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Wielding the purse strings of Southeast Asian civil society

Shrinking space, shrinking resources

As democracy experiences a global decline, and Southeast Asia oscillates between authoritarian endurance and democratic rollback, civil society in the region is facing a bleak future.
Dictatorships and quasi-democracies are racing to curtail freedom of speech and assembly and to subject civil society organisations (CSOs)—especially those advocating structural changes and human rights—to ever-tightening regulatory requirements. Traditionally viewed with suspicion by governments, and at times even by the public, as disruptors of societal order, increasingly CSOs’ legitimacy and accountability are questioned and their role and the effectiveness of their strategies contested.
The shrinking of civic space also affects (and is affected by) the availability of resources. Across Southeast Asia, governments’ stiffened oversight is limiting access to international and national funds by CSOs, in particular when directed at financing advocacy and rights-based activities. This occurs amidst an evolving development aid landscape wherein established donor agencies reposition themselves in line with more conservative contexts back home and abroad, and where a new set of funders does not necessarily appreciate the merit of a ‘vibrant civil society’ for democracy and development.
This paper singles our four factors as contributing to the financial ‘choking off’ of civil society : greater government control of funding streams for CSOs ; the reshaping of international aid spending globally and regionally ; paradigmatic shifts in philanthropic giving ; and scarce appreciation of civil society and advocacy work among local donors. While the interplay of these factors may differ per location, the general result is that civil society in Southeast Asia is losing its conventional backers, without finding the same level of support among alternative donors, affecting its ability to play a critical and transformative role.

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