Doing better on defending civic space

November 6, 2019

     By Duncan Green     

In a new Carnegie Endowment paper, “Defending Civic Space: Is The International Community Stuck?”, Saskia Brechenmacher and Thomas Carothers take stock of and argue for bolstering transnational efforts to push back against the global trend of closing space for civil society.

During the past five years, the international aid community has woken up to the disturbing global trend of governments restricting space for civil society. Public and private funders have invested in greater monitoring and analysis of the problem, created emergency funds for endangered activists, and supported local coalitions pushing back against noxious legislation. In some cases, democratic governments have exerted diplomatic pressure on governments that are restricting civic space, and worked in various multilateral forums, from the United Nations on down, to bolster protective international policies and norms.

Yet the trend persists, and even appears to be worsening. A November 2018 CIVICUS report found that “civil society is under serious attack in 111 countries.” Among aid practitioners and activists most engaged on the issue, there is a quiet yet widespread sense that the international response is stuck. They see diagnostic efforts repeated again and again without commensurate action being taken, and remedial measures being drawn from a limited menu that does not seem match the scale of the challenge.

Our analysis highlights multiple factors limiting the international response to date:

First and foremost, most donor governments simply do not prioritize closing space concerns in their larger foreign policy agendas. This is especially true vis-a-vis countries where countervailing geopolitical, security, or economic interests exist—such as Chad, Egypt, and Pakistan. In recent years, the United States’ abdication of a once forward-leaning policy on defending civic space has been especially strongly felt.

Second, the problem has morphed from being one that is primarily “out there” in the world to one that is very much present within donor countries themselves. With civic space threatened and even under attack in more than a few established democracies, donor governments have less credibility to speak out on the issue even when they choose to do so.

Third, diverse aid and policy actors disagree on core strategy. Some believe it is essential to stay focused on efforts to block or reverse restrictive legislation that infringes on civic space. Others see a need to contest the wider backlash against progressive causes, such as gender equality, LGBTQ+ rights, and migrant rights, and economic models that prioritize profit and growth over citizens’ rights. Still others believe that the answer lies in connecting civic space issues to a larger pro-democratic agenda in the face of rising authoritarianism around the world.

How the International Community is responding

Fourth, although funders have created valuable emergency funds, few other new resources have been committed to the issue. The aid funds available simply don’t match the scope of the damage inflicted on civil society around the world.

Fifth, despite much talk about adjusting aid practices to better fit restrictive environments– by giving more core support, ensuring more flexibility, and tolerating a higher degree of political risk–actual changes have been modest in practice. Overcoming bureaucratic inertia, risk aversion, and the ever-rising imperative to demonstrate short-term results all work against needed funding changes.

Sixth, funders are moving more slowly than the problem itself. Fueled by the spread of illiberal populism, the escalating use of digital technologies for disinformation and repression, and adaptive authoritarian learning, the closing space trend is mutating quickly.

No magic bullets are available, but transnational actors can take various steps to strengthen support for independent civil society under stress. Aid providers can step up their game by developing a shared strategic framework that shows the linkages between closing civic space and other key foreign policy challenges, articulates a compelling positive vision of civic space globally, and differentiates between short- and long-term priorities and different types of political contexts. They can put this framework into practice by designating senior policy leads within their respective governments who can strengthen coordination among relevant economic, foreign policy, and development agencies, and by leaning in with greater diplomatic muscle.

Both public and private funders and implementing organizations can invest more heavily in direct support for local civic coalitions and innovative initiatives that are fighting against civil society restrictions, bring to fruition plans for greater aid flexibility, and invest in shared mechanisms to anticipate threats and coordinate diplomatic and funding responses.

However, doing better abroad will only be possible if we do better at home. Western foreign policy and aid actors need to connect more directly with groups fighting to maintain civic values and rights within Western democracies. With the same threats and syndromes undermining the idea of independent civil society as a fundamental democratic institution almost everywhere, it is well past time to overcome the old divide between aid providers and recipients with regard to both ideas and action in this domain.

Featured image: AK Rockefeller

November 6, 2019
Duncan Green