Political meeting

Is the UK setting a bad example on civil society space?

As the saying goes, “beware the fine print.”

In a time when big print (REFUGEES, CLIMATE CHANGE, INEQUALITY ) feels like more than enough to contend with, the idea of taking on the fine print seems akin to challenging the proliferation of fake news by reading an 80,000 word PhD thesis. You may feel better informed, but no better equipped to take on the status quo.

In the case of supporting civil society, however, it’s in the fine print where the UK development sector needs to spend some quality time. Small actions, however well-intentioned, can often have grave consequences – and not where they were originally foreseen. In this case, seemingly minor and subtle changes to the ways in which we regulate and manage UK charities have potential global repercussions.

Closing space at home?

The most known of recent regulatory changes is the Lobbying Act, which has led to civil society groups spending more time looking over the legal fine print of campaigning than actual campaigning. The Act requires charities to register with the Electoral Commission if they spend more than £20K influencing voters in the months prior to a general election. When there was a snap election last year, charities were left scrambling to understand what they had already spent, cutting advocacy programmes and generally backing away from anything that could be perceived as political, for fear of falling foul of the law.

More recently, the UK’s Charity Commission has made changes to the Annual Return by invoking anti-terrorism measures. One requirement is for UK charities to declare the overseas funding they receive – with a view that foreign funding could feasibly be a guise for terrorist financing, despite there being little evidence to support this claim. This falls on the heels of ongoing “bank-de-risking” whereby development charities already face a barrage of challenges transferring aid – like banks closing charity accounts because they view them potentially vulnerable for terrorist abuse.

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“Closing civil society space” is a bit of a nebulous phrase. But its impacts are very real. Witness the Lobbying Act’s chilling effect and the administrative burdens on charities. Or the rising vilification of NGOs, where aid is disparaged and, in this climate, where any misstep by an organisation adds to the rhetoric that denigrates an entire charitable sector.

Home…and away

In spite of these impacts, the UK remains a free and open society and while such restrictions will curb some potentially valuable work, they won’t impede civil society’s ability to function altogether. Yet here’s where it gets messier.

The UK’s regulation of charities has often been seen to be a beacon of good practice and adopted in several places throughout the world. But when small restrictive measures are introduced here, they can be used as a license to suppress civil society altogether elsewhere. Those governments with more autocratic tendencies become emboldened when relatively liberal countries, like the UK, adopt an increasingly restrictive stance towards its own civil society actors.

In restrictive regimes, foreign funding restrictions have become the key tool used to halt the oxygen of civil society groups altogether, as countries like Ethiopia and Venezuela have done. In many countries, simple labels like “foreign agent” have led to stigmatizing of civil society, especially where trust in civil society is already fragile.

The UK can’t progress human rights and development by using the mantra “do as we say, but not as we do”. By ignoring these regulatory issues at home, we – civil society actors, funders, regulators – are complicit in closing space abroad: effectively saying to the world that these restrictions don’t matter and that they don’t cause harm. But they do. The fine print matters a hell of a lot.

So what can we do?

The worst thing we can do is bury our heads in the sand and see this as a distraction from our everyday work. To see minor changes as one-off, mutually-unrelated measures would be negligent and undermine much of what all of us with an eye on development, are trying to achieve.

The Lobbying Act, foreign funding reporting, and vilification are all part of a wider trend. Freedom of expression, assembly and association are the lifelines of civil society, without which we can’t do anything about the BIG PRINT issues. We must wake up to the small print and defend them vigorously before it’s too late.

Deborah and a panel of experts will discuss how we can improve civil society space in the UK, and set a positive example for other countries, at the Bond Conference on 26-27 February,