An impromptu government law that forces NGOs to re-register their organizations. Attacks from armed forces against Indigenous land defenders. Military leaders targeting the heads of local civil society organizations (CSOs).

Members of civil society routinely face attacks from repressive government and non-state actors attempting to restrict civic space. These attacks can be as simple as introducing laws that force NGOs to pay costly registration fees, or as dangerous as targeting human rights defenders (HRDs) with detention or physical violence.

These actions are often explained as counter-terrorism measures and harmless to everyday citizens, but in actuality they are responsible for the growing repression of civic space everywhere.

According to the Global Analysis 2022 report from Front Line Defenders, a human rights organization that provides support to HRDs at risk, the main threats faced by civil society include arrest or detention, legal action, physical attack, death threats, and surveillance. In the report, Front Line Defenders also names 401 HRDs killed across 26 countries last year, based on tracking information from the HRD Memorial, an initiative that tracks the names of individuals killed because of their human rights work.

During times of restriction, individuals and organizations require support to withstand the battles launched by powerful governments and other forces aimed at preventing them from exercising their human rights. 

That’s where the Lifeline Fund comes in.

What Is the Lifeline Fund?

The Lifeline Embattled CSO Assistance Fund is a grant funding mechanism implemented by seven international NGOs — Freedom House, Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, CIVICUS, Front Line Defenders, International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL), People in Need, and Swedish International Liberal Centre — in response to growing threats to civic society.

There are three types of Lifeline grants available: advocacy, resiliency, and emergency assistance grants. While each one provides a slightly different type of support, they all work toward enabling members of civil society to continue their human rights work during times of oppression.

“Given that the grants are small, they have an impressive and tangible impact to help improve the civil society environment, or help CSOs keep their head above water during restrictive times,” Nikhil Dutta, global programs senior legal advisor at ICNL, told Global Citizen. “It allows us to intervene at these important points in time to leverage impact [on civic space].”

These grants do not support the administrative or operational costs of CSOs; rather, they are used in specific cases when CSOs or HRDs face threats due to their human rights work and need support to continue operating safely and securely.

Lifeline is currently supported by 20 donor governments and two foundations, which has enabled it to provide nearly $25 million in rapid-assistance grants since 2011.

But the need for assistance has continued to grow over the years.

“We’re definitely seeing an increased need, mostly because of the [rising] restrictions against civil society,” Caitríona Rice, head of the protection grants program at Front Line Defenders, told Global Citizen.

Advocating for Progressive Legislation

Lifeline’s advocacy grants counter closures of civic space and can be applied to a variety of projects, including community mobilization, policy and legal analysis, coalition building, strategic litigation, awareness raising campaigns, and capacity building.

In Colombia, for example, a CSO applied for a Lifeline advocacy grant to defend the legal right to protest. The organization coordinated meetings with government officials in four cities to discuss, develop, or implement a municipal protocol that would protect the right for citizens to protest.

In the city of Cali, the CSO was successful in ensuring the municipality’s “policy on human rights” included specific guidelines on protecting the freedom of assembly and social protest.

Helping CSOs Stay Afloat During Periods of Repression 

Where Lifeline’s advocacy grants work to enable open civic space, the resiliency grants provide support for civil society members to mitigate challenges to their work. These grants may lead organizations to finance digital and physical safety training, build a safety network with local partners, or combat targeted litigation.

A few years ago, authorities in Pakistan initiated a requirement for NGOs to re-register their organizations with the government. The requirement would have forced thousands of CSOs to shutter their offices, due to a lack of resources to comply with the new law.

“This is something we see every now and then. Authorities will require organizations to re-register, and many organizations will not have the capacity or resources [to do so],” Dutta told Global Citizen. “Whether it’s intentional or not, it’s a way to deprive a large portion of the civil society sector the right to operate.”

In response, a CSO based in Pakistan applied for a Lifeline resiliency grant to help NGOs comply with the sudden changes. Their activities included engaging with lawmakers to push back the registration deadline, as well as preparing a toolkit for organizations to navigate complex legal obstacles.

This partner’s work assisted almost 1,700 organizations with the re-registration process. Because of the support they received from Lifeline, they were able to help other members of civil society continue functioning, despite an environment that attempted to restrict their freedom of association.

Protecting Civil Society Members From Increased Threats

Both Freedom House, Lifeline’s consortium lead, and Front Line Defenders provide emergency assistance grants, which go to CSO leaders or HRDs facing specific threats because of their human rights work.

Danya Greenfield, senior program manager for the Lifeline Fund at Freedom House, told Global Citizen that Lifeline’s emergency grants offer protection in response to actions taken against civil society members. Like all of the grants provided by the Lifeline Fund, the underlying goal is to enable individuals to safely continue or return to their work. 

“Some of the trends we see are an increased use of digital threats, surveillance, and intimidation online — as more work has shifted online due to COVID-19 and social media use, the online space has become more contested, and the right to organize and advocate in the digital space is being constrained,” Greenfield said. “At the same time, we’re seeing an influx of requests come in for CSO staff members to have support in dealing with stress, burnout, or trauma.”

In Belarus, Lifeline provided an emergency assistance grant to an organization engaged in documenting the government’s human rights abuses. As the staff continued to engage in the emotionally-exhausting work of tracking abuses to HRDs and journalists, the organization used the Lifeline grant to arrange an out-of-country retreat. Staff members were able to attend to their psychosocial and wellbeing needs so they could feel reenergized to return to their human rights work.

The speed with which Lifeline’s consortium members are able to turn around grant requests is what enables the mechanism to have such a great impact on civil society. Organizations and HRDs can quickly navigate threats to their lives and work without being slowed down by unnecessary bureaucracy.

How Can Global Citizens Support the Lifeline Fund?

Lifeline’s ability to make an impact on CSOs working across the world — with many based in remote regions — has helped members of civil society connect with one another. This network of support has led Lifeline to receive more grant requests.

In response to the greater need of civil society, and to ensure the mechanism may continue operating, Lifeline requires more concerted and sustained funding.

“One of our particular needs is ensuring that the contributions [made by Lifeline’s Donor Steering Committee] are sustained and predictable, so asking countries to make multi-year contributions is hugely important because it allows us to plan,” Greenfield said. “When we don’t have predictability, it’s hard to ensure we can provide the support Lifeline wants to provide.”

While individuals are not able to donate to the Lifeline Network, Global Citizens everywhere can still support the funding mechanism.

Engaging with representatives about government practices that may enable or restrict civic society is an important part of maintaining open civic space in your country. In addition, supporting Lifeline’s consortium members on social media — following, learning about, and sharing their campaigns — can increase broader awareness of human rights violations taking place around the world.

To start taking action with Global Citizen, sign the petition calling on world leaders to champion human rights, protect human rights defenders, and uphold civic space and public freedoms.

This article is part of a series connected to defending advocacy and civic space, made possible thanks to funding from the Ford Foundation.

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