THE WAR ON CIVIL SOCIETY
I have spent most of my career working with civil society organisations (CSOs) around the world. First during my years with Mellemfolkeligt Samvirke in different positions (including as Country Director in the Zimbabwe programme 1992-95 and later as Secretary General of MS 1995-2002), and then as Resident Coordinator of the UN in Botswana (2003-2005) and Director of the UNDP Oslo Governance Centre (2005-2011). My experience is that the political and legal environment in which CSOs operate is of critical importance, both for the quality of democracy in general, but also for the delivery of services to the poor.
CSO’s are not only NGO’s
Often when we talk about the role of CSOs in social and political development in developing and developed countries, we incorrectly talk about NGO’s in particular, and we also tend to focus on those NGO’s that have links to or are supported by governments and NGOs in the North. The reality is that in most societies, including our own, civil society – or the third sector as it is often described – is a mixed bag of all kinds of institutions, organisations, groupings and associations, some with formalised structures, many with very informal structures, in some cases many CSO’s are nothing more than a ‘front’ for a government, a political party or an individual politician.
In a case like Nepal, we know that there are more than 40.000 registered CSOs/NGOs, and this does not really make sense unless we accept that many of them are simply in business to make money! However, many are also useful expressions of what people at grassroots level need in order to improve their livelihoods – associations or organisations, small and large, that offer ideas, funding and support in areas of health, education, agriculture, clean water, housing, women’s rights, human rights, indigenous people’s rights, children’s rights, forestry, the environment – just to mention a few of the areas. We should also not forget the many church-based organisations that offer support to people in need, in addition to their efforts to ‘sell’ their particular interpretation of a religious denomination.
Decades of experience tell us that development efforts will be most successful if state institutions and international organisations involve the people and communities they intend to help in their programmes and activities. This can often be done most effectively by involving already existing CSOs that enjoy legitimacy in the communities they work in. Distinguishing between legitimate and not so legitimate CSOs is not always as easy as it seems – many Northern NGOs operating in developing countries have learned this the hard way. They have not only lost money in the process, but they have also lost credibility by banking on the wrong CSO-partners.
Ideally they should work together
My own position on the relationship between CSOs/NGOs and the state/government has been fairly consistent over the years, based on the experiences I have observed in the field: Society at large benefits most when both parties are strong and deliver effectively in the areas where they have comparative advantages. My argument is as follws:
CSOs/NGOs typically derive their strength from expertise on one or a few fairly well defined topics. Women or welfare or water – to mention a few topics. Members are attracted to the organisation because of its knowledge in a particular area, and they join as members because they believe the organisation can push this particular agenda. Often this will be based purely on the technical arguments, rather than on the ideology – although it can be argued that CSOs/NGOs often approach a certain topic from an ideological perspective.
This means that CSOs are defined differently than a political party. Irrespective of the ideology of the party, citizens will expect the party to be able to present a vision and a programme for society overall – not only about women, welfare and water, but also everything else a party would need to run a government and direct a country. A party that presents itself only with a programme on water will never stand a chance of being elected to run the government.
The essence of the CSO and the PARTY therefore differ fundamentally, and ideally this also means that society at large will benefit the most if both of them are allowed to deliver what they are best at. A strong CSO in the area of women’s rights or management of water resources in urban areas will be able to deliver most effectively, if it can operate within a well defined legal environment and with clarity regarding how to cooperate with state authorities and legislation enacted by parliament. It therefore takes a strong democracy with confident parties to deliver this. Parties should be ready to embrace the expertise offered by the CSO (also when they may disagree on certain aspects); CSOs must understand that they are not the political decision-makers of the country, although of course they have a right (and duty) to be vocal on the topics they know about.
In many parts of the world, we have seen an increasingly uneasy and confrontational relationship develop between CSOs/NGOs and the state/the government. The reasons are not always clear, but often it has come as a result of the democratic system and its procedures not functioning as they should. If a country de facto is run as a one-party system rather than a genuinely multi-party system, there is a risk that the CSOs will be seen as the only relevant and active ‘opposition party’ (often those linked to international NGOs). More often than not this is deliberately orchestrated by the one ruling party existing in the country, although there are examples of CSOs allowing themselves to be drawn into the political scene.
In situations of conflict between the two side, the citizens of the country are the real losers. They should be allowed to benefit from both the leadership and guidance offered by political parties and an enlightened government, and the knowledge and commitment offered by vibrant CSOs/NGOs. Often they get neither!
New publication from Carnegie
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has over the years provided much needed analysis of developments in the area of civil society developments around the world. This new publication by Saskia Brechenmacher, who is an associate fellow in Carnegie’s Democracy and Rule of Law Program, is called Civil Society under Assault, and it takes a closer look at developments in Russia, Egypt and Ethiopia. Her research focuses on civil society, governance, and institutional reform in post-conflict societies and hybrid political regimes, and you can follow her on Twitter @SaskiaBrech.
The following sections make up the official Carnegie presentation from its website, and I do not necessarily agree with all the arguments presented. But please read the book!
Download document here: Carnegie – Civil Society Under Assault
The closing of civic space has become a defining feature of political life in an ever-increasing number of countries. Civil society organizations worldwide are facing systematic efforts to reduce their legitimacy and effectiveness. Russia, Egypt, and Ethiopia have been at the forefront of this global trend. In all three countries, governments’ sweeping assault on associational life has forced civic groups to reorient their activities, seek out new funding sources, and move toward more resilient organizational models. Competing security and geopolitical interests have muddled U.S. and European responses, with governments divided over the value of aggressive pushback versus continued engagement.
The closing space phenomenon
Governments in Russia, Egypt, and Ethiopia have used a wide range of tactics to restrict civil society:
Public vilification. Governments rely on aggressive smear campaigns to discredit independent civil society groups, building on suspicions of foreign political meddling, fears of violent extremism, and anti-elite attitudes within society.
Sweeping legal measures. In addition to restrictive laws controlling nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), sweeping antiterror and antiprotest measures with vague legal definitions enable selective and unpredictable enforcement, which reinforces fear and self-censorship among activists.
Civil society co-optation. Governments purposefully sow divisions between apolitical and politically oriented organizations and selectively disburse rewards to co-opt civic actors and promote pro-government mobilization.
However, there are also differences among the three cases:
In Russia, the government’s efforts have centered on delegitimizing and restricting foreign-funded groups and promoting apolitical and pro-government organizations as socially useful. Authorities have primarily relied on smear campaigns, relentless administrative and legal harassment, and selective criminal prosecutions to weaken, marginalize, and intimidate independent groups.
In Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s regime has used sweeping antiterrorism and antiprotest measures to institutionalize previously extrajudicial practices. Egyptian authorities have targeted human rights groups with travel bans, asset freezes, and legal harassment, while local development and civic initiatives struggle to access resources for their work. In parallel, the regime has escalated the use of enforced disappearances and detentions of activists, dissidents, and suspected Muslim Brotherhood supporters.
In Ethiopia, authorities have pushed NGOs from rights-based efforts to service delivery activities and imposed onerous funding limitations. Targeted repression in the name of counterterrorism has further stifled civic activism, and the government is increasingly relying on emergency powers to suppress growing rural dissent.
Consequences and responses
Scaling back. Government restrictions have not only weakened human rights groups: advocacy, service delivery, and capacity-building groups have also faced funding shortages, bureaucratic hurdles, and government interference, forcing them to cut back and reorient their work.
Diminished societal reach. Smear campaigns and legal restrictions have undermined both horizontal ties among civic actors and vertical ties between activists and political elites, thereby reducing activists’ ability to form coalitions and influence policy debates.
Search for alternative funding. Funding restrictions have pushed groups to raise resources through crowdfunding, membership fees, and income-generating activities—often with limited success. Others have adapted by shifting their focus to less politically sensitive activities in order to qualify for foreign funding and government support.
Shift to new organizational models. Complex registration, reporting, and audit requirements and the constant threat of legal challenges have spurred some activists to abandon the traditional NGO model in favor of nonregistered and informal initiatives.
Hesitant diplomatic pushback. The competing security and geopolitical interests of Western governments vis-à-vis governments that restrict civil society have hindered coherent responses. As a result, civic space issues have frequently been sidelined at high-level meetings and decoupled from other areas of cooperation—resulting in incoherent messaging.
Tactical uncertainty. U.S. and European governments have also faced internal divisions over the effectiveness of aggressive pushback and isolation versus continued engagement and behind-the-scenes pressure, with the latter resulting in limited tactical successes but no overall change in the closing space trend.