Here’s what we know about closing civic space – what other research would you suggest?

I head off to the Institute of Development Studies today to take stock on our joint ‘Action for Empowerment and Accountability’ research programme. One of the main discussions will be on a research agenda on ‘closing civic space’, so this blog sets out what we know of the research to date, and asks you for further suggestions.

The best place to start is a great new literature review by 9 IDS researchers, Here’s their summary, with some thoughts from me at the end:

‘A wave of closures of civic space has occurred around the world, notably in the last decade, but not all civil society actors are equally affected: the objects of new restrictions are typically groups and organisations from a liberal and human rights tradition, often aid-funded and with strong transnational links, as well as their allies in social movements, the media and academia.

Developing countries may have long established traditions of civil society, but formal organisations in the specifically liberal tradition proliferated after the end of the Cold War, with aid financing increasing rapidly during the 1990s and 2000s, particularly to service-providing actors.

The recent (gathering pace in the past five years, but in fact dating back to the War on Terror) wave of restrictions on civic space must be situated in the similarly relatively recent growth of such organisations in most developing countries.

Not all new regulations on civil society are unwelcome, even by civil society actors; without effective regulation, the rapid earlier expansion enabled inefficiencies and abuses. In principle, new regulations purport to strengthen the governance and accountability of civil society, and to assert national sovereignty over the development process.

In practice, however, efforts to regulate civic space are often a heavy-handed mixture of stigmatisation and delegitimisation, selective application of rules and restrictions, and violence and impunity for violence against civic actors and groups, motivated by the concentration or consolidation of political power.

Civic space may be conceptualised not as closing or shrinking overall, but as changing, in terms of who participates and on what terms. The rapid growth of the digital public sphere has dramatically reshaped the civic space for all actors, while right wing, extremist, and neotraditionalist groups and urban protest movements have occupied demonstrably more of the civic space in the past decade. That civic space may be seen as changing rather than shrinking also fits with the observation that many civil society actors report being pushed or pulled into closer relationships with political elites or the state, in order to continue to operate.

While in many developing countries, civic and political rights have been exercised to support the realisation of basic human needs, some countries noted for their high growth and rapid human development appear to have achieved such gains without the benefits of generous civic space. At the same time, countries with well-established civil society institutions and formally democratic public space are frequently unable to overcome powerful opposition to distributive policies through open or democratic processes.

These paradoxes draw attention to the conditions under which civil society contributes to inclusive development

cc-by-nc-nd Niklas Hughes / Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung

processes. These are present when actors have the capacity to represent the concerns of the marginalised and disempowered, with both the space to articulate those concerns independently, and the traction with political elites to elicit a policy response through meaningful engagement. It helps to understand civil society not only as groups advocating from beyond the boundaries of organised politics, but also as a site of contention, of constant struggle over the interests of state, society, and the market, spilling over at times into political and economic concerns. It is not only the independence of civil society, but the nature of its ‘fit’ with the state, that best explains the politics of inclusive development.

That efforts to restrict civic space seek to curb this contention, typically to clear a path for state or political projects or for business deals, is clear. Some of the most violent and sustained recent attacks on civil society actors have clustered around potentially lucrative land and natural resource deals, and around labour rights, particularly in export sectors; indigenous people’s and human rights groups, peasant and labour organisations have struggled against deals deemed harmful to society or the environment. An assertion of sovereignty and nationalist or traditional values tends to accompany and inform these moves, alongside concerted ideological efforts to discredit or delegitimise specific actors.’

The report then sets out 4 areas for further country-level research (the language is a bit IDS-ish, so I’ve added translations):

  1. ‘Closing civic space as struggles over national sovereignty in the development process’: this isn’t a uniform process – the way space closes depends on national politics. Let’s try and understand that connection better.
  2. ‘The rise of China as a development model’: is there some link with the closure of civic space, and if so, how does that link work?
  3. ‘Occupations and expansions of the civic space’: a lot of the new entrants are either nasty (eg some religious and nationalist movements) or more unruly/protest based than their predecessors. What are their agendas and developmental impact?
  4. ‘Closing civic space, dispossession and development’: how much of this is a smokescreen for land and natural resource grabs?

I would add a few more:

  • The different tactics and forms of leadership that have emerged in civil society in response to closing space – which ones have been most/least effective?
  • What have external actors like Western governments and INGOs done to try and help – when have they been successful/made matters worse?
  • More on the issue of aid dependence – should we make it a priority to help CSOs generate more resources domestically to reduce their vulnerability to the crackdown?
  • Has anyone done a kind of long term accompaniment of one or more CSOs, to see how they respond to shrinking space over time?

Please add your own ideas – and quickly, as we’ll be chewing over these issues today and tomorrow.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. For information about our privacy practices, please see our .

We use MailChimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing. Learn more about MailChimp's privacy practices here.


18 Responses to “Here’s what we know about closing civic space – what other research would you suggest?”
  1. Andrew Wells-Dang

    Thanks Duncan for this summary, and good luck to all with the A4EA research agenda! To echo one of your additional points, I keep coming back to CSOs’ building local constituencies (which includes fundraising, also membership and public participation) as a key to increasing legitimacy. A strong domestic supporters’ network not only helps to protect against political crackdowns or accusations of being externally driven, but also reduces risks from declining donor funds and amplifies voices in advocacy and influencing. INGOs can play an important role in encouraging and accompanying domestic CSOs in constituency building.

    Second, re language and conceptualization, I think it’s important to go beyond “responses” to shrinking and shifting civic space. We (domestic and international civil society actors, and our allies) need to create new spaces and strengthen existing ones with proactive messages. Along with IDS’ lit review, I recommend the recent web publication from JASS (, which includes this call: “We don’t need a ‘counter-narrative’ – something reactive that risks validating the views it challenges – but rather a compelling narrative, a positive vision and values that affirm the contributions of civil society, human rights defenders, activism, and the good of our societies”.

  2. Tracey Martin

    National level research tends to focus on the bigger organisations and movements and national issues. How is civic space changing at more local levels? And how are people and formal and informal organisations experiencing and reacting to it. In the UK we see the link between crises in council funding and the survival and changing role of local organisations. How do national restrictions and regulations impact differently on organisations working at different levels.

  3. Roy Trivedy

    Thanks Duncan. Very interesting and helpful. It may be good to explore and better understand more about what’s happening in different countries to civic space on issues like extractive industries, migration, inequality, hunger, protection of bio-diversity etc.. And an interesting case study may be to look at how in different countries individuals and groups are coming together to try and reduce the use of plastics. I think its also interesting to see where local, national and international/multilateral action can work together to protect civic space and what happens when actions at these various levels are not aligned.

  4. Zenda Ofir

    Duncan, it is a reality – as shown abundantly by history – that governments in many (emerging) economies face external efforts to destabilise their countries, especially when such countries either threaten existing systems and interests or are in the process of gaining power. Dealing with such situations is indeed a dilemma when the media, NGOs and/or civil society organisations (often inadvertently, through naivete, but also often deliberately) are tools in such efforts? It is likely that the accelerated closing of such spaces over the past decade is the result of actions to counter increasing efforts at destabilisation as (still) powerful actors try to hold on to their power. The extent to which this is the case will of course never be known by the “men and women in the street” (us, in other words). But to those who are informed and following developments, especially from Global South perspectives, the complexity of the matter is clear. We should rather acknowledge and focus on those countries that demonstrate good governance – whatever their political system – that clearly leads to advancements in human and ecosystems well-being, and on those likely under economic attack (“Confessions of an Economic Hitman” style), and consider whether it might not be necessary to adjust some of our dominant narratives about civil society roles. And even more so with regard to the conventional media, which remain a powerful and often destructive force.

  5. Akram Al-Masnai

    In Yemen, CSOs in Yemen continue to face a number of challenges. The sector is predominantly urban-based, with over half of registered CSOs operating out of the capital of Sana’a, despite the fact that almost 70 percent of the population lives in rural areas. Rural organizations lack access to resources, provide very limited services, and generally do not have the institutional capacity to address the needs of their communities. Many CSOs are affiliated with political parties; political agendas, therefore, serve as the basis for determining organizational strategies, activities, and service delivery. Many politically-affiliated CSOs tend to be oriented towards short-term charity initiatives, such as donating and distributing food during religious holidays. Such activities fail to address the root causes of poverty and do not allow those living in poverty to contribute actively to their financial stabilization.

  6. David Harold Chester

    They hang the man and flog the woman
    That steal the goose from off the common
    But let the greater villain loose
    That steals the common from the goose
    The law demands that we atone
    When we take things we do not own
    But leaves the lords and ladies fine
    That take things that are yours and mine.

    -English nursery rhyme (1764)

  7. Robert Wiggers

    Thank you for sharing and asking, Duncan!
    An additional research subject could be: “To what extent do different actors (CSOs themselves, authorities, and the public at large) relate increased and diversified domestic resources to the issue of legitimacy of CSOs?”
    This relates to your suggestion to research “More on the issue of aid dependence – should we make it a priority to help CSOs generate more resources domestically to reduce their vulnerability to the crackdown?”

  8. Naomi Hossain

    Hi Duncan. So sorry to miss you at IDS today! Completely agree that in many countries we are basically looking at a big old land grab, and you ask what we think are the big questions.

    On donor responses CSIS and Carnegie et al have done a lot: On China, the question for me is: to what extent does Chinese development aid recognize the functional value of civil society (helps resolve differences peacefully, amplifies voice of the disempowered etc) even if there is a fundamental disagreement with the West over human rights? Put another way: how likely and secure can your economic and social rights be when you have no political or civic rights with which to protect them? Plenty of evidence that civil society (not your liberal human rights variety) enabled responsiveness and service delivery in China. It would be fascinating to know how that function is perceived (if at all) in the developing countries China now invests in.

    On NGOs and CSOs becoming more sustainable through domestic sources – yes ideally, more accountability and legitimacy nationally would of course be lovely. But if it makes civil society beholden to corporate CSR agendas as it would in many places … not sure what value that would add.

  9. It seems that while closing of civic space is acknowledged as a global problem, there’s more focus on the global south — implying that the global north is more open. This should be explored in relation to the role of corporations on civil society directly and through influence of the government and corporate media.

    Because the changing of funding sources (from individuals to governments and corporations) is unexamined, INGOs are assumed to be part of civil society when they often aren’t. How is an INGO different from a private contractor if they only do the work when there is a donor paying for it? I’d love to see research about the complicity of INGOs on the closing of civic space rather than merely the innocent and neutral “victims” of it.

  10. Duncan – thanks for this blog. The IDS report is really useful. I wanted to flag some new work being by the Funders’ Initiative for Civil Society, looking at how independent funders can help or hinder in contexts of constraining and shifting civil society space. The piece aims to develop a stronger understanding of risks and dilemmas, decisions, tools and tactics connected to closing space, with a view to encouraging a better collective response. I am working with Deborah Doane on this, and we will be convening a short webinar series for funders over the autumn to explore experience and case studies of good and less good practice. From the conversations in the webinars we will be drawing together a short summary document with ideas for funders on how they can be most constructive and supportive of civil society in these
    contexts. The whole piece will be building on this helpful report from last year ‘Why Shrinking Civil Society Space Matters in Development and Humanitarian Action’ I’d be keen to hear from folk who have experiences of where funders have used new or innovative tactics and approaches to navigate and ultimately build civil society space, so am reading the comments with interest.

  11. Hi Duncan. Sounds like a really exciting research initiative.

    I second the earlier suggestions of looking at local rootedness and development of networks of supporters. My intuition is that network building beyond capitals, including things like community monitor programs, can make a huge difference – but I don’t know, and I don’t know how or under what circumstances.

    I had a go recently at categorising the rhetoric used to delegitimise civil society, using Marika Landau-Wells’ work on a typology of threat language. I would love to see that explored properly – how are governments winning popular support for measures to restrict groups that ostensibly try to help people.

  12. Kendyl Salcito

    I’m so glad this report has generated so much buzz. Thanks for summarizing it, Duncan. To build on Gretchen Gordon’s point, the western governments you list as “external actors” vastly inflate their influence through DFIs, offering aid money to NGOs through aid projects (like civil society capacity building) and to government through development projects.
    Western governments inject cash into both sides of conflicts between CSOs and repressive governments, but far *more* cash goes to the governments. If, to your point on aid dependence, we wish to make CSOs more independent, we must keep in mind that a similar drawdown in DFI funds to repressive states would be appropriate.
    For long term accompaniment of a CSO experiencing shrinking space, call Gretchen about the compendium she’s assembling. It seems that in order to survive (literally survive, given the violence faced by human rights defenders) the ‘development’ investments, CSOs necessarily *must* draw international attention, which requires funding.

  13. Monica Koep

    Thanks for a great summary leading into a thought-provoking discussion. My sense is that all too often we apply a particular (often western and structured) formal lens and a distorted mental map to the political, economic, social and cultural landscape of many societies when we attempt to identify “agency”, recognise CSOs and quantify “civic activity” in our log frames and Results Frameworks. We risk mis/perceiving causality, attributing influence or impact, when we disregard the less conventional collective actions taken by members of a society or community to effect change or influence the holders of power that might not fit our more narrow definition or understanding of “civic activity”. These efforts are very often informal, at times seemingly “pre-modern”, “non-democratic”, but are strategic, based on personal connections and identity affiliations, operating within existing hierarchies and power structures, under the radar, in the realm of the possible. These are not necessarily the idealised actions of fully-empowered “citizens” organising themselves into formalised and recognisable groups (accountable, open, well-governed, putting out annual reports and audited financial statements…), agitating for their rights in the full glare of the public gaze and using “civic space”, as this might be too politically risky, culturally unacceptable, counter-productive or mask an attempt to gain increased power vis a vis contending groups by stealth). However, they do represent authentic, fit-for-purpose initiatives that flourish parallel to more visible civic actions and in spite of the size and quality of the “civic space” available.