Protecting civil society space at home and abroad

31 January 2017

Pressures and restrictions on civil society are becoming increasingly common. Concerns about civil society space are growing. Last week UK parliamentarians debated the issue in Westminster Hall. MPs stressed the importance of protecting civil society space both here in the UK and around the world, sharing examples from countries as diverse as Pakistan, Turkey and Colombia.

Civil society groups play a vital role at home and abroad, say MPs 

Patrick Grady MP, the spokesperson on international development for the SNP, explained that “a strong civil society is a key indicator of healthy, stable democratic societies.” MPs were also quick to express alarm about the constraints that many organisations face. 

The UK government shared this view and stressed its global commitment to promoting and protecting civil society. Speaking on behalf of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Sir Alan Duncan MP stated that: 

“The space in which civil society operates is under ever-increasing pressure throughout the world. Her Majesty’s government are fully aware of this disturbing trend, and we are working hard to counter it. The government believe that a free and vibrant civil society not only helps safeguard individual human rights but contributes to a country’s security and prosperity.” 

We often think of civil society space as a problem that only affects developing democracies. Yet it is also an issue in many older and more established ones. Parliamentarians used the debate to also flag the mounting pressures faced by UK charities.

They mentioned a number of restrictions, from counter-extremism measures to the Lobbying Act and the proposed anti-advocacy clause. Conservative MP Fiona Bruce said that the introduction of such restrictions “goes to show how vigilant we must be to protect civil society even in our own country.”

She and others encouraged the UK to set a strong example and use its soft power for global influence. Patrick Grady MP argued that “it has never been more important for the United Kingdom and its government to lead by example.”  

Protect civil society space in the UK

Bond works closely with the international development sector to champion and protect civil society space in the UK. We are concerned by the growing number of restrictions on UK charities that prevent them from speaking out on issues that directly relate to their work and the communities they support. 

This isn’t the only reason we’re worried. Ideas quickly transfer across borders and there is a risk that restrictions on civil society in the UK may be used to justify attacks elsewhere. In the words of Susan Elan Jones MP: “if we care about civil society space in other parts of the world, what we do, think and say in our country matters.”

This is why Bond believes that the UK should set a positive example for countries around the world. The government must create a supportive operating environment for civil society that encourages organisations to speak out and campaign here in the UK, as well as working to promote and protect civil society space overseas. 

About the author

Rowan Popplewell

Rowan is Bond's policy manager focusing on civic space and the operating environment. She supports organisations from across the development and environment sector to respond to restrictions on advocacy and campaigning in the UK.