The Foreign Service Journal, May 2018

46 MAY 2018 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL Such determination must be matched by assistance provid- ers with systematic approaches to identifying and responding to closing political and civic space. Bolstering civil society and strengthening democratic governance are critical for achieving more prosperous and sustainable democracies and, ultimately, for ending the need for foreign assistance. In such high-stakes environments, standard best practices for development and diplomacy are useful, but may be insufficient. USAID’s Approach to the Trend Authoritarian governments and nonstate actors have dem- onstrated creativity and ruthlessness in dismantling civic space. Coercive tactics in one country are replicated and adapted to local contexts by repressive regimes in other countries. Some examples are clear and direct. China, for example, shared its internet censorship and monitoring techniques with Iran, which used them to create a policed “Halal” intranet. Other cases involve indirect replication of style: Mexican drug cartels, for Without an active civil society empowered to hold a government accountable to its citizens, development investments will be unsustainable. countries implicated and the brutality of tactics employed by both state and nonstate actors. Since 2015, the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law states, more than 100 laws have been proposed or enacted by governments that restrict the ability of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to regis- ter, operate, receive foreign funding or assemble freely. And, according to CIVICUS, a global civil society alliance that releases civic space ratings worldwide, only 13 percent of coun- tries are considered to have fully open civic space—and those countries contain only 3 percent of the world’s population. Private sector and civil society organizations (CSOs) that play such a critical role in development have faced a mount- ing backlash in many countries. In some highly restrictive countries, the fabric of civil society has been deteriorating or destroyed because punitive laws and restrictions on foreign funding make it near-impossible for local organizations to operate. These trends are a growing concern in many countries where USAID and other funders work, forcing the closure of projects that provide critical services, including fighting child marriage, advocating against gender-based violence, providing clean water and promoting nutrition among pregnant women and children. Yet civil society has remained surprisingly durable and resilient. A radio activist in Belarus explained what drives him forward despite the repressive government’s efforts to suppress civil society: “Maybe I’m naive, but I believe in positive change. Nothing lasts forever. And nothing is a given. In order to come to a democracy, and [one] that it is sustained for a long time, we have to endure the severity of the dictatorship. We need to learn from all the mistakes to avoid even thinking of going back. Freedom, rights and equality become real values only when Belarusians will naturally come to this understanding. Hence the motivation. It is interesting to work in a country which has the prospect ahead, where there are chances of a positive change. And, most importantly, this country is my motherland.” I n 2014 the student movement and civil society in general started a cycle of demonstrations against [Venezuelan President Nicolás] Maduro’s regime. That year, we started to see a heavy crackdown in the way that the regime tried to control the situation in the streets—they used armed civilians to kill the demonstrators; they started to jail people for being in the protests and persecuted people for expressing themselves. It wasn’t easy for anyone to assimilate to the arbitrary behavior of the government, and we started to see how it was turning from a very bad gov- ernment to a dictatorship. At that moment, my NGO was focused on tracking people who were detained and disappeared through actions of the military. We tracked more than 3,000 people, started using social media to inform the public about it, tried to get legal help to those who needed it and, at the same time, crossed the whole country undercover, teaching activists about digital security to secure them against digital threats. —Melanio Escobar, digital activist, Venezuela The Turn Toward Dictatorship