Closing Civic Space: Trends, Drivers and what Donors can do about it

February 14, 2019 1 By Duncan Green

My reading pile is out of control, but I finally caught up with a useful May 2018 overview from the always excellent International Center for Not-for-Profit Law. Nothing life-changing, but a clear and concise summary of the origins of the problem and possible responses, based on some 50 contributions to a consultation by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida). Some highlights:

‘The graph shows the legal initiatives, proposed or enacted, that restrict the freedoms of association or assembly: (1) 47% restrict the formation, registration, or operation of CSOs; (2) 28% constrain the ability of CSOs to receive international funding; and (3) 25% restrict peaceful assembly.’

‘What New Trends are we Witnessing?

  • Digital restrictions: Indonesia, Pakistan and Tanzania, for example – have adopted cybercrime laws and other regulations that provide largely unfettered power to monitor and surveil electronic communications.
  • Transparency-linked restrictions: (1) burdensome requirements for reporting and for disclosure of private information (e.g., in Bulgaria, Panama, Uganda); (2) mandatory disclosure of private assets of CSO directors and/or officers (e.g., in Ukraine and India); (3) limiting public advocacy by categorizing CSOs as lobbyists or political activists (e.g., in the United Kingdom and Ireland); (4) disclosure of private and international funders (e.g., in Hungary and Mexico); and (5) disproportionate penal provisions linked to non-compliance with reporting and disclosure requirements (e.g., in Egypt and Russia).
  • Denying access to CSOs in multilateral fora: CSOs and human rights defenders are subject to increasing threats, intimidation, and reprisals when they try to speak out in multilateral fora
  • Discrediting CSO voices in multilateral fora: government-organized NGOs (GONGOs) participate in multilateral fora like the UN Human Rights Council. GONGOs defend countries’ policies, attempt to delegitimize genuine civil society voices, and consume time, space, and other limited resources.
  • Impeding freedom of movement: preventing civil society representatives from traveling abroad
  • Narrowing the space for INGOs: eg via restrictions on spending, mission or registration.
  • Stigmatizing donors: For example, the Government of Hungary has been conducting a campaign that targets the Open Society Foundation and the Central European University, as well as its founder, George Soros

What are the Origins and Drivers of Closing Civic Space?

The origins of the crackdown on civic space can be traced to the beginning of the current millennium. Throughout the 1990s, the world was in the midst of an “associational revolution,” and CSOs enjoyed a mostly positive reputation within the international community, stemming from a post-Cold War conviction that pluralistic, liberal democracies where civil society is an integral part of the social fabric are or should become the norm; as well as from CSOs’ important contributions to health, education, culture, economic development, and a host of other publicly beneficial objectives. Reflecting this, in September 2000, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Millennium Declaration. Among other provisions, the Declaration emphasized the importance of human rights and the value of “non-governmental organizations and civil society, in general.”

This changed after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. As President Bush launched the “War on Terror,” discourse shifted away from human rights and the positive contributions of civil society, and CSOs instead became a target. “Just to show you how insidious these terrorists are,” Bush stated in his September 2001 remarks on the executive order freezing assets of terrorist and other organizations, “they oftentimes use nice-sounding, non-governmental organizations as fronts for their activities.” President Bush then launched a “Freedom Agenda” to advance democratic transitions in the Middle East, which included support for civil society as a key component, giving rise to the perception that CSOs were linked to a foreign agenda. For both reasons – the association of civil society with terrorism and the association of civil society with Bush’s Freedom Agenda – governments around the world became increasingly concerned about civil society, particularly CSOs that received international support.

In many ways, 2005 marked the beginning of the “associational counter-revolution.” Because of changes in the geopolitical environment, the Bush Administration’s “War on Terror,” concerns over “color revolutions,” and other factors, governments felt empowered to enact legislation restricting civic space. Countries such as Russia, Zimbabwe, and Venezuela were early adopters, and over the following years, scores of countries have followed suit. Another wave of legislative constraints emerged after the so-called “Arab Awakening,” which began in late 2010.

The specific driver(s) of closing space restrictions will, of course, vary from country to country, as government and political leaders act from a variety of motivations. At the same time, one can identify several drivers that have fueled the global crackdown against civil society, including the following:

  • The dramatic growth and demonstrated power of civil society and civil society organizations during the 1990s;
  • The increasing priority given to counter-terrorism and national security by governments around the world;
  • A shift in global power relations, which has reduced the influence of western governments and traditional multilateral institutions and resulted in challenges to the liberal democratic model;
  • The increasing collusion between political and economic elites to protect their interests against oversight or criticism; and
  • The rise in ideological and religious extremism, resulting in increasingly hostile environments for defenders of vulnerable groups, including those representing women, LGBTI, minorities and others.

In recent years, a number of countries have seen a rise in intolerant political populism. These populist movements seem to portend a further narrowing of civic space, including in established democracies. This may embolden authoritarian governments to further constrain civil society. Indeed, the civic space challenge is embedded into a much larger struggle relating to democratic recession and the emboldening of autocrats. Since we are likely on the cusp of a new wave of restrictions on civil society, the engagement of donor governments, as principled, credible voices on civic space issues, is more important than ever.

The suggestions to donors are a bit underwhelming, unfortunately: make your support for civic space public and clear; make sure your own policies are joined up (eg counter terrorism is often used as a pretext for attacking CSOs); support civil society and build alliances with other defenders, including the private sector. Still, a really useful summary of what is a huge challenge for ‘change agents’ and their supporters in an increasing number of countries.