background and status of civil society in a country? Is civil society divided along political, ethnic or religious conflict lines – and can they organise themselves across such divisions? Where are they based, where do they work, and what kind of work do they do? External support can help to overcome a lack of capacities, and link local civil society with international civil society organisations. However, in order to achieve this, external actors’ own capacities for the protection of partners and partner processes need to be strengthened.

Strategies of civil society in the global South and North: Establish linkages with different policy fields and corporate interests!

It comes as no news that it needs networking and strategic horizontal and vertical alliances ranging from local to national to international level. The discussion proved that local civil society’s room to manoeuvre in a context like for example Eastern Congo can benefit from engaging with international initiatives in other sectors, like the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) to demand the open and accountable management of natural resources from their governments by referring to global standards. Northern civil society actors can back this approach and strengthen local civil society’s security situation by engaging with the initiative Publish What You Pay (PWYP), holding own governments and companies accountable for the ways in which natural resources are managed. It was indicated that context specific options to create space in some Asian settings need to take mass mobilisation and protest into consideration.

Anja Justen and Caroline Kruckow

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