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Debbie Pippard, Head of Programmes at Barrow Cadbury Trust, asks what can be done to support a strong and healthy civil society both here and overseas.

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.

Debbie Pippard


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 co-ordinated by the European Foundation Centre


Since its re-election, the Hungarian government has continued to undermine the credibility of Hungarian NGOs and tried to gain control over NGO funding, which is distributed independently from the government.  The background to this stand-off is an ongoing dispute between the Hungarian and the Norwegian governments, with Budapest accusing Oslo of interfering in Hungarian political affairs through NGO funding of Hungarian civil society.


Representatives of the Hungarian government have made serious allegations about well-established, respected Hungarian NGOs which raise serious doubts about the commitment of the Hungarian government to its obligations as a democratic government and a member of the European Union.


A consortium of three Hungarian civil society organisations which disburse funds locally from the European Economic Area and Norway Grants are currently under investigation by the Hungarian government, following publication by the Prime Minister’s office of a list of recipient organisations, including some of the most reputable human rights and civil liberties groups in the country, which led to accusations of them being “problematic” and “left leaning”.  The three members of the consortium — Autonomia Foundation, DemNet and Ökotárs — are well known for their promotion of democracy, defence of human rights, and environmental work, as well as for ‘re-granting funds’ on behalf of other donors, including the European Union and USAID .  The consortium is challenging the investigation under Hungarian Law and is regarding it as an act of intimidation.


Human rights watchdogs and NGOs have a crucial role in democratic societies.  Any political pressure on them, or any attempt to restrict their funding, is against democratic principles, rules and standards, and the protection of universal values.  


The Barrow Cadbury Trust, as one of many donor organisations committed to human rights and democratic values, has signed a statement protesting about the actions of the Hungarian government against its own human rights NGOs and the consortium of grant-makers. We hope that the Hungarian government refrains from any further political pressure and shelters its NGO sector from threats and interference. We also call on EU member states and institutions to remain vigilant towards any government pressures on civil society organizations, in particular on human rights and civil liberties watchdogs, which have a fundamental role to play in democracy.