Governments around the world are narrowing the space for civil society activism. Pointing to threats of terrorism or the need to protect national sovereignty, they are erecting new barriers to the operations and funding of NGOs, harassing and discrediting civil society activists, and criminalizing dissent through expansive antiterrorism laws. An increasing number of states are also pushing back against the activities of governments and private funders that provide cross-border support to local civil society groups. This trend is widespread: it is no longer confined to a particular geographic region or type of political regime. Between 2014 and 2016 alone, more than sixty countries restricted citizens’ freedom of assembly and civil society’s ability to access funding.1 The closing of civic space has become a defining feature of international political life.
There are multiple drivers of this phenomenon. After a decade of rapid expansion in the 1990s, democratic progress has stalled in many parts of the world.2 Authoritarian regimes that had been weakened in the initial post–Cold War period have stabilized and now assume a more assertive role on the world stage. The shift in relative power from established Western democracies to non-Western actors has spurred a renewed emphasis on sovereignty norms and a pushback against perceived external interference.3 In addition, illiberal regimes increasingly fear the power of civic activism. Over the past decade, popular uprisings throughout the Middle East and the postcommunist world have exposed the vulnerability of seemingly entrenched political elites. These movements sparked a wave of preemptive measures aimed at deterring future popular mobilization and bringing foreign funding flows to civil society under greater state control.4 In a number of countries, the rise of populist leaders has fed the demonization of civil society organizations as cosmopolitan elites and enemies of the people. In addition, global concerns about terrorist financing and transnational crime have provided an excuse for governments seeking to suppress civic actors.5
The closing of civic space has started to attract significant international and scholarly attention.6 Yet substantial gaps in knowledge persist. Three questions in particular warrant further investigation.
- What is the full range of formal and informal tactics used by governments to restrict civil society? While existing research has focused on the proliferation of restrictive NGO laws, we know much less about governments’ implementation and enforcement of these measures and their interplay with nonlegal and extralegal measures.
- What impact do these measures have on affected civil society organizations and on civil society as a whole? In countries where civic space has narrowed, state actors have reshaped patterns of NGO emergence and activity as well as citizen mobilization more broadly. By examining how civic actors have adjusted to legal and political restrictions, we can bring to light sources of both vulnerability and resilience.
- What have been the responses of Western governments, and how effective have these responses been? Since the end of the Cold War, the United States and Europe have played key roles in supporting nascent civil society in difficult places. As this support has come under increasing attack, Western actors have pushed back both in public and private—raising new questions about the nature and success of their efforts.
Three country cases have been at the forefront of the closing space trend and help to address the above questions: Russia, Egypt, and Ethiopia.7 All three have imposed sweeping restrictions on associational life and limited external support to civil society. As significant regional players, their respective measures to reshape civil society have set an important example within their respective neighborhoods and beyond. All three are also of strategic importance to the West—be it in the realm of counterterrorism, security cooperation, trade, or international migration management. As such, they highlight the conflicting interests that U.S. and European governments have to balance as they try to effectively support civil society activists in the face of shrinking civic space.
1 “Lawful Civil Society Groups ‘Are Not Enemies of Democracy, But Key Allies,’ Says UN Expert,” UN News Center, October 26, 2015, http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=52379#.WJJLUVUrLcs.
2 Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way, “The Myth of Democratic Recession,” Journal of Democracy 26, no. 1 (January 2015): 45–58.
3 See, for example: Jonas Wolff and Annika Elena Poppe, “From Closing Space to Contested Spaces: Re-Assessing Current Conflicts Over International Civil Society Support,”Peace Research Institute, 2015; and Xymena Kurowska, “Multipolarity as Resistance to Liberal Norms: Russia’s Position on Responsibility to Protect,” Conflict, Security & Development 14, no. 4 (July 2014): 489–508.
4 Karrie J. Koesel and Valerie J. Bunce, “Diffusion-Proofing: Russian and Chinese Responses to Waves of Popular Mobilizations Against Authoritarian Rulers,” Perspectives on Politics 11, no. 3 (September 2013): 753–68; and Kendra Dupuy, James Ron, and Aseem Prakash, “Hands Off My Regime! Governments’ Restrictions on Foreign Aid to Non-Governmental Organizations in Poor and Middle-Income Countries,” World Development 84 (August 2016): 299–311.
5 Jude Howell et al., “The Backlash Against Civil Society in the Wake of the Long War on Terror,” Development in Practice 18, no. 1 (2008): 82–93.
6 See, for example, Dupuy, Ron, and Prakash, “Hands Off My Regime!,” 299–311; Douglas Rutzen, “Civil Society Under Assault,” Journal of Democracy 26, no. 4 (October 2015): 28–39; Sarah E. Mendelson, “Why Governments Target Civil Society and What Can Be Done in Response,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, April 2015; Thomas Carothers, “The Closing Space Challenge: How Funders Are Responding,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, November 2, 2015; Thomas Carothers and Saskia Brechenmacher, “Closing Space: Democracy and Human Rights Support Under Fire,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, February 20, 2014; and Darin Christensen and Jeremy M. Weinstein, “Defunding Dissent: Restrictions on Aid to NGOs,” Journal of Democracy 24, no. 2 (April 2013): 77–91.
7 This analysis is based on a series of in-depth interviews with civil society activists, analysts, and researchers working in or on these countries, as well as a review of the secondary literature, government documents, and funder policies.