Here’s what we know about closing civic space – what other research would you suggest?

September 18, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

Action for Empowerment and Accountability Research Programme

I head off to the Institute of Development Studies today to take stock on our joint ‘Action for Empowerment and Accountability’ research programme. One of the main discussions will be on a research agenda on ‘closing civic space’, so this blog sets out what we know of the research to date, and asks you for further suggestions.

The best place to start is a great new literature review by 9 IDS researchers, Here’s their summary, with some thoughts from me at the end:

‘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.

When will my school be built?

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 neotraditionalist 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 operate.

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

Regain civic space
cc-by-nc-nd Niklas Hughes / Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung

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. 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.’

The report then sets out 4 areas for further country-level research (the language is a bit IDS-ish, so I’ve added translations):

  1. ‘Closing civic space as struggles over national sovereignty in the development process’: this isn’t a uniform process – the way space closes depends on national politics. Let’s try and understand that connection better.
  2. ‘The rise of China as a development model’: is there some link with the closure of civic space, and if so, how does that link work?
  3. ‘Occupations and expansions of the civic space’: a lot of the new entrants are either nasty (eg some religious and nationalist movements) or more unruly/protest based than their predecessors. What are their agendas and developmental impact?
  4. ‘Closing civic space, dispossession and development’: how much of this is a smokescreen for land and natural resource grabs?
Protesters and police

I would add a few more:

  • The different tactics and forms of leadership that have emerged in civil society in response to closing space – which ones have been most/least effective?
  • What have external actors like Western governments and INGOs done to try and help – when have they been successful/made matters worse?
  • More on the issue of aid dependence – should we make it a priority to help CSOs generate more resources domestically to reduce their vulnerability to the crackdown?
  • Has anyone done a kind of long term accompaniment of one or more CSOs, to see how they respond to shrinking space over time?

Please add your own ideas – and quickly, as we’ll be chewing over these issues today and tomorrow.

September 18, 2018
Duncan Green