Civil society organisations can be well resourced and legitimate with established structures and strong leadership, yet still struggle to become truly sustainable. One reason for this might be challenges posed by the broader context within which they exist.

Extreme poverty may make it difficult to find sustainable local sources of financing. Conflict and political instability can create uncertainty, making it harder to plan and think strategically about the future. A restrictive political environment may compel organisations to keep a low profile or shift priorities to avoid scrutiny. In these circumstances, even organisations otherwise considered effective, can find themselves severely constrained in terms of what they can to do and the results they can achieve.

Organisations often work in contexts where political and operating space for civil society can be limited. This space can be restricted in a number of ways. The most high profile is the use of illegal and extra-legal measures such as harassment, arbitrary detention, and even assassination of civil society activists. Another is the presence of a repressive or restrictive legal framework governing civil society.

Good legal frameworks are crucial to creating a supportive operating environment.  Their absence, misuse, or arbitrary application can lead to an insecure and unpredictable environment, confusion, and inadequate protection for the freedoms of certain elements of civil society.

Legislation may also limit the amount of foreign funding and constrain the topics they can work on. In many regions, lines are blurring between the political, the civic and the social. This further constrains the work of civil society as it takes on politically sensitive issues in contrast to its historically ‘safe’ service provision role.

However, there are other more mundane factors that can squeeze civil society space, posing serious challenges to the effective functioning of civil society groups and consequently their sustainability. These can include controlled or tokenistic participation in policymaking, co-optation into service provision on behalf of government or dependency on external aid. Internal dynamics within societies make a huge difference to the sustainability of organisations and programmes following the withdrawal of external assistance. They can either support organisations and programmes to move successfully to the next stage in their life or make continuing operations more difficult. From my experience, what matters most, is the creation of a transitional locally owned space that can allow for continued deliberation and embed the process or change that was begun.

The issue of civil society space has been on INTRAC’s radar for a while, as well as that of other organisations such as Alliance 2015, CIVICUS and the Carnegie Endowment. Through our work, we have come across examples of organisations that have either ceased to function or been forced to operate in a severely restricted fashion because of the environment in which they find themselves.

Yet, we have also uncovered many positive stories. No matter how repressive or restrictive the context, there are always organisations that find ways of operating that allow us to continue to work towards their vision and mission.

These might include smaller social movements or community based groups that choose to remain informal and unregistered so they can stay under the government’s radar.  Larger, more established organisations may change their ways of working and mobilising resources; as well as tools that are harder to regulate or clamp down on such as social media. They might choose to operate at the local level, where scrutiny is less intense than at the national level. They may change the language they use to be less confrontational, speaking about building women’s confidence and awareness instead of referring to women’s rights for example. Others are able to ‘play the game’. They understand how the INGO scene works and they ‘get’ the politics of aid. Such organisations can influence funders to tweak and extend ear-marked funds so they can go further within their local contexts.

The organisations that thrive – not just survive – in these environments are savvy. They understand the context they work in inside out and they know how to navigate it. I believe that we can learn a lot from these organisations and it is good for this learning to be shared.

One way we can do this is by being more ‘place-sensitive’. I use the word place deliberately as it is much more specific and nuanced than context. It reminds us to view the locations in which we work in geographical, political, economic, and historical terms. More importantly, it reminds us that places are also repositories of cultural (and sometimes religious) norms that shape socio-political attitudes and behavior. It encourages us to seek an understanding of local peoples’ own sense of place, which is deeply rooted in emotional attachments and interpretations of these places.

For international actors working with local groups in complex and restrictive environments, embedding a strong analysis of context that is ‘place-sensitive’ in our planning and thinking is important. This means being more participatory, letting local people, as well as indigenous experts and researchers, be our advisors. It also means continually reviewing and adapting to changing dynamics, perspectives and power relations within these societies. If we do not do this, we will become outdated and irrelevant, a recipe for failure as far as sustainability and positive meaningful impact are concerned.

In volatile contexts, finding and maintaining civil society space is even harder. INTRAC’s research has shown that this requires an in-depth reading of the historical and contemporary context within which civil society exists together with solid partnerships with those who know their contexts best. So taking space and context seriously, being ‘place-sensitive’, is a necessity. It helps ensure that we, well-intentioned outsiders, do more good than harm, and ultimately support local organisations to become more sustainable in ways that are best-suited to their own respective local realities.