5 trends that explain why civil society space is under assault around the world

In the 1980s and 90s civil society, and civil society organizations (CSOs) came to be seen as key players in Araddhya MehttaRossClarkedevelopment; aid donors  and INGOs like Oxfam increasingly sought them out as partners. So the current global crackdown on ‘civil society space’ is particularly worrying – a major pillar of development is under threat.

Ross Clarke (left) and Araddhya Mehtta (right) from from Oxfam’s Knowledge Hub on Governance and Citizenship have just put together an internal briefing on the problem, and what we should be doing about it (not published yet – there will be a public version at some point). Here they set out some of the background trends for anyone seeking to prevent or reverse the crackdown.

Trend 1: Changing nature of development financing and role of the state

As states become less dependent on western aid, they become less open to influence by western governments. [Developing Country] Governments are less tolerant of CSOs challenging ‘political capture’. In some contexts CSOs doing this are perceived as acting for the political opposition. Weak regulatory and accountability frameworks for civil society make CSOs vulnerable to this charge. Several governments exploit this vulnerability and use new regulations to restrict the space of civil society to debate or challenge their economic and political development agenda. Patterns are emerging where neighbouring states apply very similar legislation and tactics, learning from one another about how to control civil society space.

The hard-fought gains of the 1990s and 2000s on civil society space and citizen participation are being reversed. In

Graph from Civicus report (link in text)
Graph from Civicus report (link in text)


2014, Freedom House Index recorded a decrease in freedom globally for the ninth consecutive year.  When civil society criticises government policy or a private sector driven agenda, they are often labelled ‘anti-development’, ‘anti-national’, ‘politically motivated’ and even ‘against national security’. This rhetoric undermines both the legitimacy of many CSOs and their ability to operate. It further is generally coupled with a series of reforms to restrict civil society space and stifle public debate.  Moreover, individuals and civil society groups are directly intimidated or violently harassed when taking on vested interests on land or natural resource investment or allocations.

Trend 2: Changing nature of insecurity

The rise of extremist groups, militarised responses to insurgency, conflicts in fragile states, and transnational crime, has led to a dominance of the security agenda. Some extremist groups have created shell CSOs to channel funding and governments use this to justify overly burdensome restrictions on all civil society groups. The security agenda’s dominance lends support to authoritarian regimes and weak democratic governments seeking to restrict civil society’s influence.

Trend 3: Changing nature of civil society organisations

CS space 2As the rights-based approach gained prominence in the 1990s-2000s, civil society organisations shifted their focus from service delivery to influencing policy. Yet as space to engage in policy and political reform decreases, CSOs are pushed to focus more on non-confrontational, service delivery work. Some countries even mandate the extent to which civil society must work on the provision of services and ‘hardware’.

With increased foreign funding for national CSOs comes increased scepticism of international CSOs and western donors.  For example, in 2014, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace reported that 50 countries place restrictions on overseas funding for NGOs. As a result, many CSOs, particularly those with rights-based mandates, have had their funds frozen or restricted. The backlash against rights-based advocacy organisations has meant that individuals and CSOs have been put on watch lists and are forced to go underground, creating an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship. This trend also has extremely violent consequences. During the first 10 months of 2014, 130 human rights defenders were killed.

Trend 4: Changing nature of information and communication technology (ICT)

The increasing prominence of ICT is a double-edged sword. It facilitates increased voice and citizen mobilisation in powerful new ways. However, it provides equally powerful tools to monitor and restrict the legitimate activities of civil society.

Social movements increasingly use technology to connect with and learn from each other. As the Arab Spring and recent uprisings in Brazil, Turkey and Ukraine demonstrate, citizens – particularly youth – are mobilising in stronger, more powerful ways.

The spread of ICTs has also led to new legislation regulating these new spaces, often amounting to severe restrictionsCivil-Society on freedom of expression. Governments use data that citizens willingly put online to monitor them, and employ sophisticated surveillance technologies to track and target activists. A number of countries lost ground in Freedom House’s index due to state surveillance, restrictions on internet communications, and curbs on personal autonomy. In 2013, 92 writers, 50% of PEN International’s case list, were in prison or detention for using digital technologies.

Trend 5: Challenges with self regulation

Many of the CSOs started in the 1990s and 2000s boom years (and some existing ones) have weak governance and accountability structures, allowing some governments to question their legitimacy. CSOs need to accept their own shortcomings in this regard. In many cases, both international and national CSOs have been either unable or unwilling to meet basic reporting and administrative requirements. Many INGOs are further perceived – rightly or wrongly – as being more concerned with their own survival than the needs of their clients. Yet although reasonable regulation is legitimate, much bureaucratic oversight has become overly burdensome – a tool to obstruct and constrain dissenting voices rather than enhance accountability. Many CSOs are unable to cope with complex, changing procedures and struggle to obtain unrestricted funding required for effective, accountable organisations.

And here’s a smart piece on the same issue from Civicus Secretary General  Danny Sriskandarajah. I’ll blog again when the public version comes out

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7 Responses to “5 trends that explain why civil society space is under assault around the world”
  1. Andrew Wells-Dang

    Some similar arguments in the Guardian today coming especially from Tom Carothers at Carnegie: http://www.theguardian.com/law/2015/aug/26/ngos-face-restrictions-laws-human-rights-generation. But note how the headline writers or editors changed the term from ‘civil society space’ to ‘human rights space’, with ‘human rights’ understood as limited to civil and political rights. There’s also an ethnocentric bias in the Guardian article in attributing contracting space to declining ‘Western’ influence and funding, as if space only exists because of this funding.

    Ross and Araddhya’s posting makes the opposite claim: ‘With increased foreign funding for national CSOs comes increased scepticism of international CSOs and western donors’. But if this funding is actually declining (and was never so large to start from relative to FDI and remittances in most countries), then why should restrictions be increasing? I suppose that trends in civil society space have very little to do with donor funding flows and much more to do with domestic politics. At least I hope this is the case, because if the Guardian article is right, then increased Oxfam attention to civil society space equates to ‘Western’ political influence; or if Ross and Araddhya are right, then increased Oxfam attention might unintentionally provoke further contractions in space. I wouldn’t wish for either of these outcomes!

    In fact, I think there are many things Oxfam and partners can do to increase civil society space in the countries where we work. From what I’ve seen, the ‘naming and shaming’ approach favoured by large human rights organisations may gain publicity and attention to the problems, but are unlikely to be effective in opening and protecting space at the national level where it matters the most. To do this, we need more nuanced programming and coalition building, whether this goes by the label of ‘civil society space’ or not!

  2. This perspective views civil society entirely from a development perspective, and assumes that civil society only exists for development purposes. This is highly problematic. Most of civil society and civil society organisations, in both developed and developing countries, have nothing to do with aid or development. Nor do the great majority have anything to do with service delivery or human rights advocacy.

    The shift in the aid/development industry from service delivery to advocacy seems to have brought with it the following assumptions about civil society:

    a. Civil society means citizen activism for the goals of human rights, democracy and development. A group of people who come together to create music, play sport, grow food, support each other, worship, run a children’s club, or run a credit cooperative, do not constitute civil society because these groups do not advocate for human rights or development as their primary purpose. These groups will therefore not be mentioned by rights advocates or be considered by INGOs as important.

    b. ‘Civil space’ means space to advocate for human rights and development. The groups above may have civil space to do their things, but this civil space is not of interest to the development industry. Civil space is in part constituted and protected by legal settings, and the industry is interested in legal frameworks for advocacy of human rights and democracy, but not for running a credit cooperative, a sporting club, a family, a self-help group, or an agricultural enterprise.

    c. The purpose of civil society is to achieve states that protect civil space, human rights and development. Civil society is therefore an instrument for achieving political ends, for achieving a certain kind of state. It is fundamentally not a sphere of activity in which people achieve their own ends, whatever they may be; it is an instrument for achieving political ends.

    d. The value of civil society, therefore, is that it is a ‘training ground’ for democracy, training activists in organising things that they can then apply to political activism.

    e. Because civil society is seen as an instrument for achieving political ends, it is not impacted by markets. The development industry therefore does not regard markets as intrinsically corrosive of civil society, it regards states (exclusively) as corrosive of civil society through state restriction of civil space.

    To take these 5 points again, a more authentic approach to civil society would be:

    a. Civil society comprises groups, associations and relationships formed when people come together to pursue their own ends, determined by themselves, independent of states and markets. Human rights and democracy advocacy groups are one part, but only a tiny part, of civil society.

    b. Civil society space should be protected in legal arrangements so that groups of people may associate freely to pursue their own ends, which include human rights and democracy advocacy but are by no means confined to them.

    c. Civil society is not an instrument for achieving political ends. It’s purpose is to enable people to associate for their own ends.

    d. Civil society is not a ‘training ground’ for democracy. It has intrinsic value, for its own sake.

    e. Civil society is corroded by both states and markets. Both intrude upon voluntary and relational components of social life.

    See http://www.civilsocietymovement.org for an attempt to develop a fuller understanding of civil society,

  3. Thanks Duncan. In the first instance, we need to insist that institutions, governments, academics and NGOs stop misusing the term ‘civil society’ and start think carefully about use of language. If economists or physicists or biologists use terms sloppily or wrongly, they are called to account, because their work cannot proceed without an agreed use of terminology. Equally, in our field, we cannot allow divergent and misguided understandings of ‘civil society’ to be perpetuated, usually by institutions that are external to civil society.

    Secondly, we will find, on thinking more carefully about what civil society is and what it is not, that there are many organisations which originated as civil society initiatives, but which have morphed over time into something else, either to become instruments of states, or corporate entities with corporate interests. We need a culture of open scrutiny and transparency to allow this enquiry and then public discussion to take place.

    And thirdly, civil society needs to find a voice to speak about itself, for itself, and not allow external institutions, agencies and governments to speak for them and distort a proper understanding of civil society and its central place in human affairs alongside states and markets. What has happened in the last 30 years is that quasi-NGOs and international institutions have allowed a discourse to emerge which equates civil society with formal, externally funded and managerially-directed NGOs, while excluding informal, self-sustaining and self-directed groups and relationships from the discourse. This has had tragic implications for social-capital generating informal groups and networks, which constitute the overwhelming majority of civil society. We will need to recognise, in this process, that some NGOs have a vested institutional and financial interest in excluding the informal and the organic groups and relationships from the arena and the discourse.

    • Duncan Green

      Good suggestions, Vern, but don’t they also bring out that with such a broad concept as ‘civil society’ (correctly used), it is unlikely that ‘it’ could arrive at a coherent programmatic position on anything – a category that spans everything from informal sports groups to giant international organizations, and bleeds over into more formal institutions as you point out, is unlikely to be that useful, surely? I guess I’m arguing that the development constituency’s narrower definition of civil society may be as much about trying to arrive at a coherent entity, than darker motives of neo-imperial conquest and commercial self interest. That debate in my experience usually revolves around stressing the difference between more formal NGOs and mass-based civil society organizations, and is (or tries to be) respectful of the difference and autonomy of the latter.

  4. Judy Osborne

    This is an interesting debate for me, as an environmental activist at the very local level of a county in Ireland. Recent local government reorganisation is attempting to bring all local community groups under the umbrella of local government (for the sake of efficiency in distributing government funding) however this is causing great consternation in many community groups who well understand the difference between groups seeking to establish social justice and groups providing services for disadvantaged in society. Time will tell how this pans out as the processes are still very new and not yet complete.

    • Thanks Duncan. In my experience, the broad sweep of civil society can agree on a great deal. Indeed, the broader the sweep, the more likely you are to avoid some of the distortions that arise from particular institutional interests of organisations. For example, if you get together a group of organisations that are funded by governments, their main interest will be in talking about how to preserve and extend their government funding. If you get together a group of government funded organisations and an equal number of self-funded organisations, the combined group will talk about interests in common other than funding. If you get together a broad representative group of civil society associations, the combined group will tend to talk primarily about their identity, purpose, and their internal and external challenges. These will almost always focus on relational issues rather than managerial issues. The bigger the organisation, the more managerial will be their culture, but in a combined group of big and small, the managerialismof the big is checked by the presence of a greater number of voluntary associations, which will pull the conversation back to the relational.

      The problem of managerialism is exacerbated by non-inclusive representations of civil society. In Australia, for example, there are about 700,000 voluntary associations. 95% of these, or 665,000, receive no government funding, and about 97% do not delivery services for governments. Yet the 3% of organisations that deliver services for government constitute 100% of the NGO peak bodies, and hold a monopoly on public discourse about civil society. This discourse invariably excludes the 95% of associations.

      In the field of development, the narrowing of the definition of civil society to mean ‘development NGOs’ is undoubtedly due, as you say, to the practice of development NGOs getting together as an industry sector and thinking as an industry sector. This is fine so long as these development NGOs monitor their language so as not to exclude the vast majority of civil society who are not development NGOs, but of course this hasn’t happened. In reality, gatherings of development NGOs declare themselves to be gatherings of civil society. Governments and international bodies like the UN have swallowed this misrepresentation. Non-development NGOs ought to have stood up and challenged this colonisation of the term civil society, but organisationally and financially, they have not been equal to the task.

      Are there “darker motives of neo-imperial conquest and commercial self interest” at work here? We should exclude conspiratorial thinking from the discussion. Organisations have interests. In the development world, as in domestic service delivery, development NGOs work to strategic plans which are invariably about growth and extension, partly for reasons of economies of scale, and partly for fulfillment of the organisation’s mission. The result is expansion, mergers, and corporatisation. It doesn’t matter whether you describe this process as one of ‘neo-imperial conquest’ or ‘commercial self interest’ or ‘organisational expansion’ or ‘natural growth’, and it doesn’t matter whether you refer to these processes as ‘dark’ or ‘benign’, the processes are nonetheless real, and they transform the nature and culture of organisations.