Civic space has been closing everywhere for a long time – from the UK to Mexico to Zimbabwe – and represents, along with the corruption that accompanies it, one of the biggest threats to democracy everywhere. For citizens, and particularly for those of us interested in free, open societies, this can be an existential threat – not a day passes without protesters being killed, journalists going missing or activists being murdered. For a translocal network like Accountability Lab this is also a question of survival, so we are doing everything we can to understand how we can proactively manage the challenges that come with closing civic space. Our Country Directors huddled recently and came up with ideas at three key levels that might be helpful for other CSOs like ours:

1. The eco-system level – because the first step to push back against closing civic space is to collectively organize to shift political incentives ahead of time to ensure that the room to push for more fair, equal and accountable societies remains open. We discussed:  

  • Unorthodox approaches – most governments respond to orthodoxy and are not always able to adapt quickly to new and creative approaches. We are working to build an eco-system of accountability advocates that can find new ways to push for changes that are positive (and therefore seen as less threatening); but also creative (to find new entry points for reform). We have found that the arts, creative industries and technology communities are all good places to start.
  • Understanding political cadence – and the fact that there are times when civic space may close (eg. before elections or during emergencies for example) and others when it may open up (after political transitions or during periods of international pressure perhaps). The key is to “scenario plan” and prepare for these, because the deep work needed to sustain open societies cannot be hurried when the effects of closing space are most acute.
  • Coalition building – because this has to be a collective effort. Meaningful coordination and collaboration to manage these challenges is essential, but it is also costly – and those costs have to be shared. This is also a security issue – it is much harder for governments to quieten a large collective of organizations (including the private sector and media) demanding space to be heard than it is to target disparate individuals.
  • Cross-sectoral dialogue – with allies from what might appear to be less contentious spaces (such as service delivery). While many laws to restrict CSO activity tend to start with a focus on advocacy or human rights related organizations, these can quickly be used to shut down organizations that provide essential services too. It is imperative that we understand each other and raise our shared voices in solidarity.
  • Relationship building – at the institutional level with key government departments and agencies – and with relevant people within them – to understand how political dynamics might be shifting and where the pressure points might lie to try and shift decision-making. This means constant informal negotiation alongside discussion in more formal spaces.

2. The institutional level – because if civil society-wide efforts to push-back begin to fail, every organization needs to be        ready to find its own ways to navigate the laws, structures and pressure they will inevitably need to face. We’re working on efforts to:

  • Self-regulate intelligently – to understand what is acceptable to governments within the countries in which we work (such as Nigeria), and what are no-go areas and feeding this back into programming. For example, in some places a specific focus on national level corruption in the COVID-19 response might be off the table; but local community engagement around improving accountability in health-sector service delivery might be a conversation that is feasible.   
  • Bring experienced lawyers onto on our Board of Directors – across every Accountability Lab, so that we have rapid access to the required legal support we might need if things go wrong – whether that means finding ways to push back against the introduction of new laws, or to understand how to navigate the legal system if pressure is applied to specific team members.
  • Coordinate with the media – because if someone is arrested, international media coverage is essential to pressure a given regime into following due process and in shifting political calculations. This doesn’t always work, but we are actively building relationships with domestic and international media outlets (and human rights organizations, social media companies and influencers globally) to sound the alarm if and when needed.
  • Build regional connections – because sometimes it is easier or safer to approach national issues through a regional lens with allies outside national borders; and to leverage regional and international approaches that can provide “cover” for some key demands related to democracy and accountability. As a network, we are actively sharing ideas and information with like-minded organizations regionally so that if we find ourselves in difficulty they know where and how to intervene. 
  • Understand registration dynamics – given that non-profit status can be increasingly difficult or cumbersome to obtain in many places. This might mean registering with another organizational form (such as a trust or for-profit); registering outside the focus country in ways that would allow activities to continue remotely; or working carefully through partners in different ways.

3. The individual level – because despite our best efforts collectively and institutionally, governments can still target individuals they would like to intimidate. Within our network of Labs we are focusing on efforts to:

  • Support mental wellness – because living in places where these issues are a concern is exhausting, particularly within a global context in which the pandemic endures and economic crises are looming. We subscribe to Lifeworks, which provides a suite of support for team members including access to 24/7 counseling and a wide range of other resources. The duty of care we have to employees is also a key performance indicator by which we measure progress.
  • Ensure safety and security – for every employee, including relevant plans that are reviewed constantly and security training that covers digital and physical security issues at every point. We have also put in place a standing safety and security fund that can be accessed by any staff member at any time to fund any kind of emergency costs related to these issues (such as evacuation, for example).
  • Identify allies within the system – within government at an individual level (and there are always some) who are sympathetic and who can sound the alarm to help each of us to stay safe if a government might be at the point of targeting a specific individual on one of our teams, for example. We are also constantly working to understand where allies more broadly – from foundations to security support organizations – might be helpful for each of us and when this assistance could be most catalytic in specific contexts.
  • Protect our individual networks – through using secure or encrypted communications tools as and when needed; being aware of sensitive content on our phones; understanding when and how to communicate with others; using two-factor authentication for all devices; using VPNs as necessary, and much more. There are some fantastic organizations out there that provide guidance and advice on these kinds of issues – such as Tactical Tech, Open Briefing and others.   
  • Equip our program participants – through conversations and training around the precautions they can take to protect themselves and their networks in difficult spaces. Our program participants are our allies in pushing for accountability across the spaces in which we work, and we take their safety very seriously. This includes significant emphasis on safeguarding as well as additional data confidentiality and contextualized mentorship on these issues over time.

None of this is easy and some of it is expensive – so there are inevitably gaps and ways to improve. But all of this is important as civic space continues to close – to protect our ability to fight for greater accountability but also to keep ourselves safe.

Written by the Accountability Lab Country Directors. Follow Accountability Lab on Twitter @accountlab.