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Rethinking Civic Space in an Age of Intersectional Crises

4Q4 Podcast, Interviews

Authors of a report on the closing of civic space are calling on funders to realize their potential through collaborative and targeted interventions.

Digital Impact 4Q4: Poonam Joshi & Ben Hayes on Reclaiming Civic Space


00:00 CHRIS DELATORRE: This is Digital Impact 4Q4, I’m Chris Delatorre. Today’s four questions are for Poonam Joshi, Director of Global Dialogue’s Funders’ Initiative for Civil Society, or FICS, and Ben Hayes, Director of AWO, a legal firm and consulting agency working on data rights. In 2019, FICS launched a strategic review aimed at helping funders realize their potential to disrupt and reform the drivers of closing civic space through collaborative and targeted interventions. The organization has published the first in a series of recommendations considering how a range of factors created the conditions for an accelerated dismantling of civic space worldwide. Today, we’re sitting with the authors of the report, who are calling for new ways to expand the space for civic participation.

CHRIS DELATORRE: Poonam, let’s start with you. Most of those you interviewed felt that existing funder initiatives were insufficient in responding to the scale of the challenges now facing civil society. What is your vision for building a global movement that pushes against the drivers of closing civic space and how likely are governments to agree?

01:20 POONAM JOSHI: Thank you, Chris. I think the challenge is in recent years we’ve all been aware of this phenomenon but we’ve all been looking downstream. So, a lot of the action has been around legal defense, protection security—really necessary interventions, but not ones that would go to the heart of what would really make a difference. And through this research we had a real a-ha moment in identifying—not just a range of drivers but three drivers that seem to cut across all of the issues that are going to be really contested over the next decade, from combating climate change to economic and social inequality and the future of democracy.

And so, the first sort of basis for this global movement is do we have a shared analysis? And we’re really calling upon civil society funders to galvanize their focus around the three dominant drivers of closing civic space. The first one was governments using abusing counter-terrorism and security laws and discourse and tools for political and civic repression. The second was around ideological threats to democracy and civic space by the far right and religious right. And the third was around abuse and concentration of economic power. And I think COVID has elevated the importance of that first driver. And although there are movements that exist around challenging economic power, in combating the far right, what you currently have is no equivalent movement around looking at how the discourse, the laws the tools around securities—and here I’m talking about everything in terms of legal frameworks—if you look at the national security legislation introduced in Hong Kong or the anti-terror bill in the Philippines, the discourse, you know we’ve seen it in the US with the Trump administration characterizing racial justice protestors as a threat to security. We’re seeing it in the proliferation of surveillance technologies that are now being harnessed to look at problematic actors in the civic space, and not just in the sort of fora of terrorism and extremism.


Poonam Joshi (FICS) and Ben Hayes (AWO) are asking funders to realize their potential through collaborative and targeted interventions. “What opportunities does technology offer in terms of radical new forms of accountability?”

What you don’t have is an equivalent movement to the climate movement, to the labor rights movement, to #MeToo, to the demand for racial and justice equality—that’s focusing on what does it mean to start questioning the logic of misuse of security powers and discourse and tools. In terms of where that would start, we can see pockets of movement building and resistance. We’ve seen it most vividly in the US and Black Lives Matter. There are equivalent micro-movements in other countries from within the communities—indigenous communities, feminist, women peace and security, those working on environmental justice who have been on the receiving end of police brutality and militarization for years. How do we start resourcing them at the scale required so they’re not just looking at protection security but they’re starting to question who’s behind these laws and who’s supporting this at the international level within the UN and other international bodies.

The next phase would be to then link those movements globally but also link them vertically up to those international spaces where you have a handful of coalitions that have been looking at how the UN and other bodies have been driving proliferation of laws globally around counter-terrorism and security. But how do you link up these movements into a global networked response? In terms of how governments will respond, for years both authoritarian and western governments have benefited from the dominant focus on countering terrorism and security. But I think what we are beginning to see in particularly in the context of COVID, some real disquiet from amongst western democracies about how the proliferation of emergency powers and new forms of surveillance technologies are going to equip particularly authoritarian leaning actors with the tools and discourse and the laws they need to shut down civic space in their countries. So, the challenge is going to be how to convert sympathy of those western democracies into some concrete changes at the international level, but also for them to hold those authoritarian actors to account on the international stage.

“From where we are now, the challenge is really about looking at the way security technologies are currently impacting civic space.”

05:58 CHRIS DELATORRE: Ben, you’ve said the future of civic space will be shaped by crisis, that crisis “moves the window of regressive forces.” let’s look at how tech can be both a problem and a solution here. Where does tech fit into this reimagining of security? Are we at risk of replacing one ill for another?

06:23 BEN HAYES: Thanks, Chris. I think I’ll start by sort of unpacking a little bit more about what we meant by crisis moving the window of regressive forces, and we know from history that crisis tends to favor forces on the right, right? So, whether that’s economic shock doctrine driven by neoliberal economists, the launch of the War on Terror, which Poonam mentioned in the introduction [inaudible] emergency powers that were then quickly made permanent, or the exploitation of economic crisis by authoritarian populists, which we’ve seen increasingly in recent years.

We wrote our paper on the future of civic space before the pandemic hit. And obviously none of us saw it coming but it did reaffirm something that had seemed fairly obvious since the global financial crisis of 2008: and that’s that politics and social and material life more broadly were going to be shaped by the response to crisis. Now, whether that was climate change, recurring economic crisis, financial shocks, social polarization, geopolitical conflicts, whatever. So, there’s reasons to be pretty pessimistic about the direction of world travel in 2020 but it’s not to say that it’s inevitable that we’re sliding into chaos or spiraling inexorably into disaster. The reason we did sort of frame the research we did around future crises was really to make the point that looking ahead, civil society should be thinking about how crisis [inaudible] change may play out, and what that means for their own strategies and progressive change. So, if we don’t look at tech, I’m not sure it’s necessarily about replacing one kind of security with another as such, but more about responding more coherently to the challenges and opportunities that certain technologies pose in the context of civil society and civic space.

I think probably all of your listeners by now have woken up to what Evgeny Morozov called “the net delusion” and how the utopian promise of the internet—global connectedness and so on—would quickly give way to sort of surveillance and social control, and push back against activism and civil society. I think that’s one point. I think we’re also collectively in the process of understanding the implications of what in the last few years has been termed surveillance capitalism as a mode of governance that potentially limits the capacity of civil society to push for radical social change on issues related to democracy, economy, and security. So if we then think about the sites of struggle in which civil society is present—so the streets, the workplace, education settings, government, the digital arena, the public sphere and so on—we then have to ask ourselves how is technology changing those spaces, and not least because—you know I think again as we’ve all seen that this sort of new normal engendered by COVID-19 is clearly accelerating these changes. Then I think the question becomes, you know, how is it that states are mediating or failing to mediate those spaces in ways which constrain or undermine civic action. As Poonam mentioned, we can ask the same question about ideological actors—those regressive forces you mentioned. How are they using these spaces to push their own agendas in ways which are often explicitly designed to limit or undermine the capacity for progressive or radical social change?

In turn, I think the question then becomes what opportunities does technology offer in terms of radical new forms of accountability—so be that for the way we’re governed, be that the way security is constructed and practiced, or be that in the defense of civic space itself. I don’t think we’ve got all of the answers yet or at least sort of how to link those answers together. But what we tried to do with the paper is point towards the need to up our game from simply advocating for human rights and good government and an enabling environment for civil society and so on. Because the world is so much more messy and complex than it was even a decade ago.

I think the final thing to say is yes, that sort of techno-utopian vision still persists within Silicon Valley and elsewhere. And there really is a danger that we say, look, these the problems that we have with unaccountable police forces or the misuse of certain police powers might be solved if we came up with another way of governing at distance that marshaled technology in ways to sort of take certain actors out of the picture or rethink the way security is conceived and practiced. But I think from where we are now, the challenge is really about looking at the way security technologies are currently impacting civic space, and then thinking constructively about how to develop a shared understanding of the harms and appropriate responses to these very messy challenges.

“To get this on the agenda of governments, you have to have the public behind you on a massive scale.”

11:48 CHRIS DELATORRE: Poonam, one of your main objectives is to identify current initiatives on civic space that need scaling up. According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, one of the factors limiting international response to closing civic space is a failure of funders to commit the necessary resources to addressing the issue. How do we convey to civic space funders the critical nature of investing in infrastructure and capacity? What would an effective response look like?

12:23 POONAM JOSHI: I think in terms of that urgency, and something we’ve been trying to get across in the aftermath of this report, was a very strong sense for many of those we interviewed, that we just had a very limited window for action. Many, particularly those working around technology and climate change, at most gave us a decade to really ensure that progressive forces were resourced and galvanized on par with some of the malign actors that we’re seeing already trying to advance their visions and values over the next decade. And that spans from governments—like China, who are experimenting in exporting repression, but also companies—fossil fuel industry, still engaging in climate science denialism but also attacks on civil society.

So, we’re up against considerable odds here and when we ask the movements on the frontline what they needed, yes, they want us to galvanize to counter those drivers, but they also want philanthropy to invest in positive visions. And one of the things that we highlight in the report is a section on the playbook of the far right and the neoliberals. Why have they been so successful in positioning themselves now at the kind of vanguard of shaping the systems over the next decade and beyond. And what we found was that both the far right, religious right and particular neoliberal actors were incredibly good at investing in three things and these are the three things we think progressive funders should be investing in.

First and foremost, movements. Not project funding, not short-term funding but long-term core-flexible support to movements on the ground but also connections between those movements at the transnational level. One of the ironies of nationalists like [Viktor] Orbán and [Jair] Bolsonaro and [Narendra] Modi, is even though they’re talking about sovereignty, they’re extremely good at sharing tactics, tools, and coming together in transnational spaces in a way that progressives simply aren’t. So, investing in those movements though the grassroots funders that already exist or trying to support those movements directly. Secondly, investing in visionary thinking. So, supporting progressives, not just to talk about what we don’t want but what we do want instead of current models of democracy or economy or security. And then thirdly, narratives. Because of this limited window of opportunity we have, as we were interviewing people, they were saying that time is not on your side.

To get this on the agenda of governments, you have to have the public behind you on a massive scale. And so that requires yes, doing work on policy and advocacy and trying to convince government officials of our agendas, but actually it’s about getting the public on board. And this is something the far right, religious right, are extraordinarily good at doing. So, for progressive funders, that means funding in narrative change work in strategic communications at scale and making sure those resources are available for a whole range of civic actors that currently just don’t have access to the kind of expertise technology or tools. So that would be a starting point for what funders should do.

“The question then becomes what opportunities does technology offer in terms of radical new forms of accountability?”

16:06 CHRIS DELATORRE: The last question is for you both. It’s clear these are critical times for defending civic space, and there’s still plenty we can do. I think the question on many people’s minds is: how can we match the scale of what we’re up against? How are these critical efforts being advanced right now inside and outside of the sector, and what kinds of organizations or initiatives should practitioners be aligning themselves with? Ben, let’s start with you.

16:40 BEN HAYES: That’s a great question. And I think if we give an honest response to that, the answer is quite challenging for us. So if we’re talking about the acceleration of authoritarianism, the dramatic capabilities that states now have using surveillance technology—Poonam mentioned China but look at the way technology has been able to manage repression at scale of say the Uighur community, that would have been unimaginable I think just sort of a decade ago—just the sophistication of the technology, right? I think the honest answer is that there is a massive mismatch between what we’re up against in terms of the scale of the problem and the resources that civil society have. But I think there’s also a number of trends that we can already see that give us cause for optimism. And I think the first of those perversely is that as closing civic space comes to affect more activists and movements and organizations and philanthropic funders, there is this growing realization that these problems are systemic, intersectional and profound in ways that Poonam mentioned. And is something that is affecting democratic and illiberal regimes alike.

So now we’re starting to see humanitarians talking about closing humanitarian space, doctors criticizing over-securitized response to COVID, educators pushing back on ideological interference in the education system, tech workers demanding divestment or withdrawal from repressive technologies or toxic partnerships. And so, I think in much the same way as Ed Snowden—his revelations possibly didn’t realize to the sort of—didn’t result in the reform of surveillance policies he had hoped, we all had hoped, his legacy was to radicalize a generation of software engineers. And I think this sort of overtly authoritarian turn of the last few years is radicalizing people outside of traditional activist and civil society spaces in ways that the sector has to recognize and engage with. I think this is already resulting in the kinds of innovation and cross-sectoral alliance that are going to be needed moving forward, both within professional civil society and outside relationships that simply weren’t there before. And perhaps most importantly I think there’s a sort of realization that activists and social movements that are on the sharp end of the repression and institutional brutality that the term “civic space” so poorly captures in a way, are potentially much better vehicles for elaborating change and alternatives than sort of professional civic space advocates have managed. Poonam already mentioned Black Lives Matter and how they’ve already shifted the conversation on how to address overtly securitized unaccountable police forces in ways that just weren’t a part of the conversation just a couple of years ago.

The overwhelming lesson and one that I think many people have already heeded, is that for those of us who are engaged in trying to reimagine or develop a shared vision of democracy, economy, security that’s fit for the decades ahead, it is going to be about listening and engaging with social movements in ways that civil society traditionally hasn’t done and hasn’t done well.

20:32 CHRIS DELATORRE: Poonam, same question. How are these efforts being advanced right now, and what kinds of organizations or initiatives should practitioners align themselves with?

20:44 POONAM JOSHI: I think across the three drivers, we’re seeing mobilization at different levels that would advance a whole range of issues including civic space. In relation to abuse and concentration of economic power, we’re obviously seeing a growing climate justice movement globally, but we’ve seen a resurgence of labor rights activism in the context of COVID, and there are existing networks and initiatives that funders could support. But there are also a number of philanthropic entry points for those new to this issue. And in particular I’d like to point out FORGE, which is a new pooled fund looking at issues of human rights around the global economy. There’s the Edge Funders Network, which is a space for funders to come together to figure out where they can focus their efforts around issues of climate change and environmental justice. But I know that climate—the intersection between climate and civic space is one of the issues that they’re looking at. I think that when you’re looking at the far right and the religious right, there’s been some amazing work done by a coalition of LGBTI feminist sexual reproductive rights groups over recent years in tracing where the money is coming from for systematic campaigns across US, Latin America, Europe, parts of Sub-Saharan Africa targeted at rolling back women’s rights, LGBTI rights, etc. And the coalition that’s behind that, which is being led by the global philanthropy partnership, is trying to do something very ambitious next year, which is bringing together 200 funders united by the fact that the movements that we are engaged with are on the receiving end of global systematic attack on human rights.

So, that’s certainly another entry point that funders could align themselves with. When you’re talking about digital threats to democracy, there are some really interesting developments that are trying to match the scale of what we’re up against that Ben mentioned. So, for example, Luminate has set up a new fund called Reset, which is looking at countering digital threats to democracy, and within that looking at the heart of the power of the tech giants and how to start fragmenting that power in ways that they can actually be held to account. But you’ve also got initiatives like Ariadne that is trying to get all of its members to incorporate a focus of tech and power in their work. So, the stepping stone for much of this work is going to be convincing not just the five or six funders that already fund this work, but how do you build a community of funders, for example, willing to fund at the intersection of tech, threats to democracy, and threats from security. So, I think that’s certainly something that’s worth your listeners checking out.

In relation to security itself, we’ve seen a massive gap in resources, so FICS is going to be pivoting over the next six months to set up a new fund on securitization and civic space to provide a vehicle for those funders who can see that all of the issues that they care about and the grantees that they support are being criminalized, are being delegitimized, are being surveilled, and would like to do more in addition to help them with digital and physical security but want to help them boost their efforts to counter what’s coming from the upstream level. So, FICS is going to be launching that fund in March of next year and through that we’re hoping to support both international groups but frontline movements to take united action against securitization.

24:45 CHRIS DELATORRE: Poonam Joshi, Director of Funders’ Initiative for Civil Society at Global Dialogue, and Ben Hayes, Director of AWO, thank you.

Digital Impact is a program of the Digital Civil Society Lab at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society. Follow this and other episodes at and on Twitter @dgtlimpact with #4Q4Data.