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What does closing civic space mean for development? Aid donors are concerned about the implications of restrictions on civil society for their partners and programmes, but to date there has been little clarity about what this means for development. This paper summarises the findings of a literature review in support of research on this issue. It concludes that: (a) civic space has changed more than shrunk, although new restrictions affect aid-supported groups disproportionately; (b) new regulations are not all unwelcome, but nonetheless shift power from civic to political actors; (c) how that power shift shapes development outcomes depends on how political elites deploy that power, and in whose interests; (d) while there are instances where civil society has been curtailed to advance ‘developmentalist’ agendas, it more often enables land and natural resource grabbing, or the abuse of labour or other rights of marginalised and disempowered groups; (e) while short term economic growth is unlikely to be adversely affected, economic crises are more likely in settings where civic space is closed, and it is highly improbable that development has any chance of producing equitable, sustainable, or inclusive outcomes under conditions where civic space is restricted or closing.
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What Does Closing Civic Space Mean
for Development? A Literature
Review and Proposed Conceptual
Naomi Hossain, Nalini Khurana, Shandana Mohmand, Sohela Nazneen, Marjoke
Oosterom, Tony Roberts, Ricardo Santos, Alex Shankland and Patrick Schröder
July 2018
Volume 2018 No 515
The literature review undertaken for this paper was funded under two separate commissions,
for the ACT Alliance and for UK Aid from the UK government.
The paper is published in association with the Action for Empowerment and Accountability
Research Programme (A4EA). A4EA focuses on fragile, conflict and violence affected
settings to ask how social and political action for empowerment and accountability emerges
in these contexts, what pathways it takes, and what impacts it has.
A4EA is implemented by a consortium consisting of: the Institute of Development Studies
(IDS), the Accountability Research Center (ARC), the Collective for Social Science Research
(CSSR), the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives (IDEAS), Itad, Oxfam GB,
and the Partnership for African Social and Governance Research (PASGR). Research
focuses on five countries: Egypt, Mozambique, Myanmar, Nigeria, and Pakistan. A4EA is
funded by UK aid from the UK government.
The views expressed in this publication do not necessarily reflect the official policies of our
What Does Closing Civic Space Mean for Development? A Literature Review and Proposed Conceptual Framework
Naomi Hossain, Nalini Khurana, Shandana Mohmand, Sohela Nazneen, Marjoke Oosterom, Tony Roberts, Ricardo Santos, Alex Shankland
and Patrick Schröder
IDS Working Paper 515
© Institute of Development Studies 2018
ISSN: 2040-0209 ISBN: 978-1-78118-463-9
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What Does Closing Civic Space Mean for Development? A Literature
Review and Proposed Conceptual Framework
Naomi Hossain, Nalini Khurana, Shandana Mohmand, Sohela Nazneen,
Marjoke Oosterom, Tony Roberts, Ricardo Santos, Alex Shankland and
Patrick Schröder
What does closing civic space mean for development? Aid donors are concerned about the
implications of restrictions on civil society for their partners and programmes, but to date
there has been little clarity about what this means for development. This paper summarises
the findings of a literature review in support of research on this issue. It concludes that:
(a) civic space has changed more than shrunk, although new restrictions affect aid-
supported groups disproportionately; (b) new regulations are not all unwelcome, but
nonetheless shift power from civic to political actors; (c) how that power shift shapes
development outcomes depends on how political elites deploy that power, and in whose
interests; (d) while there are instances where civil society has been curtailed to advance
‘developmentalist’ agendas, it more often enables land and natural resource grabbing, or the
abuse of labour or other rights of marginalised and disempowered groups; (e) while short-
term economic growth is unlikely to be adversely affected, economic crises are more likely in
settings where civic space is closed, and it is highly improbable that development has any
chance of producing equitable, sustainable, or inclusive outcomes under conditions where
civic space is restricted or closing.
Keywords: civil society; closing civic space; democracy; human rights; NGOs; political economy
of development.
Naomi Hossain is a political sociologist and Research Fellow in the Power and Popular
Politics Cluster at IDS. She specialises in the political economy of inclusive or pro-poor
development. Previously at BRAC’s Research and Evaluation Division where she led the
first State of Governance in Bangladesh report in 2006, she has been at the Institute of
Development Studies since 2008. Her research has increasingly focused on the relationship
between unruly politics, civil society, and the development process. Recent books include:
The Aid Lab: Understanding Bangladesh’s Unexpected Success (2017, Oxford University
Press) and Food Riots, Food Rights and the Politics of Provisions (2017, Routledge), co-
edited with Patta Scott-Villiers. The Politics of Education in Developing Countries: From
Schooling to Learning? (co-edited with Sam Hickey) will be published by Oxford University
Press in 2018.
Nalini Khurana is a researcher working with IDS. She holds an MA in Gender and
Development from IDS, and has previous research experience at UN Women (New Delhi)
and the Parliament of Canada (Ottawa). Her work focusses on issues of gender-based
violence, sexuality, and women’s economic empowerment. Nalini's MA dissertation explored
women’s experiences of fear and safety on public transportation in New Delhi, India.
Shandana Mohmand is a Research Fellow in the Governance Cluster at IDS. Her main
area of interest is the political economy of public policy and service delivery, focused mainly
around empirical analyses of local politics, informal institutions and decentralisation. She has
contributed to both policy and social science research in these areas. Her research is
interdisciplinary and comparative, and she has conducted original research in countries in
South Asia and the Western Balkans using varied and mixed methodological strategies. She
currently manages a number of training programmes on research design and methodological
Sohela Nazneen is a political economist based at the Gender and Sexuality cluster at IDS.
Her research focuses on governance structure, women's political and economic
empowerment, feminist movements, and rural livelihoods. Her edited book on the Politics of
Negotiating Gender Equity in the Global South: The Case of Domestic Violence Policy is
forthcoming from Routledge (2018).
Marjoke Oosterom is a Research Fellow in the Power and Popular Research Cluster at
IDS. She holds a PhD from IDS and has a background in comparative politics and
development studies. Her research concentrates on how experiences of violence and
conflict affect forms of agency, citizenship, and everyday politics and governance. Marjoke
has developed specific expertise on how young people participate in politics through formal
and informal channels and how they respond to insecurity and violence in non-violent ways.
Apart from research, she has been involved in advisory services for policy makers and
international NGOs working on democratic governance, citizen participation, and youth and
Tony Roberts co-leads the Digital and Technology research cluster at the Institute of
Development Studies where his research focuses on power, participation and digital
technologies. He founded and led two international development agencies before completing
a PhD at Royal Holloway, University of London. His doctoral research involved the use of
participatory video to explore women’s critical agency to tackle gender injustice in Zambia’s
technology sector.
Ricardo Santos is a Research Fellow at the United Nations University World Institute of
Development Economics Research, UNU-WIDER, stationed in Maputo, Mozambique, as
Technical Advisor to the Centre of Economics and Management Studies at the Faculty of
Economics of Eduardo Mondlane University. He holds a PhD in Economics from the Institute
of Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex, a Master degree in Economics
from the Nova University in Lisbon and an MA in Development Studies from IDS. His
doctoral research examined the post-conflict labour market and education sector in Timor-
Leste, looking at the medium-run impact exposure to violence and conflict produce on
households’ choices regarding education, namely inquiring on impacts over the economic
incentives for education. His previous work in the development field includes voluntary work
for one year in Timor-Leste as a member of a Portuguese NGO and, Programme Manager
for Timor-Leste and Angola and Deputy Executive Officer of the same NGO.
Patrick Schröder is a Research Fellow at IDS. His main research interests relate to the
global transition to a circular economy within the context of sustainable consumption and
production (SCP) systems and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). He also has
expertise on issues relating to civil society participation in China’s environmental
governance. Prior to joining IDS, Patrick was based in Beijing from 2008-2015. He worked
extensively in development cooperation programmes of the European Union, including the
SWITCH-Asia Programme, the EU-China Environmental Governance Programme and the
EU-China Civil Society Dialogue. He also has worked for the German Corporation for
International Cooperation (GIZ/CIM) as Senior International Advisor to the China Association
for NGO Cooperation, coordinating the China Civil Climate Action Network.
Alex Shankland is a Research Fellow in the Power and Popular Politics Cluster at IDS. He
is a social scientist with over two decades' experience of working in Brazil, Peru, Angola and
Mozambique as a researcher, NGO manager and social development consultant. He has
researched, taught and published extensively on rights, participation and policy, particularly
in the health sector, and his doctoral thesis was on representation and health policy in the
Brazilian Amazon. His current research interests centre on theories and practices of
democratic representation and citizen-state engagement, with particular reference to the
political strategies of indigenous peoples and other marginalised minorities engaging with
development and climate change policies.
Summary, keywords and author notes 3
Acknowledgements and acronyms 6
Executive summary 7
1 Introduction 10
2 The nature and form of closing civic space in the early twenty-first century 13
2.1 A global trend of closing civic space? 13
2.2 Instruments of shrinking space 14
2.3 Drivers of changing civic space 15
2.4 Actors, groups and sectors targeted 16
3 Civil society, civic space and development 17
3.1 Meanings of civil society 17
3.2 The role and contribution of civil society in the development process 19
3.3 Uncivil society and unruly civics 22
4 The politics of inclusive development 23
4.1 Development as the SDGs: sustainability, equality, and inclusion 23
4.2 A polity approach to civic space 24
4.3 Political settlements and inclusive development 26
5 Mechanisms through which closing civic space may shape development
outcomes 28
6 Conclusions 33
6.1 A constriction of liberal civic space 33
6.2 Civil society and development 33
6.3 Struggles over national sovereignty amid changing geopolitics 35
6.4 Civic space as ‘fit’ 35
6.5 Further research 36
References 39
Figure 3.1 Conventional Venn diagram of civil society in relation to state and market 18
Figure 4.1 A polity approach to civic space and national development processes 26
Figure 5.1 A typology of political settlements, selected countries 28
The authors are grateful for discussions of these issues with Thomas Carothers, Kendra
Dupuy, Lise Rakner, and Sam Hickey, and for detailed feedback from John Gaventa, Una
Hombrecher, Peter Houtzager, Christine Meissler, and Carol Rask. All errors of fact and
interpretation remain those of the authors alone.
BRICS Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa
CIDSE Coopération Internationale pour le Développement et la Solidarité
CSIS Center for Strategic and International Studies
CSOs Civil Society Organisations
CSR Corporate Social Responsibility
ESID Effective States and Inclusive Development Programme
FDI Foreign Direct Investment
HLPE High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons
ICNL International Center for Not-for-Profit Law
INGOs International Non-Governmental Organisations
LGBTI Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex
MDGs Millennium Development Goals
NGOs Non-Governmental Organisations
ODA Official Development Assistance
OHCHR Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
RPF Rwandan Patriotic Front
SDGs Sustainable Development Goals
Executive summary
This paper summarises the findings of a review of the literature relevant to assessing the
implications of shrinking civic space for development. 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 neo-
traditionalist 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
How might efforts to restrict particular types of civil society actors within the changing civic
space impact on development? There is no easy or single answer. Much depends upon how
the political power these restrictions seek to concentrate or consolidate is deployed in, or
against, the pursuit of developmental goals, as well as on how those goals are set. Closures
of democratic and human rights-based civic space will mean countries fail on the SDG 16
indicators of ‘peace, justice, and strong institutions’. Yet what we know of the impacts of civil
society on development in the past suggests that ‘core’ human development indicators are
highly likely to be affected, as civic actors have influenced policies and practice on poverty,
hunger, gender equality, livelihoods, health and education, across a wide range of contexts,
but in particular for marginalised and disempowered groups. Broadly defined, civil society
has strengthened the accountability of the development process, in documented instances
contributing to fairer or better laws or public services, control of corruption, and acting as a
check or spur on fiscal and macroeconomic policy.
Yet 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 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. These efforts to
restrict civil society actors are self-evidently efforts by state and political actors to
concentrate and consolidate their own power, sometimes in alliance with powerful business
actors. 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.
Recognising that closures of civic space are part of wider power struggles draws attention to
how the distribution and balance of political power or political settlement - shapes the
inclusiveness of development in any particular country. Political settlements shape
development through the stability of institutional arrangements, which establish the political
space in which ruling elites can pursue politically unpopular or difficult policies. Whether
elites do so for predatory or developmental purposes in turn depends on the nature of ruling
coalitions, which shape commitment and capacity to deliver inclusive development, and the
incentives for redistributive policies and programmes.
With these understandings of the relationship between civic space and development in mind,
the conceptual part of the paper sets out some preliminary propositions about how closing
civic space is likely to play out in particular political economic and development settings. It
distinguishes between those in which political power is exercised by more and less dominant
actors, and between policy regimes that range between predatory or extractive on the one
hand, and ‘developmental’ or broadly inclusive, on the other. It also highlights policy domains
in which closing civic space is most likely to be affected in different settings, to help develop
a methodological approach to empirical analysis.
The paper concludes by briefly summarising some of the findings from further country-level
analysis which attempted to test and refine these propositions, and suggesting areas for
further research. These include the significance of the growing role of China as a
development partner in the normative and policy environment, and the associated
implications for the role of Western aid in more liberal democratic traditions. It is clear that
civic space is under pressure not only in authoritarian regimes, but in settings where
significant power shifts are underway, both to and from more dominant arrangements of
power. In countries where dominant political authorities are predatory in nature,
humanitarian and economic crises are among the most important developmental impacts of
restricted civic space, and human rights activists are under particular pressure. Countries
with established civic and political institutions or where democratisation is underway indicate
a tendency to draw civil society actors closer into the fold of political power, ensuring
progressive actors more traction, but leading also to an at times suffocatingly close
relationship with the state or political actors that prevents independent critique or dissent.
Even established democracies can see civic space squeezed by powerful alliances between
political and economic actors, particularly in the case of land and natural resource deals.
In so-called ‘developmental’ states, closing civic space is particularly likely to impact on aid
dependent low-income countries through a loss of aid funding to NGO service providers. The
‘watchdog’ role of civil society in such contexts remains important however, particularly in
relation to the credibility of official development performance data, which is an important
source of legitimacy for political elites in such contexts.
1 Introduction
This paper reviews the literature on the relationship between civic space and development,
with the specific aim of identifying mechanisms through which restrictions on civil society
may impact on the development process in particular country contexts. The review was
undertaken in support of a larger effort to assess and respond to those impacts in support of
the goals of sustainable, equitable and inclusive development. It aims to provide foundations
for a robust conceptual framework and empirical analysis of the relationship between civic
space and development, and specifically to help identify the risks narrowing space for civil
society actors may entail for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)
in particular social and political settings, and strategies for addressing those.
There has been much recent discussion about how, in the past 10 to 20 years, governments
across the world have introduced policies, laws and more informal practices restricting the
scope of activity of civil society, including the media and human rights defenders as well as
NGOs and social movements such as land rights defenders, women’s and peasant
movements, labour organisations, and environmental activists, and in particular actors and
organisations receiving foreign funding. Strategies have included legal, political,
administrative, as well as extra-legal strategies such as violence and threats, and domination
of public space to de-legitimate and stigmatise civil society actors for a range of reasons
(Carothers and Brechenmacher 2014; Dupuy, Ron, and Prakash 2016; Howell and Lind
2010; Hayman et al. 2014; Rutzen 2015; KIOS Foundation 2015; ICNL 2016a). These efforts
plainly aim to preserve, consolidate or increase the power of state or political society
(Mendelson 2015b; Hayman 2016; Poppe and Wolff 2017), pushing back against a real or
perceived expansion of civil society power (Mathews 1997). Violent and ideological attacks
on civil society actors have become more common, sometimes with impunity and/or official
protection (CIVICUS 2015, 2016b, 2016a). These efforts at closure have affected many
forms of civil society, including democracy promotion, human rights defenders, national and
international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and civil society organisations
(CSOs), social movements and mass protests, organised labour, professional groups such
as lawyers and academics, as well as social and mass media.
Civic space closures directly reflect weakening protections of civil and political rights, and so
are likely to shape broader processes of sustainable economic, social and human
development. The 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda Resolution adopted by the UN
General Assembly in 2015 notes the role of civil society in establishing priorities and goals: a
partnership ‘will facilitate an intensive global engagement in support of implementation of all
the Goals and targets, bringing together Governments, the private sector, civil society, the
United Nations system and other actors and mobilizing all available resources(UN 2015:
10). Aid coordination mechanisms, including the High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in
Busan (ACT Alliance and CIDSE 2014) and the report by the High-Level Panel of Eminent
Persons on the post-2015 sustainable development agenda similarly note a prominent role
for civil society in the achievements of the MDGs, and for deliberating over, delivering, and
monitoring the SDGs (HLPE 2013).
More recently, the 2017 High-Level Meeting of the Partnership for Effective Development
Co-operation concluded that effective monitoring of development progress depended on
increasing ‘the number and quality of partnerships with businesses, civil society,
philanthropies, parliaments, subnational governments and trade unions to achieve
development goals’, as well as establishing ‘inclusive mechanisms for dialogue and
engagement with civil society organisations, with clear goals, mandates and expected
results’. The Forum concluded that governments should ‘improve the policy, legal and
regulatory environment so civil society and business can maximize their contribution to
development’, while development partners should support the capacity of governments to
establish and carry out multi-stakeholder partnerships (Global Partnership for Effective
Development Co-operation 2017: 37). With such hopes for civil society, it is important that it
is able to flourish, yet the evidence seems to indicate that its space for doing so is
increasingly being restricted.
Efforts are increasingly being made to improve the monitoring of civic space, and to make
sense of its effects. The CIVICUS Monitor tracking changes in civic space focuses on
freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly (CIVICUS 2016a). These are
included among the targets for SDG 16, which aims to ‘promote peaceful and inclusive
societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective,
accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels’. Targets 16.7 (‘ensure responsive,
inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels’) and 16.10 (‘ensure
public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national
legislation and international agreements’) are useful targets of civic space that imply an
active role for different actors within civil society. The adoption of the SDG16 goal was
contentious, and several countries were resistant to the imposition of liberal democracy
goals within the SDG framework; it may therefore not be a strategic focus of attention with
respect to analysing and reporting on the implications of shrinking civic space for
development. In addition, some observers consider the indicators and targets themselves to
be weak and difficult to monitor. However, supplemental indicators for SDG 16 have been
developed in ways that draw closer attention to particular groups whom civic space
constrictions may put at greatest risk of being left behind by development. These include
urban youth, women’s rights groups, indigenous and minority groups, social movements and
land and labour rights movements (Nygård 2017).
Even if SDG 16 is contentious, it is widely acknowledged that civic space, or ‘the freedom
and means to speak, access information, associate, organise, and participate in public
decision-making - is essential to the healthy functioning and development of any society’,
and ‘an essential precondition for human rights, social justice and accountable governance
(Malena 2015: 11). The UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful
assembly and association underlined that these were not indivisible from other human rights,
but ‘fundamental rights that form the basis of the full enjoyment of other rights, as they
enable the exercise of a number of civil, political, economic, cultural and social rights
(OHCHR 2017a: 5). In practice, constrictions on civic space and its defenderssphere of
action are widely expected to have impacts on poverty reduction, inequality, human security
and basic protections, as well as on marginalisation and conflict; by contrast, more open
societies tend to be safer, more inclusive, and more peaceful in how they resolve conflicts
and distribute resources (Malena 2015).
An important counter-point to the presumption that civic space constrictions impact
adversely on development are arguments about the relationship between state capacity, the
concentration of political power, and development outcomes, particularly the achievement of
broad-based economic growth and social provisioning (human development and social
protection). These point to evidence of development achievements in highly closed states, in
particular, in recent years, Ethiopia and Rwanda, but also of course to the best example of
growth and economic development without democracy, China. One argument is that
shrinking civic space may not in and of itself be adverse for development, particularly where
state capacity and authority are weak or fragmented and growth is slow and uneven.
‘Developmental states’, states which drive through structural transformations that engender
growth and human development have historically emerged in settings where dominant
parties controlled power, often political systems in which civil society was comparatively
weak (White 1994).
Silencing critics and repressing dissent can in theory afford ruling elites the long-time
horizons to introduce unpopular policies that may enable rapid economic and social
transformations that may otherwise be politically difficult to introduce. In practice, however,
regimes where political power is highly centralised can be predatory as well as
‘developmental’. Even under otherwise ‘developmental statesystems, marginalised and
excluded groups are likely to suffer from a lack of representation from civil society or
competitive politics; economic investments may be undertaken without consideration of
indigenous and other land and resource rights; and grand corruption is likely to thrive under
conditions of secrecy and a cowed press or anti-corruption campaigners. Economic ‘take-off
has not been associated with good governance in all instances, but the evidence is clear that
sustaining growth over time depends on the establishment of laws and regulations, and on
pathways to inclusive or shared development (Hickey, Sen and Bukenya 2015). These may
require a more competitive polity and policy process, involving civil society actors among
others. An effort to unpack the impacts on development of shrinking civil society space must
thus pay close attention to the meaning and quality (inclusiveness, equality, sustainability) of
‘development’, rather than assuming economic growth is a sufficient proxy. This is
particularly important if we are to make sense of potential impacts on the SDGs, with their
strong emphasis on equality, inclusion, and human development, and on leaving no one
To explore these issues in a systematic way, literature was gathered and reviewed from
across a range of types of organisation and source, including over 1,000 items from journal
articles, book chapters, official, aid and multilateral agency and civil society reports, and
newspaper and other media articles. Literatures reviewed included the following:
recent studies and reports on the phenomenon of closing civic space, chiefly by
international thinktanks and watchdog groups such as Freedom House or CIVICUS;
scholarly and organisational literature on the contributions of civil society to
scholarly literature on the relationship between political settlements, the nature and
evolution of civil society, and development outcomes in selected countries;
official reports and data and analysis of development progress;
media coverage of recent events such as political leaders being jailed or ousted, etc.
or new regulations on NGO or civil society action.
The literature review informed methodological considerations in the design of country case
studies through which the authors have explored the implications of closing civic space for
development in different settings in greater detail. The findings of those case studies will be
published separately in this IDS Working Paper series, as will a separate methodological
reflection on the challenges of assessing and measuring the impacts of closing civic space
on development outcomes.
The present paper is organised as follows. Section 2 reviews literature on the scale, nature
and causes of shrinking civic space. Section 3 reviews relevant conceptual and theoretical
debates on civil society and the politics of inclusive development. Section 4 draws on desk-
based studies of 13 countries to explore propositions about the mechanisms through which
civic space closures may impact on development within particular country contexts.
Section 5 concludes, with a discussion of the methodological challenges of empirical
research on the impacts of closing civic space on development.
2 The nature and form of closing civic space
in the early twenty-first century
2.1 A global trend of closing civic space?
After the end of the Cold War, there were two decades in which civil society organisations
emerged and grew around the world. Since then, the space in which parts of civil society is
able to operate without fear of incurring official disapproval, hostility, violence, abuse, or of
breaking laws or regulations, has been shrinking across the world, in particular in the last
few years (Carothers and Brechenmacher 2014; Mendelson 2015b; ICNL 2016b). Civil
society monitoring identified over 100 countries in which civic freedoms were curtailed in
2016; 3.2 billion people are now estimated to live in countries where civic space is closed or
controlled (CIVICUS 2016b, 2016a). An initial wave came in the early 2000s, when the so-
called ‘War on Terrorcurbed the expansionary trend of the 1990s, introducing restrictions on
financing to civil society organisations and on other civic and political freedoms, in both
developed and developing countries (Howell and Lind 2010; Howell et al. 2008; Lind and
Howell 2010; Bloodgood and Tremblay-Boire 2011; Hayes 2013, 2012). A second wave
followed the expansion of the global public space with the internet, with the Wikileaks
phenomenon inducing political crises and sharp reactions by powerful and other states. The
rise of the so-called ‘Islamic Stateprompted a further round of restrictions on freedom of
speech and association, in particular in Europe and the United States, and of abrogations of
international human rights standards regarding refugees and displaced persons.
Discussion of the wave of closing civic (or civil society) space
has to date been
concentrated among activists, thinktanks, policy research groups and networks from within
civil society, and discussions generally take place within an international human rights
framework. These are often led by groups with international presence and stature, such as
the international civil society alliance CIVICUS, the International Center for Not-for-Profit
Law, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, or the Center for Strategic and
International Studies (CSIS). The scope for assessing or measuring changes in civic space
has been explored (Biekart 2008; Malena 2015), and tracking initiatives established. The
CIVICUS monitoring ratings combine real-time qualitative and quantitative indicators to
categorise countries as having open, narrowed, obstructed, repressed, or closed civic
The most recent Monitor detected a worsening trend, including in Europe (Gaebee
A body of organisational reports in the past half-decade has identified the closure of civic
space as a concern for global public policy. In his final report, the former United Nations
Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association,
Maina Kiai, set out the problem as one of powerful actors destroying socially-necessary
institutions for easy short-term wins:
The trend of shrinking civic space – laws and practices that restrict civil society’s ability
to operate – is threatening to take the air from civil society’s lungs. This is unfortunate
because it is both self-destructive and short-sighted, even for those orchestrating the
closure. Repression today may help a government silence a critic tomorrow, or boost a
This paper uses ‘civic space’ and ‘civil society space’ interchangeably. However, it makes it clear that it takes a broad
view of actors within the civic space, recognising that many are unlike the customarily liberal, human rights-based
model of civil society promoted by international aid.
For more information, see (accessed 17 October 2017).
businessprofits the next day. But at what cost next month, next year and for the next
(Kiai 2017a: 21)
Kiai’s successor, Annalisa Ciampi, noted in her 2017 vision statement:
the voices of civil society have been restricted or silenced, if not eliminated, in every
region across the globe. Mass surveillance, obstructive regulation of democratic
space, including online, overly restrictive legislation to regulate association and limit
the exercise of fundamental public freedoms, with frequent use of counter -terrorism
legislation to curtail dissenting voices, and harassment of and violence against human
rights defenders and ordinary people who exercise their right to express opinions in
peaceful protests are all too common.
(OHCHR 2017a: 6)
Also in 2017, the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, Michel
Forst, reported to the UN General Assembly that he was ‘more appalled than ever to see
attacks against them multiplying everywhere, assailing bloggers, indigenous peoples,
journalists, community leaders, whistle-blowers and community volunteers’, and that he had
‘become convinced that the incidents in question are not isolated acts but concerted attacks
against those who try to embody the ideal of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in a
world free from fear and want(OHCHR 2017b: 3). The Special Rapporteur on the Promotion
and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression noted that in 2017, the
‘crisis for freedom of expression has deepened worldwide(OHCHR 2017c).
Recent reports highlight the challenge of responding to shrinking civic space, including
strategies for civil society actors and for donors (Carothers 2015; USIP 2017a; ICNL 2016b;
ACT Alliance/CIDSE et al. 2015; Ariadne no date). A prominent series of blogs in the
Shrinking Space for Civil Society’ collection for Open Democracy explored the implications
of efforts to police cyberspace (Hellema 2017; see also Deibert 2015); the challenge for
donors and governments in protecting civic space (Kiai 2017b); the impacts of the
securitisation of civic space on public safety (Dobichina and Joshi 2016); and the importance
of ‘citizen solidarity and the resilient rule of lawin defending civic space (Brysk 2017).
Overall, however, it is less the size or freedom than the shape and nature of participation in
civic space which has changed in recent years.
The space for formal civil society
organisations, in particular human rights defenders, social movements and struggles of
marginalised and disempowered groups such as women, racialised or ethnic minorities, and
indigenous populations, NGOs, and the independent media, has been restricted in recent
years. At the same time, civic space has arguably widened for some groups, including
conservatives and the far right in Europe, North and South America, and Asia. A wave of
spontaneous protests over austerity, economic crisis, corruption and authoritarianism has
also occupied part of the civic space in the past decade, and the expansion of virtual or
digital public space is also a feature of the recent past. Civic space is changing, even while it
is closing for democratic and human rights-based groups.
2.2 Instruments of shrinking space
Means adopted to close or restrict civic space range from interventions using the formal
legal system through to the use of violence and intimidation with impunity by non-state
actors. Van der Borgh and Terwindt identify the following as actions and policies that are
variously used to restrict NGO operational space: i) physical harassment and intimidation,
including threats, injuries and killings, impunity and lack of protection; ii) criminalisation:
Many thanks to Peter Houtzager for this point.
prosecution and investigation, preventative measures such as terrorism lists and terrorism
taskforces, investigation and prosecution for punitive purposes; iii) administrative restrictions
such as restrictive bills on NGO registration and operation, and ad hoc measures by different
governments; iv) stigmatisation and negative labelling, including criminal and social
stigmatisation of specific actors; and v) ‘space under pressure’, including through co-optation
and the closure of newly created space (Van der Borgh and Terwindt 2012; see also ACT
Alliance 2011). Looking specifically at the legal and policy frameworks involved in recent
civic space closures, the International Center for Non-profit Law (ICNL) identified the
following common elements: the proposal and adoption of restrictive CSO laws and of anti-
protest laws; the closure, de-registration and expulsion of CSOs; the adoption and
manipulation of counterterrorism laws and policies, and the adoption of laws and policies
that restrict access to resources, notably including foreign funding and affiliations (ICNL
2016: 10).
Struggles between civil society actors and state and corporate interests over land appear to
provoke particularly deadly efforts to constrict civic space, with prominent recent violent
deaths of activists even featuring public execution and witness assassinations on courtroom
steps. In many instances, these acts of violence are committed with impunity, or without
recourse to justice. Both state and other, including business interests, are believed to be
responsible for this epidemic of violence against land rights defenders, and in particular
against indigenous people (Global Witness 2016).
Efforts to restrict civic space tend to include both formal (legal, regulatory, administrative)
and a range of informal strategies. Informal strategies cannot always be documented
through official indicators, but they include discursive means such as the de-legitimation or
stigmatisation of civil society actors within public discourse, and the overall effects of a
‘chilling’ environment on freedom of speech, association, and peaceful assembly. They also
include threats of or actual violence, often via third parties who enjoy effective impunity (as
noted above). Political economy analysis is particularly important for understanding the
coalitions of political and economic interest that come together in the restriction of civic
space in particular countries.
2.3 Drivers of changing civic space
A recent body of literature has started to analyse the causes, mechanisms, and political
effects of changing civic space in different contexts. Rather than focusing on civil society
actors alone, this literature situates the reconfiguration of civic space within wider political
struggles between political, civic and economic actors. Van der Borgh and Terwindt (2012)
were among the earliest to consider what shrinking civic space might mean, with their
analysis of ‘how restrictions on operational space play out should take into account the
features of the local political context, the particular mix of pressures with which NGOs are
confronted, and the characteristics, functions and strategies of NGOs themselves’ (Van der
Borgh and Terwindt 2012: 1068). They concluded that any analysis of what civic space
meant would need to take into account the political context, including state capacity and the
nature of the political regime (authoritarian, democratic, etc). Bloodgood et al.(2014) note
that within OECD countries themselves, NGO regulations vary widely, depending
substantially on whether the national system is corporatist or pluralist. Relatedly, Lorch and
Bunk demonstrate how civic space or civil society actors may be co-opted by or on behalf of
authoritarian regimes, rather than necessarily championing democratic process (Lorch and
Bunk 2017; Lorch 2008).
For Poppe and Wolff (2017), civic space struggles are about contests over norms that reflect
competing worldviews and values: the values in relation to which civic space is contested in
different contexts reflect distinctively different underlying perceptions of justice;
understanding efforts to restrict civic space means taking claims to justice seriously, and
making sense of them as normative not merely as tactical interventions. Meanwhile,
recent findings indicate that the strength of civil society is positively correlated with control of
corruption, but mainly under conditions of a free press (Themudo 2013), highlighting the
interconnection between different aspects of civil society action. Media freedom, in turn, is
related to regime type, with democratic regimes typically the most free, but with different
degrees of media freedom found across the different types of autocracy (Stier 2015).
The impact of aid on civic space has also been examined. Kendra Dupuy, James Ron and
Aseem Prakash (2016) have shown that recent restrictions on foreign aid to NGOs in
competitive political systems tend to relate to perceptions that they support the political
opposition; such restrictions tend to be concentrated after multiparty elections. In related
work, they also conclude that bilateral (official) aid flows tend to drop (by about 32 per cent)
in the years after governments introduce new restrictions on NGO funds, but this relates
more to donor preferences for funding favoured NGOs, rather than because of their
disapproval of shrinking civic space (Dupuy and Prakash 2017). The decline in foreign aid to
NGOs and CSOs is likely to have a direct effect on service delivery, as well as on the
capacities of such organisations to hold governments to account over development policy
processes and outcomes.
2.4 Actors, groups and sectors targeted
The CIVICUS Monitor notes that:
states (and non-state actors in some cases) most often violate civic space by detaining
activists, protesters and journalists; physically attacking, threatening or harassing
journalists; and using excessive force against protesters. Other commonly-used tactics
of repression include intimidation of activists, censorship of the media and the use of
laws to limit civic freedoms.
(Gaebee 2017: 5)
In addition, ‘states abuse their monopoly over the power of arrest with appalling frequency’,
and that once journalists, activists or protesters are detained, this
provides the perfect cover for state agents to intimidate, harass and, in the most
extreme cases, beat, sexually assault and torture activists. Authorities don’t stop at
arrest as a means of curbing dissent. Arrest and detention are often the first step in
deliberate attempts to use the legal system to impede activism by embroiling human
rights defenders, journalists, opposition politicians and civil society activists in
uncertain and costly legal processes, which can last for years.
(Gaebee 2017: 5)
Detention as a tactic of repression appeared in some 292 CIVICUS Monitor reports between
June 2016 and September 2017 (Gaebee 2017). An illustrative list of targets of shrinking
civic space in the 2016 CIVICUS Monitor included the following:
Belgium: protestors have had their rights curtailed and may have experienced police
abuse; (actors exercising their) freedom of speech in relation to terrorist threats;
Benin: the independent media; student associations;
Cabo Verde: CSOs, freedom of the media to report on elections;
China: disappearances of activists and human rights defenders; detentions of
dissidents; foreign funding to CSOs and NGOs; foreign and domestic actors; lawyers;
environmental demonstrators;
Cyprus: freedom of expression/the media;
El Salvador: media, killing of journalists, LGBTI activists;
Netherlands: anti-racism protestors (police used excess force against); environmental
protestors; rise in hate speech; journalists forced out, threatened;
Yemen: journalists, as well as citizens in general, face extreme violence.
Lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans rights activists have recently been targeted in Russia,
Chechnya, Ukraine, Georgia, Honduras (Tucker 2016), and across sub-Saharan Africa.
noted above, land rights defenders, including in particular leaders of indigenous rights
organisations, are often targets of efforts to shut down civic space to protest land-grabbing,
dispossession and other illegal rural activities.
The new online civic space openings have also been subject to closures, distortions and
shut-downs, using both formal and informal methods. Criminal groups use violence to
intimidate citizen media outlets (Monroy-Hernandez and Palacios 2014) and governments
use their power to close down social media or the whole of the internet. Authoritarian
governments, military units, terrorist groups and the ‘alt-right’ now spend millions of dollars
annually on disinformation to shape discourse, manufacture opinion, and radicalise youth.
They achieve this in part by employing small armies of human operatives and computerised
“bots” to influence opinion on social media and across this new digital public sphere
(Woolley and Howard 2017).
The impacts on civic actors and organisations do not, however, exhaust the analysis of how
civic space may shape development. In order to assess the full extent of the impact on
development it is essential to identify how efforts to constrain the actions of actors, groups,
and sectors affect their capacities to promote transparency and accountability, inclusive and
equitable service provision, and peaceful means of addressing inequality and injustice on
which the SDG 2030 Agenda depends. From what we know of the roles of civil society in
development to date, it is important to consider whether their sphere or reach (how many
people they can reach, who, in how many places) is affected by formal and informal efforts
to shrink space, whether through legal, financial, regulatory or administrative means, or
through informal, discursive or threatening, strategies to bring civil society to heel. It is also
important to consider whether the quality, in particular the transformative potential, of their
engagement with both the population and official actors at local, national and transnational
levels is affected by shrinking space. And finally, it is important to take into consideration
whether their capacity to support inclusive, equitable, and sustainable models of
development specifically is constrained, through a reduced capacity to participate
meaningfully in the policy process, amplify public debate about policy alternatives, scrutinise
and monitor public policy and the private sector, in particular on behalf of marginalised,
excluded or disempowered groups.
3 Civil society, civic space and development
3.1 Meanings of civil society
Civil society is typically defined as the un-coerced middle space or ‘third sector’, between
state and market, an organisational characteristic of wider society and its engagement with
political authority and markets. A standard definition is as:
a sphere of social interaction between economy and the state, composed above all of
the intimate sphere (especially the family), the sphere of associations (especially
voluntary associations), social movements, and forms of public communication.
(Cohen and Arato 1994: ix)
See: (accessed
18 October 2017).
Figure 3.1 shows a conventional Venn diagram depiction of the spheres of civil society
interacting with the state and markets. In this model, civil society is distinguishable from
political society (parties, political organisations, parliaments) but also from the economic
sphere of firms, business partnerships, and their associations. However, ‘[p]olitical and
economic society generally arise from civil society, share some of its forms of organization
and communication, and are institutionalized through rights (political rights and property
rights especially) continuous with the fabric of rights that secure modern civil society(Cohen
and Arato 1994: x). The boundaries between these spheres are not always fixed or rigid, and
they are mutually constituted in their interactions. This means that the effects of policy and
political efforts to narrow the sphere of civil society action necessarily have implications for
how markets and political society operate, among other things reducing the capacity of civil
society to address economic inequality in the market.
Figure 3.1 Conventional Venn diagram of civil society in relation to state and market
Source: Authorsown.
Edwards (2009) highlights the ambiguities in the term, showing that ‘civil societyhas come
to refer to variously, associational life, ‘the good society’, and the public sphere. However,
two distinctively different views of civil society, reflecting different intellectual and political
traditions, inform development thinking and practice. The dominant liberal view of civil
society is that it comprises organisations and voluntary groups occupying the space
between, and balancing, the power of the state and the market. This Tocquevillian tradition
of viewing voluntary associationalism as the fabric of social organisation underpinning
American democracy, has tended to treat an active and plural civil society as central to
processes of democratisation, and therefore to development (White 1994; Mercer 2002;
Leftwich 1993; also Fukuyama 2001). This has been the most influential conception of civil
society in relation to development, independent of its relevance to the socioeconomic and
political contexts of post-colonial and peripheral states (Gyimah-Boadi 1996; Mercer 2002;
Lewis 2002).
An important contrasting view of civil society derives from Marxist political theory via
Gramsci, who treats the state in capitalist economies as comprising overlapping spheres of
political society (agents and institutions of the state) and civil society, which ‘manufactures
consentthrough education, culture, and the media, social movements and voluntary
organisations (Buttigieg 1995). In the Gramscian view, ‘civil society is a contested space,
therefore NGOs reflect struggles within wider society(Mercer 2002: 11). The activities of
civil society can serve to support the power (or hegemony) of the ruling class and their state,
substantially within the constraints of the economic system but it can also be a space for
contestation and challenge to political and economic power. It is this more transformative
vision of civil society that has informed several non-Anglophone conceptions, including as
central to ‘the political imaginary of new social movementsand as ‘a new path towards
social transformationfrom the Left in Latin America (Alvarez et al. 2017: 4). In cold war
Eastern Europe, ‘‘Civil societywas in many ways the conceptual counterpart to the concept
of totalitarianism– appealing precisely because any formation outside of the state was
disallowed (Kotkin 2010: 8), conceived as ‘a more radical form of democratic political praxis;
an alternative form of politics, which would extend beyond a set of standard liberal
institutions’ (Kopeckỳ and Mudde 2003: 3).
3.2 The role and contribution of civil society in the development process
In the final quarter of the 20th century, the concept of civil society re-emerged in
development thought and practice in association with democratisation and economic
transition, in contexts of social and political struggle against repressive or authoritarian
states (Cohen and Arato 1994). Following the Cold War, the global growth of associations,
NGOs, networks, and other civil society actors in developing and transitioning countries were
seen as the accompaniment to economic development through markets, rather than driven
by states. Promoting and creating space for ‘civil societyfit a variety of development-related
agendas, from neo-populist proponents of direct participation and more radical champions of
social solidarity to promoters of conservative or neo-traditionalist social agendas and
shrinking the state, deregulation and privatisation (White 1994; Howell and Pearce 2002).
The most important development internationally was the proliferation of civil society (or non-
profit) organisations in developing countries since the end of the Cold War (Salamon 1994).
From the early 1990s there was a flowering of organisations, groups, associations, networks,
and clubs in the transitional economies of Eastern and Central Europe and elsewhere, as
well as in the developing but still low-income countries of Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia and Latin
America (Howell and Pearce 2002; Edwards and Hulme 1996b; Mercer 2002). Civic activism
on human rights grew particularly rapidly from the mid-1980s, substantially through networks
connecting global and local human rights groups (Tsutsui and Wotipka 2004). There was a
rapid and sustained growth in the amount of official development assistance (or aid) going to
NGOs for humanitarian, development and human rights defence purposes. There may be as
many as a million NGOs worldwide, of which around 35,000 are large institutions recognised
by the UN; by 2004, around one-third of official development assistance was estimated to be
channelled through NGOs (Lewis and Kanji 2009). The 1990sscramble to supply aid to
NGOs drew considerable critique, notably for assuming the inherent ‘goodnessof such
organisations; conflating the contestation and power struggles associated with civil society
action with service-providing NGOs; (Stewart 1997; Carothers and Barndt 1999; Lewis 2002;
Mercer 2002), and for treating NGOs as a ‘magic bulletfor inclusive development,
potentially compromising their independence through new dependencies on states and
donors (Edwards and Hulme 1996b, 1996a).
As befits a domain of such wide definitional range, evaluations of the contribution of civil
society to development are diverse and variable. A large body of analysis points to a role for
civil society, broadly conceived, in the emergence of modern economic institutions. The
historical evidence from now-advanced liberal economic democracies indicates that dense
networks of social capital, or ‘instantiated, informal norms that produce co-operation
(Fukuyama 2001: 16) were the social foundations of the economic trust that enabled
banking, contracts, and trade to flourish. At key points in time, regimes of governance moved
from being closed systems to more ‘open access orders’, in which public policy,
entrepreneurial capacity and human development could enable economic growth, as well as
the generation of a surplus to distribute to the discontented or excluded (North et al. 2012).
A more recent assessment of the role of civil society in relation to economic growth in
developing countries concludes that how the feedback from economic growth shapes the
‘deals spacein which markets are governed depends on
how influential groups—such as civil society, the judiciary, the middle class, and the
media—view the growth process, as well as how non-elites mobilize themselves
against elements of the growth process that they see as politically illegitimate.
(Pritchett, Sen, and Werker 2017: 32)
Based on their close analysis of the political economy of growth in developing countries,
Pritchett et al. note that in more open and competitive systems, ‘dealsseen as overly
exclusionary and predatory are likely to face opposition. In more dominant and closed
systems, the ruling coalition is vulnerable in the medium-term to challenges from organised
groups that may include elites and civil society. This means that either way, an economic
system which is too tightly oriented towards rewarding powerful elite segments will face
political challenges unless economic opportunity and political and civic space is created for
alternatives to emerge. Whether countries manage that by opening up systems to wider
scrutiny, critique and (therefore) political competition, or by further constricting civic space,
limiting the ‘watchdogrole of civil society, silencing critics and attempting to control political
debate in the public space, depends on the interaction of political and economic interests,
including how these interact in the global system.
More open societies benefit not only from economic trust and ‘social capitalbut also from
more transparency and stronger public accountability, in particular through the role of civil
society in uncovering and preventing corruption and other governance failures. A free media
is closely associated with corruption control across levels of development (Brunetti and
Weder 2003). As the reach of the media increases and an increasingly educated population
participate in public debate through the popular and social media, the impacts on corruption
control are likely to widen further (Dutta and Roy 2016; Jha and Sarangi 2017). The World
Bank’s recent World Development Report on ‘Governance and the Lawassigned civil
society action a specific role in the chain of governance ‘from transparency to accountability’,
noting civil society successes in extracting greater commitment to transparency from states
and market actors, publicising failures, violations and abuses, and in demanding (if not
necessarily enforcing) accountability (World Bank 2017).
Civic activism in relation to accountability for public services is understood to be part of the
governance apparatus necessary to ensure services ‘work for poor people in development
(World Bank 2003). Civil society can play a role in (a) identifying needs for, exclusion from
and capture of public services, pushing politicians to respond appropriately; (b) highlighting
problems with quality, efficiency and resource management, including corruption; and (c) in
providing information about how well the system works through service-monitoring and user-
feedback. The extent to which NGOs and social movements have succeeded in improving
services through ‘social accountabilitystrategies for holding officials to account has been
widely debated (Hickey and Mohan 2005; Gaventa and McGee 2013; Mansuri and Rao
2012). However, a growing consensus is that social accountability functions through
coalitions of actors and groups across civil society working at multiple levels to raise
questions and enforce accountability, and not through one-shot development interventions
(such as the experimental rationing of information) (Fox 2016; Fox 2015).
There is robust evidence that women’s rights organisations and the women’s movement in
general has played a critical role in advancing gender equality worldwide (Htun and Weldon
2010, 2012). Civic space has provided more opportunities for women to voice their demands
than the comparatively closed space of party political competition in most countries.
Coalitions and alliances with other civil society actors have been vital to the success of
social movements and campaigns against gender-based violence, among other matters. At
the same time, the women’s movement is itself shaped by the nature of the civic space,
becoming incorporated within the state or politics at different moments in the political
settlement, while also facing ‘NGOisationand dependence on aid donors, with the restrictive
effects of such financial and institutional ties (Nazneen and Sultan 2014).
Civil society and in particular, enduring social movements against group-based injustices,
play an important potential role in giving voice and enabling inclusion of other marginalised
and excluded groups, including ethnic or religious minorities, indigenous, transient or migrant
populations, people with stigmatised health conditions or occupations, and LGBTI groups
and individuals. More inclusive political, social and economic institutions may help to resolve
or diffuse the kinds of ‘horizontal inequalitiesthat fuel civil wars if left un-addressed (Stewart
2000). Civil society has undertaken vital functions in peacebuilding processes, including
protecting citizens against violence, monitoring human rights violations and the
implementation of peace agreements, advocacy for peace and human rights, ‘socialization to
values of peace and democracy as well as to develop the in-group identity of marginalized
groups’, ‘inter-group social cohesion by bringing people together from adversarial groups’;
facilitating dialogue at multiple levels and among multiple actors, and service delivery to
create entry points for these other functions (Paffenholz nd: 5, Paffenholz 2010).
These specific achievements need to be framed within a stronger understanding of ‘the
varied ways in which associational groupings have tangibly improved societies across the
world, and in turn advanced global peace, human development and respect for human rights
… and the imperative of an enabling civic environment and the exercise of the rights to
freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in achieving these aspirations(OHCHR
2017a: 3). Civil society ‘has always been linked to the notion of minimizing violence in social
relations, to the public use of reason as a way of managing human affairs in place of
submission based on fear and insecurity, or ideology and superstition(Kaldor 2013: 9). Civil
society may not prevent war, but ‘it is a way of addressing the problem of war, of debating,
arguing about, discussing and pressing for possible solutions or alternatives’ (Kaldor 2013: 9).
Contestation is central to how civil society contributes to development, because of the scope
it creates to recognise, voice, and demand accountability or redress for injustices of all kinds.
In a report to the recent 35th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the
Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association set out
the achievements of civil society in light of its contribution to historic social justice victories
such as those against slavery, apartheid, colonialism, and authoritarianism and in the
achievements of labour rights and the international women’s movement. The report noted
In the development field, civil society has played a prominent role in critiquing,
establishing and strengthening empowering discourses … [illustrating] the gross
economic inequalities between the vast majority of global citizens and the tiny minority
that control capital, political influence and means of production ... [struggles against
austerity, authoritarianism and women’s multiple burdens in the current economic
climate] succeeded in mobilising people across the globe to express their
dissatisfaction with current global economic arrangements, illustrating the ability of
ordinary people – comprising the diversity of the global citizenry – to rally around an
issue and to question the status quo.
(OHCHR 2017a: 6)
From a wide review of the achievements of civil society, the Special Rapporteur concluded
that its contributions and functions included (a) pursuing accountability; (b) supporting
participation and empowerment of marginalised groups; (c) driving and applying innovation;
(d) fostering sustainable approaches to development; (e) raising awareness of problems and
of rights; (f) cultivating alliances, building bridges across divided societies; and (g) ‘shared
humanity’, in particular in the form of humanitarian assistance to all (OHCHR 2017a). With
respect to development, civil society plays a particularly crucial role in policy advocacy for
pro-poor and inclusive policies (Gaventa and McGee 2010). Civil society was active in
relation to the pursuit of the MDGs, and played a key role in the final shape of the SDGs.
The ‘sectoris firmly established within the global aid architecture, as crucial to inclusive
partnership-based policymaking and effective monitoring. Civil society has come to be seen
as critical to global governance (Scholte 2004), including corporate governance and global
policymaking (World Economic Forum 2012; Schwab 2008; Grant 2011). The range of
activities and functions ascribed to civil society support the view that the space for civil
society to operate is essential to achievement of the SDGs, in particular the injunction to
‘leave no one behindwhich requires addressing exclusion and inequality as a priority (HLPE
2013; PartnersGlobal et al. 2017). Global civil society has also come to be seen as critical to
global governance (Scholte 2004), including corporate governance (World Economic Forum
2012; Schwab 2008; Grant 2011).
One of the frontiers of civil society in development is the creation and expansion of new
online civic spaces (Boyd 2011) which represent new ‘claimed spaces’ (Gaventa 2005) and a
new digital ‘public sphere’ (Habermas 1991) in which people form social identities, build
counter-narratives and forge new social movements (Fraser 1992). These new online civic
spaces are already being used for diverse development purposes: as refuges and organising
spaces to express identities, rehearse resistance, form policy demands, and to mobilise
influence and social action (Baker and Blaagaard 2016). Digital civic action from the global
north such as the #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo campaigns where civic actors were able to
organise resistance online before mobilising for change in offline spaces are well-known.
Less well-known are examples from the global south such as Ushahidi where civic actors
were able to mobilise for change around post-election violence (Okolloh 2009) and
HarassMap as an example of creating digital spaces to combat violence against women
(Peuchaud 2014).
Elsewhere, citizen media channels have proliferated (Baker and Blaagaard 2016) allowing
oppressed and exiled groups to represent themselves in their own words and images and to
amplify their counter-narratives about subjects ranging from narco-trafficking to illegal drone
wars in Pakistan and Somalia. However, little is known to date of how and under what
circumstances online civic space provides new opportunities - or barriers - to achieving
development, although a body of work is beginning to emerge (e.g., Gurumurthy, Bharthur,
and Chami 2017; Ali 2011). It seems clear that building the digital skills and capabilities of
civic actors to make productive use of online civic space requires more of our attention. If the
acts of authoritarian governments shrink civic space and have a ‘chilling effecton self-
censorship and diminished agency then we might reasonably expect a ‘warming effectto
radiate from the opening of online civic spaces and their projection of opposition voices and
their articulation of development alternatives. However, earlier optimism about the role of
digital public space in advancing development through online-enabled civic engagement has
now waned, or perhaps been replaced by greater realism (Herringshaw 2018). Recent
research finds that technology is more effective at plugging information gaps and creating
new spaces for citizen-state interaction than in creating space for deliberative dialogue,
strengthening public accountability, or building citizen trust in the state (McGee et al. 2018).
3.3 Uncivil society and unruly civics
Normative conceptions of civil society as ‘the good society’ have long been challenged by
recognition of its ‘uncivil’ or illiberal forms, and of the grey area between civic action and
political struggle, reflecting the importance of contestation in the roles of civil society. This
aspect of civil society remains under-studied (Glasius 2010), as do the implications for civic
space more generally. Not all actors in the civil society space promote the progressive or
rights-based agendas assumed by liberal conceptions (Stewart 1997; Rahman 2002;
Kopeck and Mudde 2003; Kotkin 2010). The increasing prominence of extremist,
exclusionary or identity-based concerns, and of movements or actions that use illegal or
even violent means to advance their agenda, seems likely to have contributed to the official
backlash against civil society. The clash of values of diverse civic actors with unequal
resources and access to power ‘inevitably complicates the link between forms and norms
that lies at the heart of neo-Tocquevillian thinking’; it points also to the need for associational
life ‘to be politically ordered if the huge diversity of positions and interests is to be
consolidated in service to some broader national or international agenda’ (Edwards 2009:
5657). In other words, a strong civil society depends on a state strong enough and capable
enough to create and govern the civic space in ways that advance inclusive development
In addition to the advance of uncivil society (racist, sexist, extremist or exclusionary faith-
based groups, and otherwise illiberal organisations) in many regions, a wave of protest
movements and demonstrations, including ‘uncivic activism’ (Alvarez et al. 2017) or ‘unruly
politics’ (Tadros 2011; Khanna 2012) occupied a growing portion of civil society space in the
early part of the 21st century. These mobilisations responded to the inequalities and
volatilities in the global economy, and erupted in apparently spontaneous crowd-based
actions that defied social movement theorising and the old categorisations of liberal civil
society thought. The global food, fuel and financial crises of the 2007-12 period were marked
by protests, riots, and more enduring forms of organisation, such as the Indignado and
Occupy movements, as well as the anti-authoritarian struggles in the Arab world (Ortiz et al.
2013; Barnett 2011; Carothers and Youngs 2015; Anderson 2011; Ansani and Daniele 2012;
Tadros 2012). This recent wave of protests further blurs neat distinctions between civil and
political society. The history of revolutions is the history of civil society actors being pushed
into violent struggles when they encounter a closed state and exclusionary political
settlement which prevents peaceful change, even as formerly revolutionary groups can enter
political or civic life in post-conflict settings. Unruly protests may emerge in response to
formal elite civil society failures to represent mass concerns about basic economic and
social rights (see, for instance, Chatterjee 2004; de Brito et al. 2014). While these struggles
are distinctively different from the civic modes of NGO and CSO organisation, there is also
much continuity, overlap and traffic between these actors and actions within the civic space
(Alvarez et al. 2017; Hossain and Scott-Villiers 2017). The role of the media in bringing such
struggles into the public sphere and amplifying their concerns appears to be of particular
importance (Hossain et al. 2017), even if the roles of the mass and social media in triggering
or mobilising such protests may have been over-stated at times (Fuchs 2012; Tufekci and
Wilson 2012). Citing Avritzer, Glasius notes that the civility of civil society is interdependent
with that of the state and market: civil society is most likely to take uncivil forms when states
are too weak to assure human security, the market is organised along clientelistic lines, and
political society is so fragmented as to barely exist (Glasius 2010: 4).
4 The politics of inclusive development
4.1 Development as the SDGs: sustainability, equality, and inclusion
How the impact of shrinking civil society space on development outcomes is assessed
depends substantially on what is meant by development, and on the underlying political
economy in any particular context. Analysis of the relationship between democracy and
development has tended to treat economic growth rates as an indicator of development
(Barro 1996; Doucouliagos and Ulubaşoğlu 2008; Heo and Tan 2001; Minier 1998; Plümper
and Martin 2003; Acemoglu and Robinson 2006); although see also (Baum and Lake 2003).
However, a richer and more human-centred conception of development pays priority to
those at greatest risk of being ‘left behind’. The ‘Guiding Principles on Extreme Poverty and
Human Rights’ encourage a view of human dignity as at the foundation of human rights,
noting that ‘persons living in poverty face daily violations of their civil, cultural, economic,
political and social rights, which interact and mutually reinforce one another with devastating
effects’, in an illustration of ‘the indivisibility, interrelatedness and interdependence of human
rights’ (UN 2012: 6). The Agenda 2030 Declaration frames development as a matter of
tackling inequalities of power and resources, with the SDGs aiming to:
end poverty and hunger everywhere; to combat inequalities within and among
countries; to build peaceful, just and inclusive societies; to protect human rights and
promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls; and to ensure the
lasting protection of the planet and its natural resources.
(UN 2015)
In its efforts to assess the impacts of shrinking civic space on development, SDG16, (to
‘promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to
justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels’), provides
a useful starting point, as it draws attention to how changes in civic space affect key actors
and inclusive processes. The greater challenge is to trace the impacts further downstream,
on the politics of policymaking and implementation in relation to ending poverty (SDG1),
hunger (SDG2), health and wellbeing (SDG3), quality education (SDG4), gender equality
(SDG5), as well as water and sanitation SDG6).
4.2 A polity approach to civic space
Contemporary aid and development thinking tends to assume that open space for multiple,
varied civil society actors to operate will protect basic civil and political rights and contribute
to inclusive development processes that are equitable across all groups in society in ways
that meet social justice imperatives, and are sustainable over time and the available
resources. Civil society is particularly important in helping to guarantee that nobody gets left
behind. CIVICUS explains the value of civic space as follows:
Civic space is the bedrock of any open and democratic society. When civic space is
open, citizens and civil society organisations are able to organise, participate and
communicate without hindrance. In doing so, they are able to claim their rights and
influence the political and social structures around them. This can only happen when a
state holds by its duty to protect its citizens and respects and facilitates their
fundamental rights to associate, assemble peacefully and freely express views and
This ‘polycentricview of the rights-based politics of inclusive development assumes that the
‘uncoordinated and decentralized actions of civil society, market, and state actors are likely
to create a mutually reinforcing movement that can produce all good things for all people
(Houtzager 2003: 1–2). It is consistent with a view that civil society can successfully be
strengthened with external aid and relationships. Certainly, the evidence from the developing
world suggests that transnational civil society networks and movements have helped
national and local actors win important peaceful victories in areas of public service provision,
recognition and human rights, and participation and political empowerment (Gaventa and
Barrett 2010; Gaventa and Martorano 2016). However, historical evidence suggests that the
broad policy agendas that brought about comparatively inclusive and equitable forms of
economic development may be substantially driven by states, and that the successful
engagement of civil society has as much to do with how state-civil society relations shape
the constructive engagements between these spheres, as to the free and uncoordinated
actions of multiple civil society groups.
In this view it is not so much the uncoordinated and autonomous actions of ‘a million flowers
bloomingas it is the ‘fitbetween state and civil society actors – how successfully state and
civil society interact to enable economic growth and human development - that shapes the
inclusiveness of the development process. At times, the state may create wider and more
enabling space for civic action, and this may lead to progressive and redistributive
programmes and policies as political actors respond to newly salient voices. At other times
and in other parts of the system, the ‘fitis tighter, as when civil society actors collaborate
with states or the administration in the co-production of services (Joshi and Moore 2004). At
key moments of contention, the ‘fitis in gridlock, such as when civil society clashes with the
state, politicians, or powerful economic interests defending the rights of the less powerful.
The degree of autonomy, influence, and ‘holding powerof civic actors in relation to the state
is thus closely shaped by the nature of the state and the political regime, which structure the
conditions for political inclusion and empowerment (Houtzager 2003). So while civil society
makes demands for inclusion and empowerment, it does so in conditions not of their own
making (at least not in the short-term, although civil society actors have been part of recent
constitutional reforms in Nepal and Myanmar). Recognising the centrality of the nature of
political power in this ‘polity approachplaces state and political institutions at the heart of the
explanation of how civil society contributes to inclusive development.
This emphasis on ‘fit(as opposed to size and autonomy) focuses attention on whether civic
space is configured to enable state, civil society, and market to work together to deliver
development. Figure 4.1 depicts this more dynamic (compared to Figure 3.1’s conventional
Venn diagram depiction) relationship between civil society, state and market. ‘Civic spaceis
here understood not as the size of the civil society sphere itself, but as the space within
which it engages with the state and the market to keep the gears of development in motion.
Distance and proximity from, but also capacity to engage with, state and market are critical
to the role of civil society in galvanising inclusive development. If civil society is too small and
weak to engage, the state and/or market may capture the process without concern for less
powerful or marginalised societal interests. If civil society is big or strategic enough to stall
the machine, preventing business or governments from operating in their individual or joint
interests unfettered, this may retard unequalising and unjust development policies, avoiding
corrupt extractive or land deals and the ecological impact of unregulated development, and
encouraging further resistance. From the perspective of states, however, such blockages
may impact on the pace or direction of growth, and the state’s capacity for revenue
generation and service delivery, reducing public trust in the state or political leadership. It is
not only states that seek to influence civic space: market actors may also benefit from a
weakened civil society if the role of such groups has been to protect against predatory,
extractive, or abusive practices. Where oppositions are fragmented and state capacity weak,
particularly under conditions of violent conflict, the (limited) civic space may be filled with
service-providing NGOs in humanitarian fields. However, their presence tends to be
conditional on the alignment of their activities with ruling elite interests, and they are
dispensable, even if global civil society resists.
As indicated by the broken boundary lines, the state, civil society and the market are
depicted in Figure 4.1 as porous spheres, allowing movement of people, resources and
ideas between them. We know that NGOs turn to social enterprise to finance their efforts;
businesses establish philanthropic foundations and CSR to give something back and
strengthen their brand; both organise with civil and political society to advance their
agendas; and elites move between positions of power across all three spheres. This means
that multiple interests may be at stake in the configuration of civic space. Figure 4.1 is a
generic depiction that can be amended to show how changing civic space may affect the
‘gearsor mechanisms of development, and to depict how global civil society enlarges civic
space but leaves national civil society to manage the frictions that arise out of global
incursions into the national space.
Figure 4.1 A polity approach to civic space and national development processes
Source: Authorsown.
4.3 Political settlements and inclusive development
One review of the evidence on the politics of inclusive development concluded that:
the most significant lesson in international development over the past 15 years is that
politics lies at the core of this challenge. Development is not simply about what needs
to be done, but, perhaps more importantly, about how it is done. Politics, power and
the interactive dynamic between actors and structures shape institutions and give
them substance and meaning. This has placed the need to understand political
settlements and how they frame developmental trajectories at the heart of current
international thinking and practice on state-building and peace-building.
(Rocha Menocal 2017: 560)
The term ‘inclusive developmentwithin political science generally refers to the shared
benefits of growth, in the form of income and wealth, wellbeing, human development, and
personal security; Rocha Menocal explicitly adds inclusive processes of decision-making
about what development should look like and how it should be pursued, on grounds that
inclusive processes are necessary to engender and institutionalise development outcomes
that are sustainable, equitable and inclusive, in line with the SDGs (Rocha Menocal 2017).
Political settlements, or the ‘balance or distribution of power between contending social
groups and classes, on which any state is based(Di John and Putzel 2009: 4) help us make
sense of how and the extent to which civil society and civic space shape the distribution and
the process of development policymaking. Two factors matter most:
the stability of institutional arrangements; the balance of power seems stable enough
for ruling elites to be assured of the long-time horizons that would permit them to
undertake the transformative but politically-difficult reforms needed to achieve
conditions for long-term growth and development, or insulate them against external or
popular protests or demands;
the nature of ruling coalitions, which shape elite commitment and state capacity to
deliver inclusive development, through the incorporation of diverse concerns, and
political and institutional incentives for redistributive policies and programmes.
(Hickey, Sen, and Bukenya 2015)
Political settlements are rarely static, and the distribution of power and its implications for
development may shift for a number of reasons. Other than in the most closed states, civil
society actors have the potential to play a role in both the stability of institutional
arrangements and the nature of ruling coalitions. In key instances, civil society actors have
contributed to regime change, the empowerment of excluded or marginalised groups, and to
holding politicians and officials accountable for failures, violations or abuses of power in
ways that materially altered the balance of power.
The relationship between inclusive outcomes and inclusive processes of development may
be neither linear nor obvious, and trade-offs and reversals between the two are frequent. It is
widely acknowledged, for instance, that basic civil and political rights are abrogated in
countries that have been celebrated for their development ‘successes– Rwanda and
Ethiopia, most recently, as well as in the best example of non-democratic development,
namely China. These countries have combined rapid poverty reduction and improvements in
human development in comparatively closed civic spaces within what are known as
‘dominantpolitical settlements (Hickey, Sen, and Bukenya 2015; Khan 2010). Critics have
raised valid questions about the sustainability, equality, and overall inclusiveness of such
development ‘successes’. At the same time, more open and democratic arrangements of
political power such as in Brazil and India, highlight the slow nature of progress on social
and economic inequality under pluralist systems (Rocha Menocal 2017, 2015). The role of
civil society in development progress thus complicates a simple conception of more civic
space as necessarily and inevitably supportive of inclusive development. It indicates the
need for a more politically-sophisticated understanding of how civil society interacts with the
politics of development to generate more or less constructive development outcomes.
Any understanding of the impacts of shrinking civil society space must also situate these
national-level power struggles within their global context, reflecting the extent to which
states, civil society actors, and markets are subject to transnational influences, ideas and
resource flows. The fit between states and civil societies differ everywhere; they are also
situated within changing market and social relations, at global, national and local levels
(Howell and Pearce 2002). Yet there is a common thread in the efforts to shrink civil society
space, several strategies for which have been replicated across otherwise different settings
(Mendelson 2015a). It is necessary also to note that part of the shrinkage may come from
the civil society politics within the international community, reflecting the narrowing civic
space within the global north and within a more multipolar world system, as well as such
movements within the large, regionally influential BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and
South Africa) countries (Poskitt, Shankland, and Taela 2016).
It is helpful to think about the effects of shrinking civic space on development within wider
struggles over the balance of power in a country. What ultimately matters for inclusive
development is elite commitment and state capacity to deliver, both of which civil society and
shrinking space may affect. Civil society actors may themselves be large membership
organisations that deliver important services, supplementing or replacing state services,
thereby shaping (undermining, complementing, or co-providing) state capacity to deliver.
Civil society may also shape elite ideas and commitment to development; a good ‘fitwith the
relevant agencies of state may mean civil society plays a positive role in the development of
state capacity to respond to collective concerns. Efforts to shrink civil society space can then
Further discussion of civil society in relation to political settlements in 12 countries is provided in Part II of this report,
Country Narratives.
be understood as efforts by states or ruling parties to consolidate or regain power,
undermining support to political opponents, disempowering dissidents and critics of the
government or regime, or wresting back control of services and communication with
population groups. The strategies may be ideological, physical, material, or regulatory in
nature, but we can assume that in each instance, the effort is informed by a presumption
among state powerholders that (particular) civil society actors have too much or illegitimate
5 Mechanisms through which closing civic
space may shape development outcomes
From our overview of the conceptual literature and recent discussions of shrinking civic
space around the world, we derived a series of broad propositions about the mechanisms
through which changes in the civic space may impact on development in a variety of political
settlements. We then developed these into a typology, following the methods used by the
social provisioning approach of the Effective States and Inclusive Development (ESID)
research programme, along the lines laid out in Figure 5.1.
Figure 5.1 A typology of political settlements, selected countries
Source: Authorsown, adapted from frameworks developed by the Effective States and Inclusive Development (ESID)
Research Centre at the University of Manchester.
These propositions were explored through desk-based studies of the implications of closing
civic space for development in 13 countries: Bangladesh, Brazil, Cambodia, China,
Colombia, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Myanmar/Burma, Nepal, Pakistan, Russia, Rwanda and
Zimbabwe. For each country, we produced an analysis that drew together analysis of how
changing civic space was being shaped by the dynamics of the political settlement in each
context, and of the challenges of sustainable and inclusive development in each. In this
section we reflect on the findings in relation to the following four propositions.
Proposition I: In a political settlement presided over by a dominant political system in which
the state has both the capacity and the elite commitment necessary to foster inclusive
development outcomes, tighter civic space may have adverse impacts on:
the rights and needs of marginalised and excluded groups;
the perceived credibility of official performance data, with possible impacts on FDI
flows and the business environment;
environmental sustainability, across a wide range of potential areas and sectors.
These propositions apply in particular to the light grey quadrant (China, Ethiopia and
Rwanda) in the typology. In each instance, recent efforts to consolidate power by the ruling
elite have been associated with a clampdown on civil society and the media.
In respect of the rights and needs of marginalised and excluded groups, it is clear that rural-
urban migrants and excluded ethnic and geographical groups in China and the restive
Oromo and Amhara in Ethiopia are instances of systematic exclusion of key social groups in
the society, some of whose struggles have presented a significant threat to the ruling elite’s
control of power. In Ethiopia, during the period of the present study, the fragility of the
political settlement was underlined by the resignation of the Prime Minister Hailemariam
Desalegn and his replacement with a leader from an Oromo background, Abiy Ahmed, in
April 2018. This came about after protests over land rights and related political discontent
among politically marginalised groups rendered the regime’s hold on power untenable (Al
Jazeera 2018). In China, Xi Jinping’s accession to power at the 18th Party Congress in
November 2012 marked a new chapter of deepening reform, including ambitions for
substantial improvements in governance and in the role of China in the world (Men and
Tsang 2016). Yet Xi Jinping’s economic model of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics in a
new eracontinues the development pathway of the previous decades – a party-state
capitalism in which the Communist Party-state dominates the economy and markets, in
which institutions for sustainable development, basic human rights and the rule law, have not
been established (Kuo and Feng 2017). After a period of liberalisation of civic space under
the leadership of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, civil society is now seen by President Xi and
the Communist Party as ‘an attempt to dismantle the party’s social foundationand advocacy
by social movements is regarded as a serious form of political opposition (Mitchell 2016).
Political power in Rwanda has been dominated by the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) since
the genocide of 1994, and contenders to state power are weak, fragmented, and under
threat (Reuters 2017). For reasons of political history (Gready 2010), however, the political
elite is powerfully motivated towards what it understands to be inclusive development (Booth
and Golooba-Mutebi 2014; Behuria and Goodfellow 2016). The Rwanda contradiction of
authoritarian politics with development progress (Booth and Golooba-Mutebi 2012; Harrison
2017) highlights the need for ‘reasonable expectationswith respect to human rights, in
awareness of the severity of the post-genocide development and political challenge
(Harrison 2017: 876).
Yet the dominant nature of political power, reliant in part on a closed and co-opted civic
space (ICNL 2017b) may itself undermine the material gains from development. The ‘decent
technocratic governancesufficient to deliver public services and growth to date may be
endangered by the underlying fragility of the country’s political governance (Reyntjens 2015).
While Rwanda’s success with respect to economic growth (Behuria and Goodfellow 2016)
health and other social indicators (Abbott, Sapsford, and Binagwaho 2017) has been widely
noted, more complex challenges of public service delivery – raising the quality of basic
education, for instance – have proven difficult (Williams 2017). Poverty and inequality may
have worsened for some (Ansoms and Rostagno 2012). In a closed and authoritarian setting
featuring the all-important ‘performance contracts’ (imihigo), ‘local officials often implement
the set targets rigidly and blindly, regardless of the possible negative consequences for the
local population(Ansoms et al. 2017: 54), signalling the weakness of downward
accountability. There is also evidence that, rather than resisting bad policies or proposing
alternatives, rural populations compensate or take the losses, with negative implications for
the SDGs on issues such as health and food security.
No specific evidence on the impacts of closed space on perceptions of official economic
data, which can be viewed as a form of transnational economic trust or social capital, was
uncovered. However, it would in principle be possible to undertake an analysis of factors that
contribute to or undermine transnational economic trust by investigating relevant episodes of
contestation over the freedom of the media, and scholarly and expert analysis through a
comparative analysis of financial and risk reporting.
Contestation over large land and extractive industries deals features in all three countries, at
home and (in the case of China) also abroad. The long time-horizons of dominant elites such
as these enable them to push through big, potentially illegal or unpopular projects that elites
facing more competitive pressures can struggle to. Corruption on a grand scale is likely in
the absence of scrutiny. In such cases, contention emerges over environmental
sustainability, corruption or the loss of indigenous or rural people’s rights. It should be noted
that similar large-scale land, extractive or energy investments are also found in the dark grey
(competitive – particularly Brazil and Colombia) and black (dominant-predatory, Russia,
Cambodia, Mozambique) quadrants of the set; there is therefore, likely to be more to explain
about what connects such struggles over civic space across these distinctly different political
Proposition II: In more competitive political systems:
civic space may help to enhance the quality, depth and reach of democratic dialogue,
creating more accountable and responsive policies and programmes as governments
reap the benefits of legitimacy from development performance; however
less powerful groups - women, workers, small farmers, displaced persons, minority
groups - may not be properly incorporated within the political settlement through strong
party ties because they are not sufficiently powerful; their political expressions may
then take the form of more direct action - wage, subsidy or price protests, or resistance
to extractives or development. These tend to be comparatively open and globalised
economies, where citizens enjoy limited social protection against the life-cycle,
economic volatility or the environment;
civil society may come to be organised along ethnic or partisan lines, becoming too
close to the state for civic space to provide both the engagement and the distance
needed for successfully advancing development in fair and lasting ways.
Countries in the dark grey quadrant of the typology (Brazil, Colombia, Nepal and
Bangladesh) do appear to experience many of the inclusionary and empowering effects of
comparatively autonomous and plural civil society in participating to set the development
agenda. Each has seen somewhat equalising and relatively rapid human development
advances for the poor or the poorest in the past two decades (Lustig, Lopez-Calva, and
Ortiz-Juarez 2013; UNDP 2016; Government of Nepal 2016; Hossain 2017). However,
important groups have been unevenly incorporated within each political settlement, as
highlighted by economic shocks (and in Nepal, natural disasters), in which labour in global
production chains, small farmers, and the urban poor protested against rising prices, subsidy
reductions or inadequate services.
There are some signs in each of these countries that space is shrinking by ‘suffocation’, as
civil society actors and organisations become more closely affiliated with actors and
organisations within the state, as well as with parties and other broad-based groupings.
Brazil is a particularly interesting case because of how successfully social goals were
incorporated into PT (WorkersParty) policy, but with the legacy of a severed vertical
accountability between party and citizens (Hagopian 2016). Nepal similarly seeks to
incorporate civil society with its demands for equality, recognition, and space, within the
framework of its new constitution (Drucza 2016). Nationalistic framings, perhaps particularly
those framed in terms of historical injustice, can be an important part of this process of
incorporation (also in Bangladesh).
Proposition III: Under conditions where a dominant party lacks the capacity and elite
commitment to deliver inclusive outcomes:
excluded and marginalised groups are likely to suffer most through a lack of voice and
political pressure on political elites;
struggles against elite interests (land-grabbing, extractives, monopolies) are likely to
we would not expect major and sustained protest movements in the development-
predatory quarter of the diagram, because they would not expect a positive response.
We would expect people in such countries to attempt migration where the local
economy was not affording a sustainable living, and/or to be more likely to engage in
extremist politics, including the use of violence.
This proposition applies to the countries in the black quadrant, denoting that power is highly
concentrated, but not primarily in the interests of delivering inclusive, equitable and
sustainable development, and includes Russia, Cambodia, Myanmar/Burma, Mozambique
and Zimbabwe. It should be noted that of these five countries, all but Russia are increasingly
open or challenged political systems.
Ruling elites face strong intra-elite pressures
(Zimbabwe); contention from new political groupings, including the online urban generation
(Mozambique, Cambodia); and the need for tactical alliances with other powerholders
(Myanmar/Burma). Pressure to enhance development performance legitimacy can
reasonably be expected to be high. However, it is also clear that marginalised and
stigmatised groups enjoy limited to no rights in these societies (the Rohingya and other
minority groups in Myanmar, and LGBTI groups in Russia) (Beech 2017; Bhatia 2017;
Brechenmacher 2017). Freedom of association and freedom of speech are abused through
bans and efforts to discredit protestors or critics, including through the deployment of ‘fake
news(McPherson 2017). Scholars and experts have been under particular pressure in
Mozambique (Cisse 2015), and independent labour organisation is violently suppressed in
Cambodia (Human Rights Watch 2015; Ward and Mouyly 2016). As proposed, struggles
against powerful economic elite interests tends to fail in these contexts.
The proposition that major sustained protest movements would not be found in this quadrant
did not hold up. Mozambique saw two episodes of major urban and cross-country struggles
over commodity price hikes in 2008 and 2010; these were not sustained movements, but
they were of sufficient scale and impact to constitute a significant political shock, alongside
the rise of the urban-based opposition (de Brito et al. 2014). Similarly motivated protests in
2007 in Myanmar/Burma triggered by fuel price rises escalated into the national ‘Saffron
Revolution’, once the priesthood became involved (Shen and Chan 2010).
Proposition IV: In all four:
freedom of speech and association may be seen as direct threats to state power,
particularly with the growth of cyberspace; efforts to constrict entry to this space are as
likely as efforts to tap its potential for development;
On the changing balance of power in Cambodia, see (Mccargo 2014; Osborne 2015; ICNL 2017a); for Mozambique,
see (de Brito et al. 2014; Vines et al. 2015); for Myanmar/Burma, see (Huang 2017; USIP 2017b).
contestation over ‘foreignnorms promoted by human rights defenders and civic actors
is likely to be politicised and deployed to rationalise restrictions on civic space
motivated by political power struggles;
wage, natural resource, and commodity price-related struggles are also likely in each
kind of political system, reflecting the volatilities of global economic integration. We
would expect more wage and subsistence protests in settings where populations
expect a positive response, even if they also have reason to fear violence.
We find that these propositions hold across political types as indicated. To a significant
degree, we would expect some of the impacts of shrinking civic space on development are
shaped by a country’s position within the global system.
Additional issues arising from this analysis include the intensity of struggles over large land
and extractive deals and their frequency across political types. This strongly suggests that
the most intense efforts to shrink civic space relates to some fundamental processes of
economic development in the current model, in particular the accumulation of capital (Beban,
So and Un 2017; Lavers 2012; Adnan 2013; Borras et al. 2011).
Gendered impacts of shrinking civic space may also be discerned in particular policy
domains, notably in relation to export-oriented manufacturing labour (Cambodia and
Bangladesh; potentially also Ethiopia), where a large majority of workers are women.
Gender equality also features in the defence of land and indigenous rights, as women play a
prominent frontline role, particularly in Latin America (CIVICUS 2017; Mesoamerican
Initiative of Women Human Rights Defenders 2015). Women also lose out in particular in
relation to the inclusiveness of public policymaking, including in relation to models of
economic development and patterns of public spending, as women benefit more than men
from public spending oriented to the reproductive sector (Elson 2010; Balakrishnan, Heintz,
and Elson 2016).
Efforts to shape public discourse through manipulation or restriction of social media and
online platforms as well as through restrictions on freedom of speech, on the media as a
whole and on scholars, experts and artists indicate a strong awareness on the part of elite
classes of the significance of the public space and the need to win public opinion. There is
plainly an important dimension in which the shrinking of civic space is an effort to narrow or
influence the public space in which political opinions get formulated, for ideological and
mobilisational purposes. Any development implications of this attempt to dominate public
space has not, to date, been considered, although such capture of public space by ruling
elites is an increasingly important global concern.
Analysis of the development implications of shrinking civic space must recognise the multiple
levels at which contestation is taking place, and the transnational nature of many of the
actors and relationships involved. Aid dependence by national civil society exposes it to
charges of adverse foreign influence, which may be hard to contest in strongly nationalistic
public discourses, or where the media is biased in favour of powerful economic actors
(employers, corporations). That there are multiple global debates taking place about social
and cultural values in public life is clear, and at least some of these struggles are framed in
terms of ‘authenticversus imported values, perhaps particularly in relation to international
human rights. At the same time, the spill-over effects of closing civic space in one country
may be felt very clearly in another, in an interconnected globe. Efforts to consolidate political
power in China, for instance, appears to be shaping civic space in countries as diverse as
Cambodia, Nepal and Pakistan, among others.
6 Conclusions
6.1 A constriction of liberal civic space
This literature review supported the view that a global and comparatively recent wave of
efforts to restrict civic space has been adversely affecting the activities and security of many
civil society actors. But not all actors in the civic space have been equally affected. The main
targets of new restrictions on civic space have been, broadly speaking, aligned along a
human rights-based development agenda, and include:
principally foreign-funded and formally constituted NGOs and CSOs in developing and
transitional countries, addressing local concerns from poverty and inequality to the
environment and corruption;
democratic development and human rights-based organisations with strong
transnational connections to their organisational parents or funders in the global north,
known as INGOs (international NGOs) or transnational civil society;
social movements and organisations of marginalised and disempowered groups (e.g.
workers, peasants, people living in poverty, climate or conflict refugees, women,
indigenous, minority and excluded groups); and
the media and academic channels through which these actors investigate and highlight
issues, articulate demands and mobilise public opinion in the civic space.
There is a great deal of interaction between these groups and actors, as well as between
business, politics and government, so that (for instance) restrictions on NGOs or media
groups will have second-level effects on development through their relationships in the wider
society and polity.
Even while advocates of democracy and human rights in development have seen their
freedom to operate constrict, by contrast, and during the same period, other groups have
been granted, occupied or created wider space in the civic sphere, again, across countries
around the world. These include:
‘uncivil society’, or identity or group-based collectivities, often situated on the political
far right, espousing nativist or racialist ideologies and policies, often on behalf of mid-
and lower-income groups in the majority population;
‘unrulypolitical protest, in particular mass urban protests around goods and services
deemed essential to everyday life; in the past decade, these have included food riots,
energy protests, anti-austerity demonstrations, strikes and occupations;
the rapid growth of digital or virtual public space, and the fairly sudden emergence of
multiple alternative channels for the broadcast of news, views, memes and
information, which are also facing a crackdown in countries around the world.
Given the significance of these changes in the civic spaces of both developed and
developing countries, it may be more accurate to speak of civic space as changing - in who
participates and on what terms - rather than as ‘shrinkingor ‘closing’, on aggregate.
6.2 Civil society and development
The literature on the contribution of civil society draws attention to the multiple mechanisms
through which actors engage in the civic space over development issues: through co-
producing or complementing public goods, identifying policy priorities and raising demands,
monitoring progress, and in general holding the system to account. The international aid
architecture, and specifically the SDG 2030 Agenda, assumes a significant role for civil
society actors of all kinds, based on an understanding that civil society has played such a
role in the past.
Traditions of civil society vary widely across contexts, but the growth of foreign-funded
NGOs and CSOs working in development in the past few decades has introduced a shared
focus on rights-based approaches to empower marginalised and excluded groups. The
NGOs and CSOs and the more local social movements with whom they partner, the actors
now facing the brunt of the wave of new restrictions, typically focus on people living on low
and precarious incomes or in remote or ecologically or politically fragile settings, including
women’s rights organisations, defenders of the environment or of the rights of indigenous or
minority populations, as well as service-providing groups. It can be assumed that new
restrictions are most likely to block civic space in which the concerns of the most
marginalised and disempowered people have a good chance of being aired and addressed.
In terms of the SDGs, the effects are likely to be adverse for equality, inclusion,
sustainability, and the task of ‘leaving no one behind’.
Conceptions of civil society in development have generally revolved around the roles of
NGOs in delivering services and in preventing corruption or abuse, often under assumptions
about such relationships in stable democratic systems with strong legal institutions and a
free media. Civil society actors in developing country contexts continue to play a major role
in ‘technicaland service-delivery roles in which many strive to remain independent from
politics, in particular partisan competition. However, civil society action in developing
countries is also frequently political in nature, mobilising disempowered groups and building
networks and coalitions. An alternative view is of civic space as an arena of constant
contestation over the distribution of the costs and benefits of development - for whom, where
and what, how much and how – as well as who should bear them, and how. To understand
how civic space shapes development outcomes, but also to help explain the wave of political
elite backlash against civil society, it is important to recognise that civic space encompasses
both the more technical and autonomous and the more political modes of civil society.
Contestation need not mean conflict, and battles over norms and values may yield political
alliances that absorb civil society demands, turning them into matters of politics. Civil society
similarly responds to political opportunities as they arise. For these reasons, the line
between contestation over development policy and over political power is rarely firm or fixed.
The substantial scale of NGO service delivery means that the contribution of civil society to
the achievement of targeted outcomes is likely to be an important and particularly direct
mechanism through which development may be (adversely) affected by new restrictions.
The literature highlights a wide range of civil society actors with foreign funding or support
playing significant roles in development processes in the past, exposing excesses and
abuses, highlighting areas of neglect or lagging progress, arguing for distributive or targeted
policies, co-producing or complementing public services, particularly in humanitarian
contexts, and in general holding governments and private sector actors to account for their
roles in the development process. The end of the Cold War had meant an expansion of
global civic space, and a rapid rise in the numbers and spread of NGOs, non-profit groups,
community-based organisations, and other actors in the ‘third sectoror civil society actors,
as they came to be known. They played a particularly important role in international aid,
where NGO service delivery was frequently seen as the ‘magic bulletfor reaching the poor
in weak states with limited fiscal space. But at least since the ‘War on Terrorfrom the 2000s,
efforts to curb money laundering for extremist groups had seen an earlier wave of regulatory
and administrative restrictions on civil society groups in the developed countries of Europe
and North America. The past decade saw a particularly sudden rise in the numbers of
countries instituting new, often punitively restrictive laws and regulations on the activities of
particular groups as described above.
Not all the new regulations on civil society are unwelcome. In many contexts, NGOs and
CSOs had proliferated in response to the opportunities afforded by international aid, and
without effective regulation, inefficiencies and abuses have occurred. In principle, many new
regulations offer an opportunity to improve the governance of the sector, and to deepen its
accountability to the countries in which it works. But in most instances, efforts to close civic
space are not an administratively Weberian arrangement of civil society regulation, but a
heavy-handed mixture of demonisation and stigmatisation, selective application of rules and
restrictions, criminal and civil litigation, as well as violence and impunity for the instigators of
violence against civic actors and groups. And as noted above, these restrictions on
champions of democracy and human rights have been counter-balanced by wider latitude
for, or spaces occupied by, less ‘civilgroups and actors, as well as the expansion of the far
less controllable virtual public space.
6.3 Struggles over national sovereignty amid changing geopolitics
Efforts to restrict some activity in the civic space are clearly efforts to take power away from
civil society actors in order to grow the power of the state or its allies in business and
markets. These are reasonably straightforward efforts to concentrate or consolidate power
by ruling elites, who perceive in greater control over civil society actors either a reduced
threat or a promising opportunity. These efforts have been found across a range of types of
political power regime or settlement, and across countries both developed and developing,
and it is not clear that closures of civic space are confined to any particular political context.
What many of the contexts which we examined more closely shared was a context of rapid
changes in the distribution of political power, either as a dominant political elite was facing
credible challengers or because of wider processes of democratisation or power-sharing.
Efforts to concentrate or consolidate power over civil society came in the form of efforts to
expel or silence some actors, and to co-opt or ensure a closer alignment of civil with political
society on the needs of development - a tighter ‘fit’, in fact.
These are overtly struggles over power, but to what end? It is clear that to some extent these
closures expressed an impulse for national sovereignty, framed in part over imported
‘Western valuesabout gender relations and sexuality, freedoms of speech and expression,
or environmental protections. Each of these efforts to restrict civil society actors emerges out
of a specifically national and often nationalistic politics of development, and in relation to
domestic political struggles. But the changing geopolitical setting has also been an important
driver in several national settings: the influence of China as a major development partner on
the normative landscape of development practice cannot be understated, even if we still
know little about it. It is clear, however, that adhering to irksome Western liberal values and
human rights is of less importance than in the past, and such actors may indeed counteract
efforts to attract Chinese investment.
6.4 Civic space as ‘fit’
In relation to the implications for development, it helps to think of civic space in terms of ‘fit’ it
affords between state, civil society and market actors in the development process. It is not
so much the freedom with which freely civil society can operate that makes a difference, as
whether it is able to use that freedom to engage with and hold state, political and economic
actors to account for inclusive development policies (whether in process or outcome). This
means the need for civil society to get close enough to powerholders to be able to influence
change for its constituents or the greater public good; it also implies the need for distance
and autonomy, for civil society actors to be able to provide independent scrutiny, critique,
dissent, and policy alternatives.
Attention to the ‘fit’ between actors within the civic space allows us a more dynamic
approach to understanding changing relations between state and civil society actors. It helps
draw attention to the fact that civic space is best understood to be changing rather than
shrinking; although international aid donors have historically adopted a narrow definition of
civil society, there are many different aspects to civil society in most places, and in key
respects, the space for civic engagement has widened, and the actors diversified. The idea
of ‘fit’ also draws attention to the fact that changes in the space for civil society are struggles
for political power.
6.5 Further research
This paper briefly summarised some of the findings from desk-based analysis which
attempted to test and refine the propositions in selected countries, as set out above. These
findings have provided the basis for in-country case study analysis of how changes in civic
space is shaping development outcomes in particular sectors, and for specific areas of
development, in particular ‘frontline’ outcomes to do with human development such as
poverty, hunger and food security, and gender equality. The findings of those case studies
will be discussed in detail in a forthcoming Working Paper in this series. However, some
highlights and initial conclusions are worth sharing, in order to focus attention on the need
for further research in this area. These findings include the significance of geo-political
change, in particular the rise in importance of China as a development partner, for the
normative and policy environments within which development policy is formulated. Countries
in which civic space has narrowed span regime types and levels of development. Many were
visibly facing a fairly rapid, significant shift in political power, as political elites responded to
pressures to redistribute or concentrate political power further, from fear of losing power, or
because of new opportunities to expand state or political capacities. Where civil society was
seen as an obstacle to such projects, restrictions of a variety of forms resulted. It is notable
that two of the six countries selected for our country case studies, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe,
saw a change in the top political leadership during the period of our study, bringing what
many informed observers saw as potential for change in both the civic space and the
national development project.
A second finding has related to countries where weak civic and political institutions were
coupled with a predatory hold on the development process. In several, humanitarian and
economic crises, resulting from climate change, macroeconomic mismanagement, land-
grabbing, commodity price shocks, corruption scandals, or sanctions, provide particularly
strong examples of how a poor fit between civil society and state is implicated in the
production of development disasters and reversals. Human rights activists are under
particular pressure in these countries. Countries with established civic and political
institutions, or where efforts, to democratise are under way indicate a tendency to draw civil
society actors closer into the fold of political power, ensuring progressive actors more
traction, but leading also to an at times uncomfortably close relationship with the state or
political actors, which inhibits independent or non-partisan policy engagement. Civic space in
even fairly established democracies can come under pressure from particularly powerful
alliances between political and economic actors, particularly in the case of land and natural
resource deals. In so-called ‘developmental’ states, closing civic space is particularly likely to
impact on the aid dependent low-income countries through a loss of aid funding to NGO
service providers. The ‘watchdog’ role of civil society in such contexts remains important
however, particularly in relation to the credibility of official development performance data,
which is an important source of legitimacy for political elites in such contexts.
Future research into the implications of closing civic space for development will need to
engage with these as national political struggles, but ones in which the role of transnational
actors and geopolitics can be both prominent and problematic. International aid donors, and
in particular their histories of supporting civil society, often feature centrally in these political
struggles; however, in the analyses they undertake or fund, aid donors are rarely themselves
included within the cast of characters involved in such contentions. A stronger assertion of
national sovereignty over the development process may be expected to accompany a
decline in aid dependence. International aid donors would benefit from an improved
understanding of public and politicians’ perceptions of their roles in contentions over civic
space and development. Changing geopolitics and the growing importance of China in the
policy and normative environment also warrant further research. An understanding of the
prospective impacts on development of closing civic space would profit in particular from an
understanding of how Chinese aid and development actors view the roles of civil society in
developing countries, and whether or the extent to which China’s controls on domestic civic
space are being exported alongside its investments in infrastructure.
A narrow, predominantly liberal and human rights-based understanding of civil society in
development has pushed out of view actors and activities that do not fit this model. While a
growing body of research explores the governance and political implications of digital public
space in developing countries, other newer occupants of the civic space have received far
less attention in developing countries to date. This includes ‘uncivil’ (rightwing or extremist)
groups seeking to reverse progress on gender equality and the empowerment of women and
religious, ethnic or sexual minority groups, and ‘unruly’ protest movements and actors. It is
clear that such actors play a significant and new, or resurgent, role in shaping development
policy through their occupation of the civic space. Without understanding the interactions
between the range of actors in the civic space, ‘civil’ and otherwise, the full impact of the
current wave of restrictions on civil society cannot be fully grasped.
Further research is indicated in four key areas:
1. Closing civic space as struggles over national sovereignty in the development process
This global wave of closures of liberal civic space is part of distinctly domestic power
struggles that need to be analysed within their national political context. These struggles are,
among other things, about setting boundaries for civil society action, and preventing what is
perceived as its intrusion into the domains of both economic interests notably, deals over
land, labour, energy or natural resources and of politics proper. Political elites may well
learn from the rulers of other countries and across countries, struggles over civic space are
of a pattern. But in each instance, the need for civic space closures is domesticated to reflect
specific local and nationalistic concerns, while asserting national sovereignty against the
international system. Research should analyse the specific political and economic
contentions behind superficially similar struggles over civic space to make sense of their
implications for development in each setting.
2. The rise of China as a development model
From the perspective of national political elites, the development landscape has been
transformed with the rapid growth in importance of Chinese investment. Perhaps particularly
for fast-growing countries decreasingly eligible for concessional ODA, but also more widely,
the emergence of China as a core development partner has meant a relative decline in the
importance of the West with its liberal values of human rights, democracy, and civil society.
The national struggles over power that restrict civic political space (noted above) are closely
influenced by the material interests involved in both the new and the old development
partnerships, but also, it seems, by the normative environment within which they are formed.
Given the framing role of the Chinese development model, it would be valuable to research
the understandings of civil society in the Chinese development model. Public service
delivery in China itself has grown to depend on local cooperation between state and what
can reasonably be termed civic actors, in ‘a strategic idea of civil society development’
(Teets 2013: 20). Whether such learning has been exported alongside the Chinese ‘big
development’ model would be a valuable piece of knowledge, as well as an entry point for
further dialogue about civil society and development beyond the confines of liberal
democratic values. The retreat of liberal democratic values in Western politics must also be
recognised as shaping the normative environment within which civic space has closed in
developing countries.
3. Occupations and expansions of the civic space
The last decade saw new entrants with disruptive repertoires or illiberal values occupy civic
space in countries around the world. ‘Unruly’ protestors against austerity or economic
shocks and ‘uncivil’ groups attacking human rights with patriarchal or inegalitarian values
have often found new space in the virtual or online public sphere. In countries with strong
social ties but limited literacy, digital or otherwise, the civic space may become particularly
volatile and contentious. Development thought and practice has paid insufficient attention to
these other actors and repertoires in national civic space, despite their potentially powerful
influence on development policy choices and strategies. Research should examine whether
and the extent to which these alternative civic actors promote inclusive development, holding
political and economic actors, and indeed each other, to account.
4. Closing civic space, dispossession and development
A recurrent feature of closing space for civil society in the past few years has been
contentions over major land and natural resource deals, often around energy and agricultural
investments, as well as around workers’ rights. Research can help to uncover how and the
extent to which discourses of national sovereignty and foreign values are underpinned by
powerful material interests, in documented instances arrayed forcefully against the
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... Approaching civil society as inherently good along liberal values and norms does not capture the complex politics of actually existing civil societies. This politics includes illiberal forces and modes of 'uncivic activism' (Alvarez, 2017 in Hossain et al., 2018) or 'unruly protests' of protest movements and struggles emerging 'in response to elite civil society' that diverge from the 'civic modes of NGO and CSO organisation' (Hossain et al., 2018: 23). 9 These dimensions also suggest that restrictions on civic space for progressive actors may also 'come from within civil society' (Pousadela & Perera, 2021: 41). This politics of civil society is deeply contextual and embedded in longer trajectories of political regimes and state-society relations (van der Borgh & Terwindt, 2014), which are also partly captured in the notion of civic space we discuss next. ...
... The overall focus on civic freedoms resonates with the international development agendas concerning democracy and human rights and provides attention not only for freedoms as guaranteed in legislation, but also as protected and implemented freedoms. As noted above, these agendas emphasize liberal democracy as a direction of development, by giving attention to issues such as freedom of press, space for political contestations and opposition parties, and the overall realization of universal human rights (Hossain et al., 2018). The development relevance of the second approach, where civic space is understood within the scope or autonomy of CSOs, has been extensively discussed in relation to funding. ...
... Less is known about how such legal and extra-legal measures impact on other kinds of practices, and how differently positioned civil society actors seek to mitigate, adapt to, or resist constraints. There are vast differences in capacities to respond to changing regulations and constraints between larger CSOs with international connections and smaller organizations and groups with limited capacities and power (Buyse, 2018;Hossain et al., 2018). In a Nepali context, for instance, Uprety (2020) shows that Indigenous People's Organisations are not as visible as 'universalistic CSOs' in advocacy against attempts to limit civic space through legislation and registration, and that this limited visibility is a result both of the state's 'reluctance towards the rights of indigenous people as well as non-representation through other and more visible CSOs' (Uprety, 2020: 259). ...
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This introductory chapter contextualizes how the volume resonates to current global trends and research debates concerning democracy, civil society, and civic space. The chapter shows how the debates on the decline of democracy, civil society actors, and changing civil spaces underpin the book’s agenda of exploring civil society responses to civic space. The chapter argues in favour of contextual and relational analyses of how civil society actors and civic space are negotiated, in the context of historically formed governance systems. It also provides an overview of the chapters of the book underlying their original contributions to ongoing debates.
... And it is general enough to include a whole range of actors and process factors. It, therefore, comes not as a surprise that civic space has firmly entered the vocabulary of donors, development NGOs as well, in recent years, by activist groups (Buyse, 2018;Hossain et al., 2018Hossain et al., , 2019Malena, 2015). In these discourses, civic space is often used interchangeably with civil society itself, or as a particular public arena conditioned by relations to the state and the market that co-determine civil society organisations' room for manoeuvre to mobilise and organise and to (critically) engage or, in the name of 'rights', resist public policies, rules, and interventions. ...
... On the basis of this (descriptive) definition, and reflecting a liberal democratic political dispensation, civic space can be loosely defined as: 'the public arena used by citizens and civil society organizations, and provided by the state, to exercise the fundamental rights of association, assembly, and expression'. Often the terms 'civic space' and 'civil society space' are used simultaneously (Hossain et al., 2018: 13, Footnote 1). In practice, civic space thus is viewed as the realm and quality of political environment in which civil society organisations can express themselves, and where they can voice their opinions and concerns. ...
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Throughout the world, we recognise a tendency for civic space to be limited by governments and private sector actors. A common reason is to reduce the advocacy pressure of civil society groups on their interests. But the issue seems to be more complex than just a tendency of ‘shrinking civic space’ which is undermining development. We see the influence of historical latency on civic agency and actors within socio-political processes, contributing to a renaissance of nationalisms as being a key problem. The question arises how civic agency is deployed to counteract these initiatives, and how latent civic resistance is being mobilised. A framework of civic-driven change is applied to analyse the political potential of these forces, and in this way also to ‘interrogate’ civic space. Is this really a useful tool for analysing opportunities for social resistance, or is it rather a way to depoliticise civil society discourse?
... Those nutrition advocacy groups that emphasize a rights-based or evidence-based approach to food and nutrition appear to be more affected than those that focus more narrowly on the design of nutrition interventions. This resonates with observations elsewhere that the CSOs most affected in illiberal democracies are often those that advance rights-based approaches (Buyse, 2018;Hossain et al., 2018). In fact, the findings here correspond with those related to advocacy in other domains in India, including environmental rights organizations that have been labelled "anti-national" and "foreign agents" for protesting against various coal mining and land redistribution programmes that the Modi regime considers critical for the country's economic growth and development (Matejova et al., 2018;Mohan, 2017;Sinha, 2021). ...
Motivation Across the world, illiberal democracy is on the rise. These majoritarian polities limit individual rights and undermine protections for minorities. Civil society organizations (CSOs) that support human rights and freedom of speech and association in these settings can be repressed. Purpose How does illiberal democracy impact CSOs that lobby for economic and human development? We examine how illiberal democracy affects organizations advocating for nutrition. Ostensibly, improved nutrition is a valence issue that does not threaten a government's hold on power. But nutrition advocacy may mean criticizing a government's policies and programmes, and hence be seen by governments as hostile. Methods and approach We focus on India, where illiberal democracy has become more pronounced over the last decade. Structured interviews were conducted in 2021 with three dozen advocacy organizations, donors, and government stakeholders who work on nutrition policy in India. We analyse how the financing of nutrition organizations, access to policy‐making, and advocacy have been affected under the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). We divide CSOs into organizations that focus on the design of nutrition programmes, those that prioritize evidence‐based nutrition policies, and those that advocate for the food and nutrition rights of certain communities, including those who are often marginalized. Findings Nutrition advocacy organizations' access to finance has been hampered by amendments to the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA). Partisan ideology and low tolerance of policy accountability affects nutrition CSOs' access to policy debates and decision‐making. Fears about freedom of expression and its impacts on renewal of organizational registrations make the CSOs more timid in their advocacy. These changes disproportionately affect CSOs that focus on evidence and, above all, those that stand up for rights. Policy implications Assessments of enabling environments for nutrition policy need to consider better how partisan ideologies and political settlements exclude some groups in society. Moreover, given that illiberal democracy further weakens the value of evidence in policy‐making, donors need to consider how they present evidence and policy feedback when governments see criticism as hostile and politically motivated. Donors also need to consider what illiberal democracy implies for their efforts to support local CSOs: they should be aware that their support can sometimes undermine the legitimacy of CSOs in the eyes of national governments.
... A4EA evidence indicates that such repressive action disproportionately affects rights-based organisations and development NGOs, 'pushing and pulling' many of these groups into closer relationships with political elites in order to survive (Hossain et al., 2018). Space has closed down particularly for those with foreign funding or links outside the country, and on issues that affect business and land interests. ...
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How do citizens organise and act to make claims against and contend with authorities in places where formal democracy is undermined by authoritarian histories and practices? What do these actions add up to? In this article, we draw on five years of research from the Action for Empowerment and Accountability research programme, which focused on four such contexts; Mozambique, Myanmar, Nigeria and Pakistan. Adopting what we term a ‘citizen-eye’ view of social and political action we distinguish between the dynamics and expressions of citizen action that are more visible and those that are more hidden. Doing so shows a number of critical constraints that citizens must contend with. Despite these constraints, a range of more and less visible forms of action are clear. While the most obvious outcomes don’t suggest major shifts in the status quo, we argue that those less visible could be important seeds for change.
... For example, CIVICUS (2022) monitors the level of openness of civic space by looking at the freedom of association, freedom of expression, and freedom of peaceful assembly. Follow-up studies were realised by Hossain et al. (2018Hossain et al. ( , 2019 and by Fowler and Biekart (2020). ...
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Summary overview of future research on civil society.
The following study examined advocacy strategies of human rights CSOs in Colombia; how they defended and expanded civic space for vulnerable populations, managed risk and characterized their relationships with INGOs. Twenty-six organizational leaders were interviewed. Results indicate that when under pressure, CSOs mitigate their mission, focus on culturally expressive activities, and avoid regions or topics. Proactive strategies used to advance the mission ranged from influencing policy incrementally through inside channels; ‘cloaking’—dissimulating the confrontative nature of activities and framing them as apolitical; joining coalitions for protection, legitimacy, and influence; appealing to national and international courts, and the media; and appealing to transnational networks for support. Human rights INGOs enabled CSOs to be more assertive in their advocacy by extending a variety of resources, including funding, legitimacy, global visibility, and some degree of physical protection. The study contributes to our understanding of how human rights CSOs advance democracy in hybrid regimes.
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This paper presents a scoping study conducted to examine the landscape of Eastern Africa in relation to an independent Civil Society-UN Counter-Terrorism Engagement Mechanism. The study aimed at gaining insights into the region's dynamics, challenges, and opportunities concerning counter-terrorism efforts involving civil society organizations (CSOs) in the region and the United Nations (UN). By adopting a comprehensive desktop review approach, the study analyzed existing literature, reports, documents, and other relevant materials. The findings highlight the significance of collaboration between CSOs and the UN in addressing the complex issues of terrorism and violent extremism in the region. The study also sheds light on the potential roles, strategies, and areas of engagement for an independent mechanism, emphasizing the importance of inclusivity, cooperation, and effective coordination. Based on the findings, this study recommends that it is important to foster partnerships, enhance information sharing, facilitate capacity building, promote dialogue and reconciliation, and ensure sustainable funding and support for CSOs-UN collaboration in CT/PCVE efforts.
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The paper, the 9th in the TPA Now! Paper Series that started in 2021, shows the strength of using multi-level context analysis and engagement in enabling citizen movements to be strategic — to have a nuanced understanding of the state of governance and democracy; to identify entry points; and strategize in a context of closing civic space and to set agenda for future advocacies. Learning from the multi-level monitoring of COVID-19 services by G-Watch accountability frontliners, the paper surfaces and explains why there are contrasting assessments and outcomes of engagement by G-Watch at the national and local levels and what it says about the state of Philippine governance and democracy today. The paper shares the following key takeaways from the COVID-19 monitoring of G-Watch accountability frontliners: - Local governments filled in the gaps in the COVID-19 response of the national government. - Amid the pandemic, mechanisms for transparency, participation and accountability adapted to work at the local level. - In fascistic regimes, openings could be at the local/ community level revealed through multi-level engagements and enabled through multi-sectoral solidarity work. - There remains pressing policy issues affecting transparency, participation and accountability reforms at the local level needing urgent national action and response. Spotting the dissonance to know where the entry points are in contexts of closing civic space, disasters and fascistic governments could make the biggest difference in sustaining citizen action for accountability. Because in the most difficult and darkest moments, a dissonance could be the bright spot. TPA Now! A Paper Series on Transparency, Participation and Accountability is a platform for practitioners, researchers and action strategists to present evidence and reflect on the practice and research on strategic TPA and to broaden awareness on the importance of accountability in governance. It is an initiative of Government Watch (G-Watch), in partnership with Accountability Research Center (ARC), to advance the discourse and practice of ‘strategic TPA.’
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Many civil society organizations (CSOs) are fighting for survival as governments introduce legislation to curtail their activities. This article examines how domestic civil society campaigns can persuade parliamentarians to reject ‘anti-CSO’ legislation. We employ pairwise comparisons in two regions – East Africa and Central Asia – as well as process-tracing within four cases: two successful campaigns waged by CSO coalitions against repressive legislation in Kenya and Kyrgyzstan, and two unsuccessful campaigns in Uganda and Kazakhstan. We find that traditional structural explanations – most notably the degree of international linkage and leverage and the quality of democracy – play an important role in creating greater opportunities for domestic actors, but are not determinative. CSOs also need to take advantage of the more conducive environment to defend democracy. Doing so is more likely when campaigns: are pre-emptive and sustained, frame the issue in a manner that resonates with the electoral incentives facing parliamentarians, coordinate with influential international actors, and engage pragmatically with both the informal political rules that shape legislators’ behaviour and the formal procedural ‘mechanics’ of legislatures. The article therefore demonstrates the significance of both political structure and agency, and of international actors using their influence to create space for domestic groups, ‘leading from behind’.
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The synthesis report of this multi-country research study explores how ICT-mediated citizen engagement can promote democratic governance and amplify citizens’ voices. Digital choices for democracy can empower or disempower citizens; they can present citizens with real alternatives for equality, thereby deepening democracy, or prove costly for both individual citizens and the polity as a whole.Carried out by IT for Change, the study adopted a comparative case study methodology, building its analysis on empirical explorations of ICT-mediated initiatives in eight countries. In each country, a specific digital citizen engagement initiative was selected as an aid to understanding the historical evolution and particular institutional context of e-participation, through the interplay between structures of governance and citizen agency.
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When are developing countries able to initiate periods of rapid growth and why have so few of these countries been able to sustain growth over decades? Deals and Development: The Political Dynamics of Growth Episodes seeks to answer these questions and many more through a novel conceptual framework built from a political economy of business-government relations. Economic growth for most developing countries is not a linear process. Growth instead proceeds in booms and busts, yet most frameworks for thinking about economic growth are built on the faulty assumption that a country's economic performance is largely stable. Deals and Development explains how growth episodes emerge and when growth, once ignited, is maintained for a sustained period. It applies its new framework to examining the growth of countries across a range of institutional and political contexts in Africa and Asia, using the examples of Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Malaysia, Thailand, Ghana, Liberia, Malawi, Rwanda, and Uganda. Through these country analyses it demonstrates the explanatory power of its framework and the importance of feedback cycles in which economic trends interact with political behaviour to either sustain or terminate a growth episode. Offering a lens through which to analyse complex scenarios and unwieldy amounts of information, this book provides actionable levers of intervention to bring around reform and improve a country's chance at achieving transformative economic growth.
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Thousands of people in dozens of countries took to the streets when world food prices spiked in 2008 and 2011. What does the persistence of popular mobilization around food tell us about the politics of subsistence in an era of integrated food markets and universal human rights? This book interrogates this period of historical rupture in the global system of subsistence, getting behind the headlines and inside the politics of food for people on low incomes.
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Civil society organizations are facing increasing political restrictions all over the world. Frequently, these restrictions apply to the foreign funding of NGOs and thus curtail the space for external civil society support, which, since the 1990s, has become a key element in international democracy and human rights promotion. This so-called ‘closing space’ phenomenon has received growing attention by civil society activists, policymakers and academics. Existing studies (and political responses), however, neglect the crucial normative dimension of the problem at hand: As we show, the political controversy over civil society support is characterized by norm contestation, and this contestation reveals competing perceptions of in/justice and touches upon core principles of contemporary world order. Taking this dimension into account is essential if we are to academically understand, and politically respond to, the ‘closing space’ challenge. It is also highly relevant with regard to current debates on how to conceptualize and construct order in a world that is plural in many regards and in which liberal norms are fundamentally contested. Empirically, the paper combines an assessment of the global debate about closing space in the UN Human Rights Council with an analysis of a specific controversy over the issue in US-Egyptian relations.
"The idea of "the public sphere" in Habermas's sense designates a theater in modern societies in which political participation is enacted through the medium of talk. It is the space in which citizens deliberate about their common affairs." "Habermas stops short of developing a new, post-bourgeois model of the public sphere." "My argument enjoins four corresponding tasks on the critical theory of actually existing democracy. First, this theory should render visible the ways in which social inequality paints deliberation within publics in late-capitalist societies. Second, it shows how inequality affects relationships among publics in late-capitalist societies, how publics are differently empowered or segmented, and how some are involuntarily enclaved and subordinated to others. Next, a critical theory should expose ways in which the labeling of some issues and interests as " private" limits the range of problems, and of approaches to problems, that can be widely contested in contemporary societies. Finally, the theory should show how the overly weak character of some public spheres in late-capitalist societies denudes "public opinion" of practical force."
Foreign aid contributes to about 10% of gross domestic product (GDP) of developing countries. To distribute aid in recipient countries, Western donors increasingly rely on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Yet, since the mid-1990s, 39 developing countries have adopted laws restricting the inflow of foreign aid to NGOs operating in their jurisdictions. In response to these restrictions, have bilateral donors reduced aid, either as a punishment or because they cannot find appropriate NGOs for aid delivery? We explore this question by examining a panel of 134 aid-receiving countries for the years 1993-2012. We find that all else equal, the adoption of a restrictive NGO finance law is associated with a 32% decline in bilateral aid inflows in subsequent years. These findings hold even after controlling for levels of democracy and civil liberties, which suggests that aid reduction responds to the removal of NGOs from aid delivery chains, and not to democracy recession.
This article argues that current schisms in the research on post-genocide Rwanda are not sui generis but symptomatic of a broader set of separations within our understanding of development. Both the research on Rwanda and the most prominent intellectual responses to the rise of neoliberalism in development research have generated separations between a concern with rights and individual agency and structural transformation. The article sets out a way to reconcile key aspects of this separation and offers three empirical themes that provide original insights into Rwanda's apparent determination and partial success in pushing ahead with a bold strategy of capitalist transformation.