All over the world, we are seeing systematic attacks on civil society organisations. Governments are placing legal restrictions on non-governmental organisations and erecting administrative barriers that make it more difficult for them to operate.

Activists have been particularly impacted as their organisations are subject to increased surveillance, harassment or arrest, and their activities are being driven underground.

Civic space is now “seriously constrained” in 103 countries, according to Civicus – who describe the situation as a “global civic space emergency”. Activists have been warning of “the shrinking civic society space” – and Professor Philip Alston, who works with the UN Human Rights Council, argues bleakly that civil society is not merely “shrinking”: in many countries it has already closed.

In many countries, amongst the first civil society organisations to be attacked are LGBT+ groups: they are marginalised, easy targets for populist politicians. LGBT+ organisations have been classed as “foreign agents” and subject to “anti-propaganda” laws; in some cases their leaders have been arrested, their offices have been torched, and their members have suffered intimidation and violence.

The global business community has yet to fully grasp the implications of this global attack on civil society. The relationship between business and civil society was once characterised primarily by antagonism: NGOs attacked companies on environmental and social issues, and companies pulled the legal and political levers at their disposal to shut them down. That has changed: today business has a complex and multifaceted relationship to civil society.

Why civil society matters to business

Today, any big company needs to work on issues like corruption, labour rights in the supply chain, management of resources such as water, and climate change. Addressing challenges such as these is more than checkbox CSR – these are material, operational issues for business, and so to make real progress, companies need to work with civil society groups. 

Many companies already have a long track record of collaborating with civil society groups on specific issues. Look at a company like PepsiCo and the relationship it has with water conservation NGOs all over the world – borne out of the need to manage this business-critical resource sustainably. Or consider how, before the Fair Labor Association came into being, Nike and Gap worked together to set up an independent NGO to do independent monitoring of conditions in factories – borne out of concern about human rights in the supply chain.

And there is yet a more fundamental role that civil society plays for business; underpinning the rule of law. For the rule of law to be effective, you need a strong and unrestricted civil society to hold institutions accountable. This is not philosophy, this is practical reality – businesses can’t make plans, can’t make investments, unless the rule of law is working. The global attack on civil society is a business issue; the World Economic Forum listed a weakening rule of law and fraying civil society as a leading global risk in 2017. 

How business can support LGBT+ civil society groups

Governments in many countries have specifically targeted LGBT+ groups, and this should be alarming for the global business community. Open For Business, the coalition of global companies supporting LGBT+ inclusion, has presented detailed evidence that LGBT+ inclusive environments are better for individual performance, business performance, and overall economic outcomes. Many global companies know that anti-LGBT+ policies are bad for business, and bad for economic growth – and many of them are committed to applying global standards of LGBT+ inclusion in their workplace, wherever they operate in the world.

How can businesses help support LGBT+ groups? For businesses operating in countries where LGBT+ organisations are being restricted, Open For Business has identified five focus areas:

1. A public commitment to global standards of best practice for LGBT+ inclusion in the workplace: leading by example, companies can show this is a matter of global standards of best practice. 

2. Make the economic case for LGBT+ rights: use the business’ access to politicians and influencers to put the evidence base that LGBT+ inclusion is good for business and for economic growth.

3. Partner with local LGBT+ groups: where those groups have not already been forced underground, offer them administrative and financial support – for example, by commissioning for workplace inclusion projects.

4. Support legal redress: even in countries with attaks on civil society groups, there may still be a rule of law: courts in Botwana, Kenya, South Korea, Tunisia, Zimbabwe have ruled in favour of LGBT groups in the past couple of years.

5. Work collectively with the local business community: build a consensus in the local business communities that LGBT+ inclusion matters and that civil society groups need protecting, and present a clear position to government

Open For Business can provide companies with guidance on these areas and connect them to civil society groups at a national and a local level, as well as connecting businesses who are addressing similar issues. 

A wake-up call to business

Although LGBT+ groups are at the forefront of this “global emergency”, many other groups are also impacted. An attack on any civil society group is in effect an attack on the principle of civil society, and this should concern the global business community. The closing down of global civil society is systematic and persistent, and a robust response is needed from business leaders. 

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