In the age of authoritarian politics, nativist and exclusionary populism, notions like legitimacy and accountability are being manipulated in order to silence down those who criticise and take action on rights-based objectives. 

How is this fast-changing context impacting the space where civil society operates?

Over the past few years, several trends have collided to make the environment for civic activism more challenging. First, in places like Hungary and Turkey, governments have rolled back democratic checks and balances and concentrated political power in the executive. These governments tend to feel very threatened by civic groups that are challenging their abuses of power. As a result, they foster and reinforce an atmosphere of fear and paint those who are criticising their agenda as threats to order and stability.

The rise of populist movements and leaders over the past several years poses an additional challenge. In many European countries, perceptions of dysfunctional governance and uneven growth combined with social struggles over migration have fueled anger with the political establishment. The consequences have been well-documented: voters have increasingly turned to outsider parties, some of which embrace explicitly nativist and exclusionary platforms. This context of resurgent nationalism poses several challenges for civil society. It creates a hostile context for groups defending progressive values and the rights of vulnerable minorities, including refugees and LGBTQI communities. It also represents a challenge for civic groups that rely on international networks, human rights frameworks, and funding: not surprisingly, right-wing populists have lashed out against these groups as representative of unfettered ‘globalism’ and cosmopolitan elitism. Other (decidedly non-populist) leaders increasingly borrow from this populist toolbox to attack their critics. It is easier to dismiss domestic critics as “George Soros-funded agents” than to engage with their arguments. In countries where these trends have fueled political and social polarisation, civic actors face additional challenges: polarisation tends to be reflected within civil society, which makes it more difficult to build broad coalitions and facilitates government attacks.

Saskia Brechenmacher
Saskia Brechenmacher is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge and a fellow in Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program, where her research focuses on gender, civil society, and democratic governance.
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A third important trend is that many Western democracies over the past several years have become less vocal in their support for democracy and human rights around the world. This support has of course always been inconsistent. Yet, domestic political crises and a strong focus on counterterrorism and migration control have led some to further deprioritise this type of international engagement. Some Western governments are themselves setting a negative example with respect to freedom of assembly, freedom of association, and press freedom. As a result, groups fighting for human rights principles in difficult political contexts feel that they no longer have the same degree of international backing that they enjoyed in the past. Lastly, our research at the Carnegie Endowment has also sought to highlight the broader transformation of civic activism in many places. Across Europe, we see new forms of grassroots mobilisation, new protest movements, and citizen resistance to government corruption and democratic backsliding. Some European countries have also experienced an upswing in conservative civic activism. The implications of these trends for the legitimacy of civil society require further analysis.

Do you see patterns in the narratives that governments use to discredit the work of NGOs in Europe and the rest of the world?

Yes, we definitely see similar patterns. Efforts to stigmatise civil society typically revolve around four key arguments or accusations. First, governments argue that civil society organisations are self-appointed rather than elected, and thus do not represent the will of the majority. For example, the Hungarian government has justified new restrictions on foreign-funded NGOs by arguing that politics should be the domain of elected politicians rather than unelected civic groups—while at the same time actively undermining the quality and competitiveness of elections in the country. Second, governments in countries as diverse as Egypt, Macedonia, Turkey, and India [editor’s note: also EU countries like Italy and Slovakia] have argued that civil society organisations receiving foreign funding are accountable to external rather than domestic interests. Many deploy the label of “foreign agent” to discredit critical organisations.

A third accusation is that civil society groups are partisan political actors disguised as nonpartisan civic actors. Governments denounce both the goals and methods of civic groups as being illegitimately political, and hold up any contacts between civic groups and opposition parties as proof of the accusation. While many civil society groups insist that they stand for universal rights rather than partisan agendas, this can be a difficult argument to make if society is deeply polarised or the government is actively seeking to curtail those same rights. Lastly, critics sometimes frame civil society groups as elite actors who are not representative of the people they claim to represent. They point to the foreign education backgrounds, high salaries, and frequent foreign travel of civic activists to portray them as out of touch with the concerns of ordinary citizens and only working to perpetuate their own privileged lifestyle.

Civil society’s legitimacy is under unprecedented pressure and, in many European countries, trust in civil society is lower than in the past. Yet, often civil society is more trusted than other institutions and societal actors. Is this legitimacy-crisis linked to a more widespread crisis of trust?

I think it is difficult to generalise across contexts. In Western democracies, political scientists have documented decreases in institutional trust beginning in the 1980s. Some institutions, including political parties and parliaments, have been particularly hard hit, perhaps because they are directly blamed for recent governance crises and perceived democratic dysfunction. Yet, there are important variations even within Europe. For example, the new democracies of East Central Europe are characterised by substantially lower levels of institutional trust than Western European democracies. Among the latter, the decline in trust over the past decade was starkest among porer Europeans and residents of Southern Europe, who were most severely affected by the economic recession.

It is true that civil society on average still enjoys higher average levels of trust than many other institutions. But low levels of overall institutional trust can create an environment that is perhaps more fertile for conspiracy theories, disinformation, and anti-establishment appeals—all of which contribute to further lowering trust. As noted above, this cycle plays into the hands of illiberal and anti-democratic parties that seek to challenge the progressive values that many civil society organisations seek to defend—particularly in places where civil society is not necessarily as robust, pluralistic, or locally rooted. Yet, it can also be an opportunity for civic groups to try and build new alliances around shared basic values and popular grievances.

What factors should we consider when framing civil society’s discussion on its public legitimacy?

In an increasing number of countries, governments are not only making it more difficult for civil society organisations to operate: they are also attacking the very legitimacy of an autonomous civic sphere. Governments are specifically lashing out at civic actors that are critical of government policy. They often draw on existing prejudices or partisan divides as well as weaknesses within civil society itself.

These types of attacks raise the question: what are the sources of legitimacy of civil society? And how can civil society organisations strengthen their public legitimacy to help them weather attacks? These questions do not have easy answers. Legitimacy is a notoriously difficult concept to define and measure. And civil society groups differ widely in terms of their origins, objectives, and constituencies. Organisations seen as legitimate by some parts of the public may be viewed very negatively by others.

A nuanced analysis needs to proceed along several lines. First, we need to understand why certain negative narratives about civil society gain prominence, and why they may resonate with parts of the public. Who are the actors that are driving these narratives, and what are their incentives? What mechanisms and tactics do they rely on, and what aspects of the political context facilitate these attacks? For example, we know that heightened polarisation can easily be exploited by governments: it allows them to deny the legitimacy of any type of opposition and use hardball measures to weaken their critics.

Second, we need to examine the locally relevant sources of legitimacy that civic actors can draw to protect themselves against attacks—and how they can foster public support for freedom of association and assembly as basic rights that should be protected for all. recessionPossible strategies may include building strong cross-cutting coalitions among civil society actors and with other sectors or reaching out to groups across social divides to foster a shared commitment to core democratic principles. There is no one-size-fits-all model that will apply across all contexts.

What elements have proven successful to build successful counter-narratives?

In our report, titled “Examining Civil Society Legitimacy,” we asked civic activists and experts from different countries to reflect on the sources of and challenges to civil society legitimacy in their respective contexts. Some of the contributors shared lessons learned from their own organisations and activism. While the challenges organisations face vary by context, we found that there is a core set of “legitimacy sources” that civic groups can cultivate and highlight.

In terms of building successful counter-narratives, three important themes emerged. First, if the political context allows it, civic groups should challenge conspiracy theories and rumours that misrepresent their identity head-on. In some countries, humour has proven an effective tool in this regard. Others suggested highlighting inconsistencies in government attitudes toward civic advocacy versus private sector lobbying: the latter is often poorly regulated and nontransparent, while restrictions only apply to civic groups. Similarly, civic activists accused of pursuing foreign agendas can stress that they represent norms that governments themselves have signed up to and which are, in most cases, embedded in domestic legal frameworks.

A second priority is to ensure local relevance by working on issues that directly impact people’s lives. Rather than only responding to smear campaigns, civic actors should seek to tackle the root causes of citizen discontent and demonstrate why their work is relevant to ordinary citizens’ priorities. In some cases, this approach may mean reframing specific social or political causes in ways that are more locally resonant or culturally appropriate, rather than simply adopting international frameworks. A third and related strategy is to highlight civil society’s diverse contributions to social and political development. In some cases, working on service delivery and other more “palatable” issues can give civil society organisations space to address more politically challenging topics: it allows organisations to point to concrete achievements in areas such as health, education, or economic development.

But there are other aspects that can help civil society organisations’ weather government attacks—including ethical leadership, strong downward accountability to their constituencies, a reputation for political independence, and efforts to build coalitions across social and political divides.

Across all the contributions collected, coalition-building and solidarity actions have emerged as an important element to enhance civil society’s response to shrinking civic space. What factors should civil society bear in mind while building alliances?

Indeed, almost all of the authors highlighted the importance of building long-term partnerships and alliances, both to expand their support base and to push back against attacks on individual organisations or the sector as a whole. In deeply polarised societies, such collaboration can be very difficult, as it requires reaching out to actors that do not necessarily share similar political values or objectives. As a first step, it may require recognising each other’s grievances and concerns as legitimate, and being open to sidestepping certain issues or reframing others in ways that ensure broader buy-in.

In general, alliances can be built within countries, at the regional level, as well as with international allies. Regional networks can be very helpful to share advocacy strategies and build solidarity, especially for activists from countries in which space for internal coordination is already very restricted. In terms of additional stakeholders, several contributors highlighted the role of independent media and the private sector. The former can help disseminate advocacy messages and information in novel ways and help reach a wider audience, while hold governments accountable for abuses. The latter can be an ally in pushing back against government restrictions or in providing funding for civil society, though many businesses worry about potential negative consequences and are more likely to engage behind the scenes.

Lastly, many countries suffer from a divide between older generations of activists who led or continue to lead traditional advocacy organisations, and younger activists who are organising in more informal and fluid ways. Bringing these actors together can help coordinate roles and generate new ideas for action, and encourage younger people to get involved.

This article was originally published by the European Civic Forum.