Is civic space really shrinking, and if so who’s to blame?

Vilified as alien wolves in local sheep’s clothing, human rights NGOs and independent media groups have been cut off from their outside funders and tyrannized in country after country from Armenia to Zimbabwe. Along with others, OpenDemocracy has regularly drawn attention to this trend, with disturbing reportage from Central Africa to Central Asia and from Eastern Europe to East Asia.

This is the story of ‘shrinking civic space’ under authoritarian governments. The story is true, at least in so far as it goes. But does it go far enough? In many cases the answer is no, and here’s why: the space for civil society is actually being re-shaped, not simply curtailed; the forces underlying this process are much more complex than is commonly supposed; and international influences – not just domestic repression – add powerfully to these forces. This re-framing is important because it signposts where legal and political leverage can be activated to protect and enhance the transformative potential of civil society organizing.

In this new frame, the first point to note is that ‘progressive’ NGOs aren’t the only occupants of civic spaces – they’re just one type of organization among many. They may have high visibility, but on the ground their presence may be marginal amidst a wider array of associative life such as clubs for sport and culture, business associations, secret societies, trade unions and religious bodies. Civic spaces also contain conservative groups, some of which actively seek to frustrate, if not eliminate, others in civil society they don’t like: think of Hindu nationalists or anti-abortion campaigners, for example.

In short, civic spaces show huge diversity and can be rife with covert tensions if not open contestation. In them, progressives usually form a distinct minority.

Second, some civic spaces are expanding, not shrinking. Most civil bodies pursue their activities and gain followings unmolested. Many are quietist or apolitical, but some seek active alignment with the powers that be, who are keen to cultivate popular adulation. Where do reactionary regimes like that of Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro draw their support if not from civil society? Those regimes’ backers spread the word and mobilise via evangelical churches with their massive followings, and via elite clubs and lobby groups with their land, money and connections. Some parts of civil society get protected, and even subsidized, while others get smeared, harassed and stigmatized.

In short, depending on larger configurations of power, civic spaces shrink for some but expand for others.

Third, the forces that create these patterns are external as well as internal. Autocratic rulers are obvious perpetrators; they let their bureaucrats, security forces, tax officials, media and rent-a-mobs do the dirty work. But beyond a national supremo and his or her henchmen, foreign interests are usually at play. After all, national elites take cues, and get rewards, from foreign banks, extractive corporations, tax havens and accounting firms, donor agencies and others in the ‘international community.’ As they squeeze or relax their grip on civic spaces, national elites take account of such external incentives.

Some international actors claim to welcome ‘vibrant civil societies,’ yet they may actually help to create pressures that discourage and disable groups that work for justice, democracy and free speech. This part of the story has been regularly ignored in most narratives about ‘shrinking civic space.’

Take, for example, the situation of organised labour, which more than any other civil society movement has advanced social equity and opened spaces for other emancipatory actors. Social protection and labour relations systems exist at the heart of social contracts across most of Europe and the Americas thanks to hard-won victories by labour activism. Today however, labour rights have suffered setbacks, a fact signalled in a recent report by a UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. Non-political factors may explain some of this, but factors that box in labour activism often originate in global trade deals and development finance.

Conditions routinely attached to loans by the IMF, with full cooperation from bilateral donors, have helped worsen respect for workers’ rights. The World Bank may talk an accommodating line about organised labour, but usually it doesn’t walk the talk, and even its talk can be negative. Recently it issued a flagship report whose prescriptions on labour relations were so toxic that eight major trade union confederations, along with many dozens of civil society bodies and scholars, wrote to demand that the bank re-write it; it has yet to do so. Meanwhile philanthropic foundations and bilateral donors (with some exceptions) show little interest in the often risky work of recruiting members, safeguarding union self-finance, outlawing company-backed ‘yellow’ unions and many other tough measures to secure viable spaces for organising.

In addition, repressive rulers curtail civic space not only to suppress opposition to their rule, but also to reward their allies – foreign and domestic. Especially in the developmental sectors of the economy – agrarian, real estate, extractive and other industries – private interests have captured the political classes. Those interests expect official protection. Foreign corporations collude with state authorities (and their non-state bully boys) in neutralizing activists and keeping things under wraps.

In one uranium mining zone in Niger, for example, where the French corporation Areva holds sway, an activist told visiting journalists, “If either Areva or the government were to find out you’re poking your nose in their business, they’ll go to any length to make your work very difficult.” Intimidation may or may not be effective, but it certainly has an impact on the shape of civic space.

Under policies promoted by the IMF, World Bank and others, cutbacks in health, education and other public goods have marched in lockstep with privatization and out-sourcing. Such state retrenchment fits with strategies designed to make public sectors operate like businesses, and to turn citizens into ‘customers’ who no longer obtain public services as rights but as commodities they must pay for. Service provision by private agents – including ‘nonprofits-for-hire’ – has been advertised as a way to lower costs and rein in taxes.

These strategies have helped turn many NGOs into mere businesses, reshaping spaces and polarizing political processes. For example, as public benefits become scarcer, some grow fearful that too many benefits are going to ‘undeserving’ people. The resulting popular resentment, often termed ‘welfare chauvinism’, drives wedges between ethnic groups, established residents and newcomers. Nativists have ignited such chauvinism with alarming success. Such ugly conflicts can make civic activism risky and unappealing.

Moreover, civic spaces shrink as social contracts between citizens and states are dismantled. Minimalist, unreliable and unaccountable public services – not uncommon where ‘nonprofits for hire’ are at work – discourage people from joining together and claiming their rights. Studies in Sub-Saharan Africa, India and Latin America illustrate how austerity policies supported by ‘the international community’ effectively trash social contracts, thereby asphyxiating the conditions for civil society organizing instead of energizing them.

Other external forces are driven by systems of belief. The aggressive pursuit of religious credos and social norms dynamizes many groups, notably evangelicals and their international networks that seek to limit, for example, pro-choice organizing. The award-winning film ‘God Loves Uganda’ shows how conservative Christians successfully promoted homophobia there. While certainly not all religiously inspired groups push anti-emancipatory agendas, such camps in civil society have led the governments of the US, Canada and Britain to engage faith-based NGOs as vehicles in their foreign aid policies.

Similarly, Western-backed (and civil society unfriendly) monarchies in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf have pumped massive resources into civic spaces in countries from the Sahel to the Balkans. In Indonesia, their funding for Islamic fundamentalism has helped to spread “toxic politics of religious difference” that diminish trust and poison civic space. In The Netherlands, millions of Euros from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have led many (but not most) Islamic schools to instruct pupils to disrespect non-Muslims and to follow anti-emancipatory norms.

All these influences can reinforce one another, as when cutbacks cripple public sector unions or corporate interests champion austerity. Other transnational vectors not discussed here, such as military interventions, social media and surveillance, also do harm. Together, they can operate as powerful wrecking-balls on the spaces for an independent, authentic and democratic civic life. Yet most scholarly probes and official expressions of concern pay little or no attention to them.

Countermeasures are possible, but where civic spaces are constrained by powerful interests at transnational levels, points of leverage must also be found at those levels. Some civic activists have pioneered just such an effort, providing ever-stronger push-backs to tax dodging, air and water pollution, and other kinds of corporate criminality.

In the story of Areva in Niger, for example, activists took the issue of mining’s impacts to Europe, where real political leverage is located. In response to this and other civic probes and campaigns, the French government in 2017 adopted a ‘Duty of Care’ law to curb corporate abuses – a major triumph, which itself opens new civic space for those pursuing compliance and redress.

France’s ‘Duty of Care’ law exemplifies what joint civic pressure can do. Gaining compliance with official rules is challenging, but it also opens pathways for transformative civic action, both domestic and international.

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