What is really going on within ‘shrinking civil society space’ and how should international actors respond?

CS-space-2Good conversation (Chatham House Rule) last week on the global crackdown on civil society organizations (CSOs) and what to do about it. I was expecting a fairly standard ‘it’s all terrible; international NGOs must take action, speak truth to power etc’ discussion, but it was actually much more interesting and nuanced than that.

While it is undoubtedly true, and horrible, that governments around the world are squeezing the space for civic activism, sometimes violently, the detailed picture is actually quite complex. Some points on the diagnosis, and then the response.

To what extent is this part of a process of emerging regulation, as part of a broader process of formalization? If I compare what is happening now with the social and protest movements I saw in Latin America in the 80s, which often experienced the most appalling levels of repression, there is a sense that things have moved on. Much of the ‘crackdown’ is now through regulation, registration and financial rules, transparency etc. Some of it is undoubtedly malicious, but some is probably a necessary effort to introduce accountability and good governance into a new and expanding sector. Or are we saying that the state should not regulate CSOs?!

The squeeze is not taking place in a political or social vacuum. We need to understand how it connects with other trends, which shape how it is playing out: technology (the rise of social media), demographic (rising literacy, urbanization), new forms of politics (eg right wing populism) and of course, counter-terrorism and security.

Which bits of civil society are more or less vulnerable? Civil society extends far beyond the formal CSOs that are often the partners of aid organizations – are more informal organizations also suffering, or is it a particular form of CSO that is bearing the brunt? Have we, as I fear, contributed to the problem by insisting that in exchange for our aid dollars, local CSOs adopt our language, processes and upward accountability, making them appear less locally legitimate, and so more vulnerable?

What is expanding to fill the vacuum left by shrinking civil society space? As a recent International Budget Partnership paper showed, these may represent opportunities for new partnerships, and maybe to return to our wider role of solidarity with informal social movements, not just more institutionalised partnerships with southern NGOs. IBP found that litigation, Supreme Audit Institutions and municipal governments are playing a growing role. At the seminar, participants talked of religious leaders and private firms also becoming more engaged – who else?

From Civicus
From Civicus

Behind all this there was an underlying anxiety that framing all this as the ‘global civil society crackdown’ could be somehow overly Western. I have yet to see a comprehensive ‘Voices of the Poor’ type piece of research that asks different forms of civil society (including CSOs but also grassroots organizations, sports club supporters, cultural groups, faith organizations) how they see the current threats and opportunities, but one participant described the feedback his organization received as ‘you frame this too negatively – there are huge opportunities in disruption as well as negatives’.

As for how to respond:

Big focus on the limitations of global narratives. Problems and solutions are deeply local, with INGOs and other outsiders having only a limited role (and having to be careful about their actions making matters worse – eg by highlighting the aid dependence of their local partners). Outsiders need to make it a priority to canvass the opinions of and be led by local civil society organizations, and be cautious about launching into generic global campaigns.

At national level, the challenge in some places is to rebuild the legitimacy of civic action, which has been damaged by excessive dependence on aid. There’s a clear place for working on longer term attitudes, beliefs, norms etc there. How have Indian NGOs responded to the crackdown by the Modi government? Have they tried a big picture normative campaign about the role of civic action in India’s history (‘Gandhi was an activist’) and if so, how did it go?

As for outsiders, like INGOs, there seem to be at least three kinds of possible strategy:

Research: ICNL and Civicus are doing good monitoring work on the extent of the legal and policy crackdown, but the IBP study I reviewed earlier is one of the few examples of taking a ‘positive deviance’ approach, trying to spot new forms of organization and activism that are emerging into the vacuum and/or proving more resilient.

I’m not sure how useful global problem analysis is, given the complexity and national specificity of the interlocking political economies of aid organizations protestand national polities; a series of national case studies might be more use, both of endogenous change processes of crackdown, resistance or emergence, but also of how outsiders have tried to influence events.

Influencing: at both global and (if we are invited) national level , this would include the standard elements of advocacy

  • Stakeholder and power analysis of both donors and national polities
  • Identify the right messengers to carry the message about civil society to those in power
  • The right coalitions (including unusual suspects)
  • Defensive tactics (eg opposing bad new laws)
  • Offensive tactics, whether to help existing organizations adapt to new rules, identify and work with new actors, or concentrate on building broader coalitions of civil society.
  • The right stories: myths and iconic success stories (lots of them)
  • Readiness to seize windows of opportunity presented by scandals, shocks, changes of leadership etc


  • Building domestic resilience, eg by helping local organizations raise money locally to wean them off aid dependence.
  • Support increased diversity and linking eg via peer to peer networks, including both partners and INGOs/externals on how to work in these reduced/changing spaces
  • Rethink some partnerships to focus on the more durable/resilient elements of civil society, and those emerging into the new contexts
  • Dignified exit (INGOs can step away and promote localization at the same time)
  • Rethink the kinds of funding that work best in this new context eg core funding or scholarships may be better attuned than traditional project funding

For more background, Civicus has just published its ‘State of Civil Society‘ report for 2017. Here is an Oxfam paper on challenging shrinking civic space in Africa and articles by my Oxfam colleagues on trends in shrinking civic space, social exclusion and civic space and innovative approaches towards protecting civic space


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10 Responses to “What is really going on within ‘shrinking civil society space’ and how should international actors respond?”
  1. Dear Duncan,

    I have been following this conversation since the onset as well as became the first one to raise the fact that NGOs/CSOs have to change the model in order to lead on what is currently happening all over the world. From bank de-risking to country ownership, the situation was basically created by CSOs with the lack of transparency with their activities and the lack of willingness to collaborate. I am based in Colombia and this lack of leadership from the sector to implement solutions instead of simply fighting for the status-quo is affecting the poorest and the sustainability of the peace process. I am not fanatic with big NGOs but the private sector has helped create organizations (corporate foundations) that understand that this is the cost of doing the work and that …any process that can help in preventing money laundering and terrorism financing is worth the investment.

    Let’s innovate instead of fighting for the status-quo!!

  2. Clare Kaijabwango

    Interesting discussion.
    I have worked in Civil society in Uganda for 13years and based on that and others experiences plus reading, I am inclined to focus on the value for money produced by Civil society before, like Luc says, fight for status quo.

    For years Civil society organisations have recieved funding for development work in different thematic areas, however how accurately is value added measured and documented. This is in no way intended to undermine the existing monitoring and Evaluation systems and methodologies. I think learning from the private sector-way of managing business and calculating value for money may be of great use. After this is done comprehensively then we can confidently fight for the status quo!
    Would trying to protect civil society space inherently we are protecting value? This may vary with individual countries but I think still remains a criticam question to answer?

  3. Thomas Dunmore Rodriguez

    I don´t think things have moved on in Latin America as much as you say, Duncan. According to Global Witness, amongst 185 human rights defenders murdered in 2015, 122 of these were in Latin America. Every week we hear of activists being threatened, journalists being spied upon and disappeared, and terrible cases of violence particularly against women human rights defenders. Yes, things were particularly bad in the 1980s but it´s remarkable that despite the shift to more democratic regimes across the region, the levels of violence and repression against civil society activists and journalists remain very high. The complexity is also in the web of actors behind this situation: economic elites, state actors and, increasingly, collusion with powerful organised criminal networks. This final actor often provides a scapegoat for the State and big business, as such contributing to the continued levels of impunity. Oxfam produced this report in the region last year and it points to some of the trends and main factors behind these levels of violence https://www.oxfam.org/en/research/risks-defending-human-rights

  4. John Sayer

    Before we get too excited about progressive business becoming engaged, please be reminded of the following advertisement taken out in Hong Kong’s Chinese newspapers before the democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2014 by the big four accounting companies: EY, KPMG, Deloitte and PwC. This translation came from the Financial Times:

    “In Opposition to the Occupy Central Movement

    With regards to some individuals proposing an ‘occupy central’ movement, we hereby announce that we are opposed to this movement, and are concerned that ‘occupy central’ would have negative and long-lasting impact on the rule of law, the society, and the economy of Hong Kong. We hope that the disagreements could be resolved through negotiation and dialogue instead.

    The rule of law is a core value of Hong Kong and has been the last bastion in Hong Kong’s good business environment and its ability to attract foreign investment. Acting lawfully and respecting the rights of others is the responsibility of every citizen.

    The Central district is the heart of Hong Kong’s financial and business activity. Multinational and Hong Kong companies alike have always established their headquarters and main offices there. In addition, the Hong Kong stock exchange, the headquarters of financial and professional services companies conduct key large transactions and commercial activities there daily. We believe that once ‘Occupy Central’ happens, the above-mentioned commercial groups such as banks, exchanges, and the stock market will inevitably be affected. All types of transactions, contracts and other commercial activities will be delayed. In addition, regulatory bodies could also be unable to function as usual and this would increase the instability and confusion on the market and cause inestimable losses in the economy.

    In fact, many clients have reflected such concerns to us recently. We are worried that multinational companies and investor would consider moving their regional headquarters from Hong Kong, or indeed leave the city entirely. This would have a long-term impact on Hong Kong’s status as a global financial centre. In recent years, many international studies have pointed out that Hong Kong’s competitiveness is under increasing challenge. When a law-based society and the business environment continually comes under attack, Hong Kong’s competitiveness will be further lessened and this would lead to the next generation of our society facing an even tougher environment.

    Therefore, we once again call on the relevant parties to keep Hong Kong’s overall and long term interests in mind, to follow the law and resolve their differences through negotiation and dialogue.

    EY KPMG Deloitte PwC

    The demonstrations were larger and longer than expected. The economy did not collapse. Some of the school and university students involved said that a certain reduction in economic prosperity (which did not happen) would be a worthwhile trade off in exchange for other aspects of social development.

  5. Thanks Duncan for this interesting piece on civic space and possible responses of international actors. Two days prior to its publication we (The Broker and Partos – the Dutch membership body for organisations working in international development) published a new report on the same topic: Activism, Artivism and Beyond. Inspiring initiatives of civic power. The report addresses the issue of ‘shrinking civic space’, but – like the IBP publication you are referring to in your article – takes a more positive approach. Instead of looking at the forces that ‘besiege’ civic space, it focuses on the creative and innovative ways in which civil society seeks to defend, expand and make different use of this civic space. (Download link: https://partos.nl/fileadmin/files/Documents/Activism_Artivism_and_Beyond.pdf)

    The aim of this report is to showcase the wealth and breadth of civic action, to inspire and energize – formal as well as informal – CSOs and movements, and to ensure that the importance of a resilient civil society rises a little further on political agendas. As such, the report may also contribute – albeit modestly – to answering the big questions you are posing in your blog. Seeing how diverse the spectrum of civil society’s answers to the shrinking civic space are, coming up with a truly supportive and appropriate approach is indeed a challenge for international actors.

    The report will most certainly get a follow-up, and I am hoping that we will be able to contribute further to this exciting debate.

  6. Chiara

    Just to add another couple of things to the mix – one is this paper on a critical analysis of the ‘shrinking space’ framing and what means for different civil society actors (for some people the space has always been pretty narrow!) https://www.tni.org/files/publication-downloads/on_shrinking_space_2.pdf and also the dominant Northern point of view on the issue as we seem to talk about it in relation to Trump and Brexit mostly. Secondly, the relationship between closing civic space and economic development and how market fundamentalism is a driver of increased crackdown, the (last) UN Special rapporteur on freedom of assembly and association has some interesting thoughts in his report, sorry can’t find link now. From Womankind experience of supporting women’s rights organisations in very difficult environments i.e. Ethiopia, we are seeing very subtle ways in which they organise to overcome some of the limitations through personal networks for example.

  7. Hi Duncan, thanks a million – this is a really useful contribution to the debate on deteriorating conditions for activism around the world.

    At the CIVICUS Monitor (https://monitor.civicus.org) we definitely see a continuing (and in some cases) escalating use of brutal tactics to close civic space – the use of excessive force and the unlawful detention of HRDs being two of the most common tactics reported to us in the June 2016 – March 2017 period. Of course, we do still see the spread of problematic legal restrictions too. On the subject of regulation, in our experience, most CSOs welcome regulation, but of course in a way that accords with international standards.
    And, like others commenting here, we are still documenting a really frightening number of the most serious kinds of attack – killings of HRDs, protestors, activists.

    We completely agree that describing national contexts fully is essential if we are to avoid generalised, and not very useful, descriptions of a faceless, amorphous, global crackdown. What we are seeing are of course global trends, but each attack has a perpetrator, a victim, and a driving force (or in most cases several interlocking driving forces) behind it. Through each of our detailed country pages on the CIVICUS Monitor, we try to complement the colour coding ratings we assign with descriptions that hopefully bring these factors to light. We’re also working hard on new analytical tools which will allow us to provide a solid evidence base for who is carrying out the attacks, upon whom (this for us is vital – to show which groups are really bearing the brunt) and for what reasons. While most of the information reaching is bad news, we are also trying as much as we can to find positive stories, uncover why these successes are happening and share those across networks. From the comments here, it sounds like many others are also focused on this, which is really encouraging.

    Having said that, we are also really interested in the relationship between international and national actors, and particularly how international actors are able support national responses to restrictions, or facilitate unusual partnerships (or whatever role we should adopt). One way to help do this we feel is to develop a globally comparative picture. In essence, how can we support disruptive strategies by national level civil society if we don’t know where they are? The global approach is of course, by nature reductive, but our ultimate ambition is to draw synergies between contexts to gain a deeper understanding of the drivers of opening and closing civic space. We also have to acknowledge, regional “chilling effects” across regions/economies don’t just occur in the vacuum of the nation-state, therefore, analysis only rooted in the local doesn’t necessarily describe the complete picture. Clearly, it’s about using a complementary approach.

    By adopting a three stranded approach – communicating a fact-based global narrative, ensuring country contexts are accurately described, and highlighting positive responses – we hope that civil society will be in a stronger position to advocate and campaign for greater protections for its work.

    We’d love anyone interested in knowing more to get in touch here: https://monitor.civicus.org/contact-us/

  8. Elsa Peraldi

    At Global Integrity we have been assessing citizen’s ability to assembly freely and the operational environment for NGOs for 5 years through the Africa Integrity Indicators, and as we pointed last year we see also the shrinking space for civil society (indicators 67 to 70). Last year only 6 countries got a full 100 score on GI’s scale on all four indicators. This year we saw that even getting smaller, with now only four countries fully protecting these rights. Our data provides snapshots across the continent on those issues and other relevant to them including rule of law and accountability institutions. And we hope it can serve as entry point for stakeholders to engage on a large discussion on issues that must be addressed. (our data http://aii.globalintegrity.org/scores-map?stringId=transparency_accountability&year=2017)

    One thing is valuable to keep in mind when engaging in any form of support to civil society is that all governance reforms, including those needed to improve the civic space, are complex and inherently political and as such reform efforts must be led by local actors. The role of international organization, such as Global Integrity, is to support those local actors and their efforts. How? For us is through supporting adaptive learning.

  9. Duncan,
    I agree with all that you’ve said, and would add only that my research team has been doing some work, with support from the Open Society Foundations, on the potential for local fundraising for human rights groups in the global South.

    In Mexico, for example, we just completed this study on the potential for local fundraising :


    Shorter versions can be read here:


    We also just put together a short video describing aspects of that work:


    We are now replicating in Bogota, Colombia.

    More generally, we’ve made this argument about philanthropy, repression, and human rights NGOs:


    For a broader discussion of the possibilities for local philanthropy and human rights, see the discussion thread at openGlobalRights: