Building a resilient civic space in Europe

Over the past years, civil society has come under increasing pressure. Recent challenges to democracy and the rule of law, the COVID-19 pandemic, and scarce funding opportunities have all played a role in putting pressure on the civic space in Europe. At the same time, they have underlined a real need for a resilient civil society that defends our fundamental rights and provides the necessary checks and balances in society.         

Waltraud Heller, Programme Manager at FRA, discussing The EEA and Norway Grants funding and civic space at EFTA House. ©EEA and Norway Grants


Since 2004, the EEA and Norway Grants have funded numerous NGOs in the Beneficiary States. Through these Grants, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway are working to strengthen civil society, promote a culture of participation and activism, and develop a resilient civic space built on democratic principles.

“Our funding has been a lifeline for civil society in times where other funding sources have become scarce, and the civic space has come under pressure. We consider that there is an important role for civil society to play within our overall priorities to contribute to the European green deal, to the promotion and protection of democracy and rule of law, as well as to building resilience and social inclusion,” says Chair of the Financial Mechanism Committee Leif Trana.

The EEA and Norway Grants closely cooperate with the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) to enhance access to fundamental rights for all. In this context, our colleagues at FRA have drafted a strategic assessment of how the EEA and Norway Grants’ civil society programmes have helped strengthen the civic space in Europe since 2004. In this article, we share some of their findings.

Critical funding for a vibrant civil society

Civil society often faces obstacles in obtaining funding. Even when funding is available, the competition is high, and the eligibility criteria are strict. Moreover, according to FRA, they typically have limited access to information about available funding opportunities.

Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway are therefore significant, and sometimes the main, donors for civil society organisations in the Beneficiary States, providing support to NGOs whose work is “related to the functioning of democracy, human rights, watchdog and advocacy initiatives”, states the FRA.

The EEA and Norway Grants provided €245 million between 2009-2014. This funding continues in the current funding period, with the Active Citizens Fund allocating over €210 million to bolster civil society projects. According to FRA analysis, this funding has had a “significant impact”.

“A main contribution of the civil society programmes has been developing and strengthening of civic infrastructure – contributing to stronger civic organizations, networks, coalitions, and joint action. Initiatives that link established national NGOs with local grassroots organizations have proven effective in building capacities in key areas of democracy and human rights. Of utmost importance is the investment in the ability of NGOs to activate citizens and represent their interests vis-à-vis governments”.

Boosting the capacity of civil society organisations

One of the EEA and Norway Grants' key objectives is to improve civil society organisations' ability (CSOs) by enhancing their skills and knowledge. The funding enables organisations to develop and implement targeted and effective projects, foster networking, and engage in advocacy efforts on both local and national levels.

In practical terms, it means that in the current funding period, each programme had to allocate at least 15% of its budget to capacity-building and the development of a sustainable civil society in the country.

“The capacity-building aspects of the civil society programmes make the Grants’ support unique as compared to that of other funding. The obligation to spend at least 15% of the re-granting amount to capacity development and sustainability of civil society is a very positive step, which allowed for supporting strategic actors such as coalitions, networks, human rights NGOs etc., thus developing or strengthening the civil society infrastructure.”

The FRA analysis reveals that dedicating a portion of funding to learning, development, and improvement has had an important impact.

“According to some NGOs funded, the most important capacity development effort was not building capacity per se, but rather reshaping the organisations away from grant-dependency and towards a grassroots civic model of self-sufficiency. This was an essential focus that began with the Grants’ NGO funding and that can help counter the ever-changing and restrictive civil society environment.”

Accessible for all

As mentioned above, access to funding is not always easy. FRA also suggests that among other available public funding schemes, the EEA and Norway Grants funding for civil society organisations is generally more accessible.

To an extent that is a result of the fund management setup. The system is set up in a way where independent civil society organisations are chosen in each country to manage the distribution of funds. These organisations - Fund Operators - hold an inherent advantage as they are well acquainted with the local circumstances and concrete needs on the ground and can help target the projects to real needs.

The independence of the Fund Operators from the government has been crucial, especially under increasing civic space pressures. Independent Fund Operators have been instrumental in reinforcing critical and autonomous civic spaces, which is vital for the growth and development of civil society.

Finally, according to the FRA analysis, the Fund Operators have played a key role in accompanying and coaching project promoters. Going beyond their role as funding distributors, they supported each project throughout its lifecycle, leading to better outcomes.

“Fund Operators – especially in the most recent funding cycle - made considerable efforts to reach out to organisations outside of capital cities and urban areas and also those working with vulnerable groups. Most Fund Operators engaged in one-to-one coaching and mentoring or capacity-building sessions. Those are time-consuming, but the best way to work with small, inexperienced CSOs from hard-to-reach areas and groups to build their capacity for project implementation”.

Lessons for the future

With the current funding period of the EEA and Norway Grants coming to an end in April 2024, now is the right time to look at the strengths and the weaknesses of the Grants’ civil society programmes and draw some lessons. That is also the reason why the analysis prepared by FRA is so important.

Among the insights in the FRA’s paper is that while the funding is largely accessible, the bureaucratic red tape is still too thick for some organisations to cut through.

“Easing the administrative burden and more simplification would be an advantage not only for applicants of the Active Citizens Fund, but also for the Fund Operators as well as for the civil society partners in the donor countries”.

Furthermore, FRA’s analysis suggests that with some adjustments the programme could enable more cross-border cooperation and transnational coalition-building.

“A stronger focus by the Grants on strengthening the enabling environment and supporting CSOs to thrive under civic space pressures, would open opportunities for synergies between the national programmes, since the patterns of challenges are similar across beneficiary countries.”

The FRA analysis has highlighted an essential point regarding the EEA and Norway Grants funding for civil society: to build a Europe that protects people’s human rights and freedoms, the Grants’ funding needs to remain available and easily accessible to all civil society organisations.

Disclaimer: This article draws on FRA’s analysis on the EEA and Norway Grants contribution to civil society prepared for the Grants under the Agency’s administrative cooperation arrangement with the Financial Mechanism Office of the EEA and Norway Grants. It draws on FRA’s work on civic space, available on the Agency’s website: