24 October 2017

Civil Society under threat: why protecting and growing civil society globally is vital

This post originally appeared on the Barrow Cadbury Trust website

The Barrow Cadbury Trust was set up by husband and wife, Barrow and Geraldine Cadbury, almost 100 years ago.  We consider ourselves to be part of, as well as funders of, civil society and we still follow the old Quaker imperative (since adopted widely by others) of ‘speaking truth to power’.  That’s something we can do more or less with impunity in the UK, but this is not of course the case in all areas of the globe.

And because we see ourselves as very much an active player and partner in civil society, CAF (Charities Aid Foundation) approached the Trust to be a partner in its 2017 party conference fringe events around the issue of what has come to be known as the ‘shrinking space for civil society’ – the increasing trend of governments around the world to pass regressive laws that affect freedom of association, and repress the ability of people to speak up on important issues of civil liberty.

Bad news for civil liberties

The figures speak for themselves but are shocking nonetheless.  More than 120 laws constraining freedom of association and assembly have been proposed and enacted in 60 countries since 2012 – that’s a huge blow to individual and community rights and impedes good governance and the development of healthy societies where everyone has a chance to achieve their potential.

Here in the UK of course we have a rich heritage of charities and community organisations – and that rich heritage has had a vital part to play in the creation of the liberal democracy in which we live.  Our civil society – both its existence and its governance – is admired across the globe, not only by activists struggling in repressive regimes, but by those much closer to home in Europe.

The reaction of colleagues in countries we respect such as the Netherlands and the Nordic countries of Scandinavia to changes in UK law and regulation such as the Lobbying Act and the proposed Anti-advocacy Clause are surprise and bewilderment.  Of course the changes proposed for charities look relatively trivial compared to some of the changes we’ve seen in other countries such as Hungary.  But they undermine a long history of communities of citizens linked by common interests and collective activity and the comfort offered to those seeking to suppress opposition in parts of the world where speaking up comes at a great price.  The UK is seen as a world leader in supporting freedom of speech and protecting human rights – it’s hard to overestimate the impact that even small steps to limit freedoms of civil society has in other countries where political leaders seek to repress opposition.

Using international development to bolster civil society

Many on the international stage look to the UK as an example of best practice in charity law and governance, and see the benefits of a “thick layer” of civil society (to quote our colleague Jordi Vaquer from the Open Society Foundation).  It’s easy to take our own attitudes and traditions for granted and forget how influential the charity sector is in the UK.  That’s why in the party conference events with CAF we took as our theme the exploration of ‘international development as an example of the UK’s soft power’.

The UK can influence global behaviour and help set the conditions for positive social change by consciously setting an example and using our resources and experience to support the development of a strong civil society in countries with which we have relationships. The Government’s continuing commitment to the 0.7% aid target is very welcome.  We’d like to see a good part of those funds used to support the growth and maintenance of civil society. Soft power – projecting values through influence, ideas and the power of persuasion – is a powerful tool for influence overseas. By using our funds wisely, and by setting an example at home, we can use our heritage of a strong civil society to influence the change we’d like to see.



Barrow Cadbury Trust’s contribution towards the costs of the fringe events came from the Barrow Cadbury Fund.

Read about CAF’s Groundwork for Global Giving campaign

Read NPC’s ‘The Shared Society needs a Strong Civil Society’

Find out about work on this issue coordinated by the European Foundation Centre


Debbie Pippard

Head of Programmes, Barrow Cadbury Trust