On May 9, 2018, the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) testified at a hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, Global Human Rights, and International Organizations on protecting civil society, faith-based actors, and political speech in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Emerson Sykes, ICNL Legal Advisor for Africa, testified along with four other panelists. ICNL’s testimony focused on the legal environment for civic space, specifically addressing the issue of ‘protecting civil society.’ At ICNL, we use the term civil society broadly to include non-governmental organizations, people’s movements, community-based organizations, charities, cooperatives, social and sports clubs, professional associations, faith-based organizations, and not-for-profit media.
We have seen that people working together are capable of great things. From the struggle against apartheid in South Africa to preserving urban forests in Nairobi; from insisting on peace in war-ravaged Liberia to fighting disease and poverty throughout the continent; civil society has been at the front lines of positive change.
Unfortunately, we are in the midst of a global trend of increasing legal restrictions on civil society. ICNL’s testimony covered a broad range of examples, highlighting instances of growing legal restrictions, as well as landmark victories achieved by African civil society. We also offered a few recommendations for how the subcommittee can help support these victories and secure fundamental freedoms for people in Africa:
- Appropriations and funding: At least 10 African countries are currently considering laws to restrict civil society. As stated in a recent Congressional Research Service Report, very little funding is invested in advancing civil society legal reform. Congress should address this issue through the appropriations process, and the starting point is to preserve current funding for democracy and governance programs.
- Oversight of agencies and departments: Congress should conduct oversight of federal agencies and departments, including those involved with counterterrorism, national security, defense, and international trade, to assess the extent to which different parts of the government are supporting – or undermining – the legal space for civil society.
- Legislation and resolutions: Congress should include language supporting independent civil society in legislation and resolutions.
- Fact-finding and dialogue: Members and staff should continue to meet with civil society representatives in the United States and internationally. Congress might also consider a fact-finding mission to gather information on this issue.
- Engagement with legislative counterparts: Members should engage on civic space issues with their parliamentary counterparts in Africa
- Leading by example: Congress should continue to engage directly with civil society through hearings such as this one and ensure that laws and policies support civil society and philanthropy both in the United States as well as internationally.
We’re grateful for this opportunity to testify and for the Subcommittee’s interest in these crucial issues.