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The Civil Society Flashpoint: Why the global crackdown? What can be done about it?

March 6, 2014
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Saskia photocarothers_color_largeThis guest post comes from Thomas Carothers and Saskia Brechenmacher of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, drawing from their new report, Closing Space: Democracy and Human Rights Support Under Fire

When the concept of civil society took the international aid community by storm in the 1990s, many aid providers reveled in the alluring idea of civil society as a post-ideological, even post-political arena, a virtuous domain of nonpartisan organizations advancing a loosely defined notion of the public good. Funding civil society appealed as a way for aid providers to help shape the sociopolitical life of other countries without directly involving themselves in politics with a capital “P.”  Power holders in aid-receiving countries, uncertain what to make of this fuss over civil society, were initially inclined to see it as a marginal enterprise populated by small, basically feckless groups of idealistic do-gooders.

Those days are long gone. Whether in Egypt, Turkey, Venezuela, or quite vividly in Ukraine during the final months of Yanukovych’s rule, a growing number of governments now treat the concept of civil society as a code word for powerful political subversives, usually assumed to be doing the bidding of the West. Power holders often fear NGOs more than they do opposition parties, seeing the former as nimble, technologically-savvy actors capable of activating sudden outbursts of mass protest.

Manifesting this changed perspective, more than 50 countries in recent years have enacted or seriously considered legislative or other

Carothers and Brechenmacher cover

restrictions on the ability of NGOs to organize and operate. At the core of many of these efforts are measures to impede or block foreign funding for civil society groups—including administrative and legal obstacles, propaganda campaigns against NGOs that accept foreign funding, and harassment or expulsion of external aid groups offering civil society support.

Why is this happening? In short, because civil society has been making itself felt. The lion’s share of the most significant political upheavals of the past 15 years have come about as the result of assertive citizen activism, starting in Slovakia and Serbia in the late 1990s, continuing through Georgia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, and Lebanon in the early 2000s, and most recently in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and elsewhere in the Arab world. The nightmare scenario for power holders in many countries has become waking up one morning and learning that thousands of ordinary citizens have gathered in the main square of the capital demanding justice, vowing not to go home until they get it.

In fact, the protest movements that have driven political change in these countries are not necessarily what the Western aid

community refers to (and what it funds) when it talks about civil society. In some of these cases, such as in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011, Western-funded NGOs played only a very secondary role, at most. The protests were driven instead by much more diffuse and organic forms of citizen activism that largely bypassed the donor model of formalized, technocratic advocacy groups. Yet such complexities get swept aside by power holders nervous about simmering public discontent and inclined to blame the West for any serious protests they face.

After several years spent improvising responses to the growing pushback against civil society, public and private funders are starting to respond in more concerted ways. They are mounting tactically sophisticated pressure campaigns to try to head off repressive NGO laws in aid receiving countries. They are effectively supporting efforts on the multilateral level to reinforce the normative framework for civil society space, for example through the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. They are exploring how to employ new technological tools to physically distance international aid from the most challenging trouble spots without giving up on directly reaching civil society activists. And they are opening up important new debates about how alternative sources of civil society funding could break the habit of dependence on external support.

But many dilemmas and hard questions still lie ahead. These include:

1)      How to most effectively assert the Western interest in protecting civil society space. Raising civil society concerns at the highest

democracy protest

diplomatic levels helps give clout to Western objections to bad NGO draft laws and other restrictive measures. Yet high-level diplomatic engagement can also have counterproductive effects. As one Egyptian analyst explained to us regarding the serious tensions in Egypt over Western civil society support, the more that senior Western officials directly pressure Egyptian officials about the need to allow Western funding to Egyptian NGOs, the more those officials are convinced that such funding must be about getting Egyptian NGOs to serve Western agendas.

2)      Whether greater aid transparency is part of the answer. In response to the heightened, often almost absurdly conspiratorial suspicions in many quarters about Western civil society aid, some aid practitioners contend that increasing the transparency of aid flows will help defuse the accusations and tensions surrounding such work. Yet other practitioners seriously object to this view, fearing that too much transparency will put aid recipients in greater jeopardy and reduce external funders’ ability to carry out politically agile assistance in sensitive contexts.

3)      Whether reducing aid dependency will mean aid retreat. The idea of shifting the civil society assistance paradigm away from  dependence on Western financing toward technologically innovative methods of local funding like crowdsourcing is of course appealing. But some civil society activists fear that under the umbrella of changing the paradigm to protect civil society organizations under siege, aid providers will walk away from their commitment to local activists as well as civil society development more broadly.

4)      Divisions among aid providers. Different aid providers fund civil society in developing countries for different purposes. A number of developmentally oriented aid organizations believe that those working on more politically assertive democracy and human rights assistance are responsible for triggering governmental pushback that ends up affecting the credibility and access of all external funders. As a result, they are disinclined to cooperate in forging common responses to pushback. In other words, the complex ongoing debate within the development aid community over how political aid should be and what working politically really means becomes even more fraught as pushback intensifies.


  1. A key question to be addressed is: who do civil society organisations represent and how to help CSOs build constituencies of local support, not simply funding? Movements of change tend to build around positive ideological commitments, not abstract political goods, which is why the labour movement in nineteenth/early twentieth century Britain was more successful than the Chartists in delivering a programme of reform. Far too many CS0s are ‘hollow shells’ with noble agendas but which would evaporate without external support, all head and no trousers. Why?

  2. Always keep in mind that, although funded by ‘the West’ fighting human rights abuse, corruption, social injustice, environmental deterioration, land grabbing, discrimination of minorities, etc. by indigenous NGO’s is in itself not furthering Western interests but furthering universal values and rights. This keeps being so even if some -or many- Western interests selectively use these universal values and rights as a lever to promote their own causes. Don’t let yourself be mentally blackmailed by the argument of Western hypocrisy into thinking that Western money, coming from the West necessarily stinks.

  3. Just back from Uganda where these issues very live. Museveni’s recent signature of Anti-Homosexuality Act generated significant protest from some quarters including in aid community (US, UK, Norway, World Bank….) ; meanwhile there seems to have been relative silence on other recent legislation which has curtailed civil society space – perhaps underlining the argument at the end of this blog. See link below to an opposition view point on this:

  4. In Ecuador, as elsewhere, the Correa government has adopted an aggressive position against NGOs, social movements and other CSOs. This is most clearly expressed in the President’s recent Decreto 16, which questions the validity of any organization that does not explicitly implement government-led policy in health, education and the environment. For example, recently the government trumped up an event to justify the closing of a non-violent environmental organization, Fundación Pachamama, that was peacefully resisting government policy to exploit the Yasuni Reserve in the Amazon for petroleum. Similar activity is about to happen with regard to the public’s defense of the constitutional ban against GMO-technology in food and the government’s public-private partnerships and commitment to genetic engineering and biotechnology. In my opinion, in places such as Ecuador, the nation-state is increasingly aware of its obsolescence, in the sense that, more than ever, it no longer is capable of controlling activity within its borders. While this certainly represents a closing of formalized institutional spaces, other less formalized spaces of democratic representation seem to be opening up, such as those commonly attributed to communication technology and the rise of social networks. One could argue that a new cosmopolitanism is washing over the borders of state-run geopolitics. The greater question may be, are we seeing the beginning of the end of the nation-state as a dominant form of governance?

  5. Why the crackdown? power protects itself. What can be done about it? to answer that we first need to ask; What is causing the uprising? The internet providing social consciousness and technological tool used to organise have a little to do with it, but most people just aren’t that connected with reality, “awake” if you will. Uprising is just a basic fractal functioning of Global Capitalism, which extracts and concentrates wealth to powerful nations while externalising the costs to powerlessness.


  6. Thanks to all for the engaging comments. They help underline how live these issues are in so many varied parts of the world. The issues of course take some different specific forms in different contexts but are, it seems, the result of two deep trends that work together: first, the tectonic power shift occurring in many societies between state power and citizen power; and second, the ever-increasing interpenetration and movement of ideas, organizational links, causes, and communication across borders. States are struggling to readjust to this double punch at their authority. Some are struggling to adapt smartly but far too many are trying to smother the deeper trend–attempting to delegitimate civil society, especially by highlighting its foreign links, is a one of their main ways of doing so.

    1. I certainly can empathize with your summary. Indeed, the multiple, concurrent expressions of the “stateless State” in different localities is pointing at something… The growing debates over government surveillance would seem to be another attempt of certain States to delegitimate civil society. What is worrying to me in places such as the U.K. and the United States is the sizable populations that continue to defend State surveillance programs in the name of protecting democracy against new, creative forms of terrorism.

  7. Definitely a live issue!

    Recent research set out in the Civicus 2013 enabling environment index (covering 109 countries) also shows that many governments around the world are failing to keep their promise to create an environment that allows citizens to mobilise and participate in civil society. http://www.civicus.org/eei/

    Improving the enabling environment for CSOs is one of ten indicators of progress identified in the Busan Monitoring Framework agreed in the multi-stakeholder Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation (GPEDC). In April heads of state and government, ministers, leaders from international organisations, business, civil society etc will meet in Mexico to assess and accelerate progress on commitments made at the Busan high level forum on aid effectiveness, including on the enabling environment for CSOs. http://effectivecooperation.org/2014/02/03/first-high-level-meeting-of-the-global-partnership/

    A big question on the table from civil society is: will stakeholders step up their game and take actions to reverse the current trend of shrinking space for civil society organizations? Watch this space?

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