Supporting Civil Society in the Face of Closing Space

Development professionals focus on the need to bolster and expand civil society’s “open space” in countries around the world.


USAID’s Citizens Voice Project in Pakistan aims to increase engagement between citizens and state institutions.
Syeda Sameen / Courtesy of USAID

The Turn Toward Dictatorship

In 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 government 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

“I am the last and only dictator in Europe; and, indeed, there are none anywhere else in the world,” declared Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko in a memorable 2012 interview.

The reality, of course, is that Lukashenko is part of a sizable and growing club of leaders imposing brazenly dictatorial rule. Throughout the past decade, freedom of speech, assembly and association has been under broad assault worldwide, with restrictive legal frameworks, coordinated campaigns against public advocates and members of political opposition, and undercutting of independent media. Holding nominal elections and having a president are fig leaves for rulers who brook neither dissent nor opposition. Crackdowns on civil society coincide with the suspension of term limits and the hollowing out of legislatures.

These are features of “closing space”—a term for environments in which restrictions hamper the ability of civil society and political actors to mobilize and operate. This phenomenon is becoming more severe, both in terms of the numbers of 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 register, 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 countries 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 mounting 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.”

Such determination must be matched by assistance providers 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

A Palestinian boy stands in front of his campaign poster urging his peers to elect him to a position on his Youth Local Council in Hebron, West Bank. Since 2012 USAID’s partner Global Communities has promoted youth involvement in democracy and local governance through these voluntary bodies, composed of Palestinian youth from 15 to 20 years old.
Global Communities West Bank and Gaza / Courtesy of USAID

Authoritarian governments and nonstate actors have demonstrated 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 example, have followed the example of violent governments by hijacking opponents’ social media accounts to broadcast grisly displays of revenge. The chart on page 48 lists some of the common techniques used to close civic space, with specific country examples.

Without an active civil society empowered to hold a government accountable to its citizens, development investments will be unsustainable. USAID plays an instrumental role in the design, implementation and evaluation of innovative programs to respond to closing space. Our approach includes long-term support to civil society strengthening programs worldwide. We collaborate with other agencies and interagency working groups of the U.S. government, as well as other actors, for a broad and coordinated approach to these thorny challenges.

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to closing space, USAID has developed a three-pronged approach that codifies effective responses to common concerns: prevention, adaptation and continued support.

Prevention begins with identifying and tracking civil society conditions. Tools like the USAID-supported Civil Society Organization Sustainability Index provide systematic analysis of emerging trends in civil society, critical for identifying where risks and opportunities lie. CSOSI reports on the strength and overall viability of the civil society sector in more than 70 countries in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, Europe and Eurasia, based on seven key dimensions: legal environment, financial viability, organizational capacity, advocacy, service provision, infrastructure and public image.

USAID’s Legal Enabling and Environment Project tracks the development of restrictive law, policy and regulatory proposals. Blocking restrictive changes while they are in draft form can be both easier and more effective than trying to repeal laws that have been passed and put into practice. Last year, LEEP’s support provided direct technical assistance in 17 countries. Because of its intervention, laws or regulations were improved in Congo-Brazzaville, Côte d’Ivoire, Somalia and Kosovo; the effects of restrictive laws or draft laws were mitigated in Indonesia, Moldova and Nigeria; and the initiative helped empower CSOs and civil society in numerous other countries.

USAID also emphasizes a “big tent” approach to its activities, engaging a broad array of activists, including journalists and the private sector, to reinforce open civic space. When asked how he has changed his operations given closing political space, Charles Vandyck, a leader in West African civil society development stated: “A lesson learned from years of campaigning on social justice issues is that the most unexpected alliances often give the most impact. It brings new perspectives and entry points to the table, but most of all, it gives the cause credibility, legitimacy and, ultimately, power. And that, more than anything, is what matters.”

Without an active civil society empowered to hold a government accountable to its citizens, development investments will be unsustainable.

Adaptation under changing conditions requires flexibility. If a government restricts the operations of nonprofit organizations, for example, a group can sometimes legally reincorporate as a for-profit enterprise while pursuing similar goals. As repressive governments try to keep pace and adjust to CSOs’ changing behavior, civil society must constantly evolve to stay ahead of new impediments. When restrictive laws are passed, USAID seeks opportunities to mitigate their impact on civil society, working with CSOs and governments to soften policy enforcement. When governments seek to strangle CSOs with cumbersome administrative requirements, assistance programs can provide legal and technical support, ensuring that organizations can avoid disruption due to noncompliance.

Finally, redressing closing space is a long-term commitment that requires continued support, even in the face of ongoing repression. When autocrats sense that foreign attention is wandering and support is waning, they act swiftly to eliminate opposition. Just as interrupting a medical regimen may induce drug-resistant disease strains, sporadic support provides autocrats with opportunities to stifle vibrant civil society organizations, replacing them with so-called “government-organized nongovernmental organizations” (GONGOs). GONGOs mimic civil society and effectively crowd out competing organizations.

Diplomacy is a critical complementary tool to development for promoting civil society in closing spaces. Diplomatic pressure must be applied, sustained and leveraged most strongly during politically tense periods; governments are most likely to attack civil society in the run-up to elections, for example. Multi-stakeholder initiatives such as the Community of Democracies and Open Government Partnerships aim to serve as platforms to identify, alert and respond to threats to democracy, and to support and defend civic space. Civil society actors must also be included in conversations with high-level visitors, ensuring that they maintain visibility and are recognized as important players in the political process. Sustained efforts also depend on strengthening and expanding existing CSO networks, pooling resources and cross-pollinating strong ideas.

Finally, donors and operating units working in closing spaces must create and maintain opportunities for staff to routinely share challenges, resources and best practices to ensure that the agency as a whole stays current with this cross-cutting trend. USAID offers a three-day, in-person course, “Supporting Civil Society in Closing Spaces,” to its Washington and field-based officers to better equip them with the tools needed to work in these highly challenging environments. USAID also recently launched an agencywide Closing Spaces Community of Practice, which will build on the knowledge base of its members and their extended networks to disseminate information—including best practices and policy, as well as legal, contractual and operational resources—so that missions are better prepared to address closing space in individual countries.

A reporter in Yerevan, Armenia, scuffles with a police officer while covering a protest against the demolition of a historic building in 2015.
Photolur / Irex / Courtesy of USAID

A More Resilient Landscape

In most countries in Africa, state and nonstate actors—through the use of restrictive legislation, policies and judicial persecution, as well as physical attacks, threats and detention of activists and journalists—stifle freedom of expression, assembly and association. We realized that most of these restrictions occur when civil society groups speak out against a specific public policy. We also started to see that the restrictions increase during politically sensitive periods, like elections and prior to constitutional changes on term limits of political leaders.

—Charles Vandyck, West African Civil Society Institute

According to CIVICUS, almost one in 10 people live in a country with fully closed civic space, and more than a third of the world’s population lives in countries with repressed civic space. In the post-Cold War era, states around the world have gained independence and liberal freedoms, only to fall prey to autocratic repression.

For the U.S. government and its partners, operating in closing space demands exceptional considerations. Commitments to accountability and transparency must be weighed against the risks posed to local partners. The benefits of a specific program must be weighed against potential backlash to a full development portfolio. Contingency plans for suspended access or disrupted communications must be prioritized.

Donors must be as creative, adaptive and resilient as CSO partners have been. Dependence on government funding cycles, reliance on static indicators and outmoded procurement practices can hamper our ability to operate nimbly in restrictive environments. We must continue moving toward more participatory design and flexible implementation of programs, matching programming needs for partners in closing spaces with novel and unprecedented services. As our CSO partners are experimenting with different organizational forms, revenue streams and partnerships to fortify their operations, we as donors must also experiment, pilot and scale up efforts to match these changing landscapes.

One such effort is the Civil Society Innovation Initiative, a project funded by USAID, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency and private philanthropic organizations, but led and driven by hundreds of CSO actors globally. CSII has launched six civil society hubs around the world that connect actors globally and pilot outside-of-the-box approaches to tackle issues ranging from resource scarcity in the Latin America and Caribbean region to the exploration of innovative approaches to financing and fundraising in South Asia and the Middle East.

We hear grim stories from the field, but also stories of resilience and fortitude. Melanio Escobar, a Venezuelan cyber activist who works to track individuals detained and disappeared by the military, explained his condition directly: “I don’t feel very safe, because I’m not safe.” But like so many activists, fear is not the end of his message. Escobar continued: “I feel like anytime something can go wrong, like in the case of many others; but it’s a fear that I have to face every day if I want to help my people. I know it does not sound logical, because it isn’t, but freedom and democracy are worth the risk.”

West African activist Charles Vandyck shared the impetus for continuing to combat closing space day-to-day that is summarized in his daily credo: “I am a firm believer in people power and the need to ensure that citizens are engaged and are actively contributing to an Africa that is transparent, accountable and just. I am fighting for a better Africa for future generations. Therefore, I must be motivated, always!”

Mariam Afrasiabi is a senior adviser in the Civil Society and Media Division at USAID’s Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance in the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance. She previously served as a democracy and governance adviser in USAID’s Bureau for the Middle East.

Mardy Shualy is a Presidential Management Fellow who worked in USAID’s DRG Center from 2017 to 2018. At USAID, he led the completion of the 2016 Civil Society Organization Sustainability Index, and contributed to agency policy for programming in closed spaces. Previously, he worked at the World Bank and served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in South Africa.

Closing Space: Tactics and Examples
Tactic Description Country Examples
Loose or vague legal frameworks. Governments intentionally obscure the legal permissions required for civil society actors and organizations. CSOs can be dissolved under thin pretense, with the uncertainty driving self-censorship and undercutting long-term planning. Cambodia enacted a new Law on Associations and NGOs in August 2015 that, among other provisions, bans unregistered organizations while vaguely defining which groups are required to register; requires “political neutrality” of CSOs; and gives the Ministry of Interior full control over registration.
Burdensome civil society organization registration. Governments impose odious registration requirements, impeding the establishment and operation of organizations. In South Sudan, a 2016 law imposes substantial and costly registration renewal, documentation and hiring requirements. It prevents CSOs from engaging in activities other than those agreed on in advance with the government; requires expatriates to secure work permits before arriving in South Sudan; and removes some legal recourse for CSOs appealing government decisions.
Denial of registration. Broad provisions give restrictive governments license to deny registration to any viable organization they view as a potential threat. The government of Azerbaijan has lost at least five cases before the European Court of Human Rights, which has found denials of registration to violate the freedom of association.
Approval for activities. Governments require organizations to screen individual activities, allowing government agents to closely monitor activities and filter any unfavorable actions. In Ethiopia, charities and societies raising more than 10 percent of their income from foreign sources may not engage in activities listed in Article 14 (j-n) of the Charities and Societies Proclamation, including advancement of human and democratic rights; promotion of equality and rights of the disabled and children; conflict resolution; and promotion of efficiency in judicial and law enforcement services.1
Unfavorable taxes and fees. Governments have taken a variety of approaches to drain organizations’ resources—for instance, denying tax benefits, levying fees and imposing stiff bureaucratic penalties for any noncompliance. In Zimbabwe, some CSOs are forced by local authorities to pay exorbitant fees (up to $1,000 per year) to carry out their work. If an organization refuses, no Memorandum of Understanding is granted and the CSO’s activities are not allowed to proceed.2
Limits on external funding. Foreign funding can be a critical source of revenue for civil society, whether from diaspora groups, bilateral donors or multinational organizations. Governments have hampered civil society by taxing, diminishing or blocking such funding. In October 2016, Bangladesh enacted the Foreign Donations Regulation Law, which includes new administrative hurdles and penalties for foreign-funded NGOs for vague offenses such as “making derogatory statements against the Constitution and constitutional bodies.”
Restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly. Authoritarian regimes continue to stifle opposing voices; as activists have turned to the internet and social media to communicate, repressive governments have kept pace with online censorship and digital attacks. Since 2012, Russia has intensified a crackdown on freedom of expression online, threatening user privacy and secure communication, and instituting greater controls over content. Measures such as local data storage laws make it easier for the authorities to identify users and access personal information without judicial oversight. While these measures are in the early stages of implementation—and the extent to which they can and will be enforced remains unclear—the message about greater state control is clear.
Criminalization. Some countries have criminalized failure to comply with certain CSO law provisions, such as registration and reporting. In Egypt, a new, extremely restrictive NGO bill ratified by the president in May 2017 gave a legal role to security and intelligence officials in deciding on the registration of NGOs and their ability to access domestic and foreign funding. Under the bill, violations carry very harsh penalties ranging from one to five years’ imprisonment in addition to fines ranging from 50,000 Egyptian pounds (approximately $3,125) to one million Egyptian pounds (approximately $62,500).3
Government-sponsored competition. To maintain a pretext of civil society without risking opposition, regimes frequently establish government-organized NGOs (GONGOs) that act as proxies for the ruling regime, mimicking official positions while crowding out other civil society actors. Russia provides grant funding to NGOs through the Presidential Grant Foundation for the Development of Civil Society. Though it is possible to interpret these grants as a concession to restrictions on NGOs receiving foreign funding, the majority of the available resources went to pro-government groups. For others, the presidential grants represent possible co-optation by the state, particularly as other funding options decrease in the face of legislative and other pressures. These groups must weigh whether accepting public financing places them at risk of becoming GONGOs.
Defamation. Regimes resort to smear campaigns to undercut CSOs’ legitimacy and popularity; labeling groups as puppets of foreign powers is common, as are defamatory claims against oppositional individuals. President Duterte’s public statements in the Philippines against critics of his war against illegal drugs, including human rights groups, are seen as attempts to silence dissent.4
Violence and intimidation. Governments employ techniques such as attacks on peaceful demonstrators, threats to civil society organization personnel, arbitrary detention, arrest and prosecution with draconian sentences, forced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, digital surveillance and the criminalization of civil society internet use. In Iran, more than 700 human rights defenders and political activists, such as Abdolfattah Soltani, remain in prison for their peaceful activities.5 In May 2016, a revolutionary court sentenced prominent Iranian human rights activist Narges Mohammadi, who had been detained for a year, to a total of 16 years in prison on charges of “membership in the banned campaign Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty” and meeting with the former E.U. High Representative for Foreign Affairs.6