What is really going on within ‘shrinking civil society space’ and how should international actors respond?

June 28, 2017

     By Duncan Green     

CS-space-2Good conversation (Chatham House Rule) last week on the global crackdown on civil society organizations (CSOs) and what to do about it. I was expecting a fairly standard ‘it’s all terrible; international NGOs must take action, speak truth to power etc’ discussion, but it was actually much more interesting and nuanced than that.

While it is undoubtedly true, and horrible, that governments around the world are squeezing the space for civic activism, sometimes violently, the detailed picture is actually quite complex. Some points on the diagnosis, and then the response.

To what extent is this part of a process of emerging regulation, as part of a broader process of formalization? If I compare what is happening now with the social and protest movements I saw in Latin America in the 80s, which often experienced the most appalling levels of repression, there is a sense that things have moved on. Much of the ‘crackdown’ is now through regulation, registration and financial rules, transparency etc. Some of it is undoubtedly malicious, but some is probably a necessary effort to introduce accountability and good governance into a new and expanding sector. Or are we saying that the state should not regulate CSOs?!

The squeeze is not taking place in a political or social vacuum. We need to understand how it connects with other trends, which shape how it is playing out: technology (the rise of social media), demographic (rising literacy, urbanization), new forms of politics (eg right wing populism) and of course, counter-terrorism and security.

Which bits of civil society are more or less vulnerable? Civil society extends far beyond the formal CSOs that are often the partners of aid organizations – are more informal organizations also suffering, or is it a particular form of CSO that is bearing the brunt? Have we, as I fear, contributed to the problem by insisting that in exchange for our aid dollars, local CSOs adopt our language, processes and upward accountability, making them appear less locally legitimate, and so more vulnerable?

What is expanding to fill the vacuum left by shrinking civil society space? As a recent International Budget Partnership paper showed, these may represent opportunities for new partnerships, and maybe to return to our wider role of solidarity with informal social movements, not just more institutionalised partnerships with southern NGOs. IBP found that litigation, Supreme Audit Institutions and municipal governments are playing a growing role. At the seminar, participants talked of religious leaders and private firms also becoming more engaged – who else?

From Civicus

From Civicus

Behind all this there was an underlying anxiety that framing all this as the ‘global civil society crackdown’ could be somehow overly Western. I have yet to see a comprehensive ‘Voices of the Poor’ type piece of research that asks different forms of civil society (including CSOs but also grassroots organizations, sports club supporters, cultural groups, faith organizations) how they see the current threats and opportunities, but one participant described the feedback his organization received as ‘you frame this too negatively – there are huge opportunities in disruption as well as negatives’.

As for how to respond:

Big focus on the limitations of global narratives. Problems and solutions are deeply local, with INGOs and other outsiders having only a limited role (and having to be careful about their actions making matters worse – eg by highlighting the aid dependence of their local partners). Outsiders need to make it a priority to canvass the opinions of and be led by local civil society organizations, and be cautious about launching into generic global campaigns.

At national level, the challenge in some places is to rebuild the legitimacy of civic action, which has been damaged by excessive dependence on aid. There’s a clear place for working on longer term attitudes, beliefs, norms etc there. How have Indian NGOs responded to the crackdown by the Modi government? Have they tried a big picture normative campaign about the role of civic action in India’s history (‘Gandhi was an activist’) and if so, how did it go?

As for outsiders, like INGOs, there seem to be at least three kinds of possible strategy:

Research: ICNL and Civicus are doing good monitoring work on the extent of the legal and policy crackdown, but the IBP study I reviewed earlier is one of the few examples of taking a ‘positive deviance’ approach, trying to spot new forms of organization and activism that are emerging into the vacuum and/or proving more resilient.

I’m not sure how useful global problem analysis is, given the complexity and national specificity of the interlocking political economies of aid organizations protestand national polities; a series of national case studies might be more use, both of endogenous change processes of crackdown, resistance or emergence, but also of how outsiders have tried to influence events.

Influencing: at both global and (if we are invited) national level , this would include the standard elements of advocacy

  • Stakeholder and power analysis of both donors and national polities
  • Identify the right messengers to carry the message about civil society to those in power
  • The right coalitions (including unusual suspects)
  • Defensive tactics (eg opposing bad new laws)
  • Offensive tactics, whether to help existing organizations adapt to new rules, identify and work with new actors, or concentrate on building broader coalitions of civil society.
  • The right stories: myths and iconic success stories (lots of them)
  • Readiness to seize windows of opportunity presented by scandals, shocks, changes of leadership etc


  • Building domestic resilience, eg by helping local organizations raise money locally to wean them off aid dependence.
  • Support increased diversity and linking eg via peer to peer networks, including both partners and INGOs/externals on how to work in these reduced/changing spaces
  • Rethink some partnerships to focus on the more durable/resilient elements of civil society, and those emerging into the new contexts
  • Dignified exit (INGOs can step away and promote localization at the same time)
  • Rethink the kinds of funding that work best in this new context eg core funding or scholarships may be better attuned than traditional project funding

For more background, Civicus has just published its ‘State of Civil Society‘ report for 2017. Here is an Oxfam paper on challenging shrinking civic space in Africa and articles by my Oxfam colleagues on trends in shrinking civic space, social exclusion and civic space and innovative approaches towards protecting civic space


June 28, 2017
Duncan Green