Barriers to Civil Society Organisations

Dr Ibrahim Natil

Local and global civil society organisations (CSOs) operate and engage in various contexts and cultures. Understanding the different settings where CSOs are embedded is important for different target groups, including scientists, researchers, national-level policymakers, donors, NGO staff and the beneficiaries themselves, as each of these stakeholders have different interests and outlooks. Understanding of barriers to effective CSOs and their ability to cope with political, economic and financial shifts is based on the promotion of active grassroots engagement. The UNDP Human Development Report (1993) defines civic engagement as “a process, not an event that closely involves people in the economic, social, cultural and political processes that affect their lives”. There are governments in various countries that give very limited civic space for CSOs’ operations in the field of human rights and democratic development including limiting access to national and foreign funding (CIVICUS, 2015). In fact, only 4 per cent of the world’s population are estimated to live in countries where fundamental civil society freedoms, association, peaceful assembly and expression are respected and CSOs are allowed to operate freely and effectively (CIVICUS, 2019, 6). Brian Pratt contends that the social implication of shifts in funding may not be the most crucial challenge to CSOs (Pratt, 2016:527–531). These shifts are serious challenges faced by different types of CSOs and affect their functions, responses and sustainability. Their sustainability has been an issue of debate owing to growing challenges that are operational, financial and political in nature.

Political shift

CSOs seek to empower civic-participation and hold governments accountable by reporting discriminations against marginalised groups. They possess the ability to contribute to change, provided there is a transparent and effective political system where citizens can participate and engage freely without any legal or political restrictions. David Lewis (2013: 337), however, argues that CSO activities often serve to “enhance the legitimacy of the state, in terms of a shared international discourse on civil society, and domestically in helping to meet the challenges of rapidly changing societies”. Some scholars argue that it is crucial to understand how authoritarian and hybrid regimes control and consolidate power over the civil society sphere during transition phases. Civil society activists and ordinary citizens also suffer from ineffective, inefficient and insufficient public policies, which have made their functioning even more difficult. Hayman argues that CSOs always need multifaceted resources to operate freely, effectively and sustainably, within a proper civic space of a healthier political environment, with limited reliance on foreign aid (Hayman, 2016: 671).

Funding shift

Despite significant restrictions, funding CSO activities have grown substantially in certain areas like advocacy for human rights and democracy development with support from major donors. Mawdsley, Savage and Kim discuss the paradigm shift in dominant constructions of ‘foreign aid’ and a substantive shift of power within the architecture of global development governance (2013: 27). The shift always hinders the CSOs’ ability to perform their work by influencing policy processes that exist in some of the developing countries owing to the political landscape shifts, such as MENA (Naatil 2014). Funding shifts have been a serious problem and challenge for CSOs in various countries despite the fact that international cooperation remains a main source of funding. Pousadela and Cruz (2016) argue that the reduction of funding for CSOs can be attributed to factors affecting bilateral donors, economic growth, and operational and financial restrictions stemming from political polarisation and increased government hostility towards CSOs in various countries. Foreign aid remains, however, essential for CSO peacebuilding and development programme implementation (Baliamoune-Lutz, 2016: 320–341). CSOs in Palestine, for example, dealt with the most severe financial crisis since its establishment after the Trump administration withdrew its contributions to UNRWA which amounted to $359.3 million in 2017 (Zanotti, 2018). In Palestine, a drop in international funding affected most notably efforts towards peace and developmental policies and practices.

This shift of agenda and operations has weakened the intervention of CSOs, owing to decreased foreign aid and unstable political circumstances (Natil, 2016:78–82). CSOs continue to highlight human rights violations to gather international solidarity and strengthen relationships with international organisations and donors. This relationship, however, does not guarantee grant success or donations without proposing a quality and well-structured project that is relevant to the donors’ scope of work, intervention, conditions and values. The ability of CSOs to challenge a funding-shift is a significant factor in responding to social demands, owing to economic and political shifts

Social shift

The power to understand and interact with social shifts as well as policies imposed by governments has been a serious challenge to CSOs and their operations and responses in different areas across the world (CIVICUS, 2019). Putnam, Leonardi and Nanetti 1993: 167) discuss “facilitating coordinated actions” that can improve the efficiency of a society through active engagement. This also strengthens trust in others, norms, network and the ability to interact, with the result that social cooperation extends to mutual benefit. Maria Zlatareva (2008) expands on this type of facilitation and network assistance to strengthen people’s abilities to engage, opening up space for their involvement, facilitating dialogue and consensus-building, providing access to information and mobilizing them for collective action. Constitutional reforms contribute to promoting the role and engagement of CSOs in the process of change while the ability of the regime and a soft opposition to reach a transitional pact greatly matched democratic prospects (Hinnebusch 2015). Zlatareva (2008) asserts that “citizens organise for collective action and interact with national and local level state institutions but also non-state actors such as CSOs and the private sector, and articulate their interests and exercise control over decisions that affect their lives”. CSOs from the global North, however, come under immense pressure, owing to the question of legitimacy, credibility and transparency (CIVICUS, 2015). Wiggers (2016) argues that legitimacy and credibility stem from the ability of CSOs to generate resources from the local community and to engage with the entire community.

In this short summary, I have discussed briefly the themes I engage with at length in my book (2020) which brings together case studies from various countries such as Ireland, Ecuador, Colombia, Egypt, Palestine, Morocco and Iran, sharing diverse challenges experienced by CSOs in areas such as civic space, emerging new political shifts and social contexts and funding.


Dr Ibrahim Natil is a Research Fellow at the Institute for International Conflict Resolution at Dublin City University. He is the Co-convenor of NGOs in Development Study Group, DSA-UK. He is also the winner of Robert Chamber Best Overall Paper, selected by DSA Ireland (2017). He is the author and editor of a number of books.

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