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Civic space: shrinking or shifting?

Expert comment

Written by Samuel Sharp, Stephanie Diepeveen, Ellie Collins

Image credit:Gayatri Malhotra - Unsplash

If popularly cited statistics are anything to go by, the global outlook for democracy looks unavoidably bleak: VDem reports that ‘the level of democracy enjoyed by the average global citizen is down to 1986 levels’ and International IDEA reports that ‘half of the world’s democracies are in retreat’.

This foreboding picture of the state of democracy is the context in which President Biden will host the second Summit for Democracy this week, aiming to bring together like-minded pro-democratic leaders to address the democratic malaise.

High on the agenda is the need to address declining or shrinking civic space – in other words the space outside government where citizens come together, organise and engage in the collective life and wellbeing of their communities. Another commonly cited statistic: at least one of three repressive tactics (physical harassment and murder; negative discourses and labelling; and restrictive legislation) is used in 117 of 197 countries (CIVICUS). The civic space available is under attack and, arguably shrinking – even as access and use of new digital communication channels is growing.

While not denying the validity of these concerns – we suggest that this focus on the decline in civic space presents a somewhat simplistic picture, and one that is not necessarily helpful for those seeking to understand the nature of the ‘democratic malaise’ and how to address it. Arguably, what democracies are experiencing is a shifting, not simply shrinking, civic space.

Is this simply nit-picking? We suggest not for at least two reasons.

Firstly, changes to civic space are not uniform nor universal. Within one country, space for civic activism can close in some areas while opening in others. In Ethiopia, for example, the 2019 Civil Society Proclamation was a genuinely liberalising moment for civil society. Growing numbers of civil society organisations (CSOs) can now work explicitly on rights, advocacy and governance issues, where previously they’d been restricted to service delivery. Restrictions on financing and registration have been eased. At the same time, the outbreak and intensification of conflict, especially in the Tigray region, has drawn into sharper focus the limits of this liberalisation. In September 2021, 35 CSOs released what, on the surface, appears a neutrally worded ‘Call for Peace’ in the country. Yet in response, they were chided by the Government for acting against the supposed national interest and warned of ‘no mercy [for] CSOs that threaten Ethiopia’s sovereignty, unity and security’. So while civic space opens in some areas, simultaneously, the red lines appear across what is permissible as civic activism.

Secondly, restrictions are not just imposed on an impotent civil society. Looking at studies of civil society and activists across varied contexts reveals different ways in which civil society adapts and resists, and how different forms of activism emerge and become amplified. Online spaces can also become an arena, where, despite restrictions, activists carve out new spaces for collective discussion and action. In more authoritarian countries, Telegram has facilitated disinformation and state messaging, but also publication and opportunities for activists to organise. Nigeria’s #EndSARS campaign against the brutality of the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, online activism not only intersected with offline protests, but also gave way to new influencer networks online, and continued to sustain well beyond the original protests. These influencers also dominated online campaigns during the 2023 Presidential elections, giving momentum to third party candidate, Peter Obi. This movement’s dynamism grew despite the President’s ban on Twitter from June 2021 to January 2022.

One study comparing successful resistance to anti-NGO legislation in Kenya and Kyrgyzstan, in spite of increasing restrictions on media and formal CSOs, showed that online spaces and networks across civil society can provide an opportunity to sustain collective organisation and mobilisation over time. In Kenya, NGOs aligned under the Civil Society Reference Group to launch a successful advocacy campaign. In Kyrgyzstan, local organisations with external support (USAID) were applying pressure on parliament and the Government.

What does a focus on shifting rather than shrinking civic space mean for how we make sense of ‘democratic backsliding’ and what are the implications for international support?

Shifting civic space is just one aspect of complex, context-specific underpinnings of the ‘democratic backsliding’ paradigm. Anti-democratic leaders do not share a universal playbook. ‘Relatively distinct political patterns’ make up the ‘democratic backsliding’ phenomenon we see at the macro level. But there is no linear process. Individual democratic transformations do not sit neatly on a scale that runs from backsliding to stagnation to progress. The amalgamation of distinct processes makes it difficult to see what is going on beneath the bonnet in contexts where the ‘democratic malaise’ seems palpable. Looking closely at civic space in the broadest sense, is one way of identifying dynamic processes of deliberation taking place in increasingly authoritarian contexts. It is often in the most unlikely places that the great debates are taking place, over what constitutes collective public goods, what it means to belong to community or place and what rights and responsibilities come with it.

A clearer picture of how civic activism adapts, responds to, and navigates the many challenges it faces and what the effects of this are, could enable international actors to take a more context-specific approach in their civil society support efforts. Our recent research on how CSOs frame what they do in Ethiopia showed a significant degree of self-censorship and caution when mentioning issues they perceived as contentious. One could interpret this as timidity in the light of a long legacy of civil society restrictions. It is also, perhaps more accurately, a politically savvy way of skirting the boundaries of what is permissible as civic activism, carefully enabling CSOs to operate and survive within this context. The Action for Empowerment and Accountability research programme has also documented multiple examples of creative citizen-led activism in challenging contexts, that often falls under the radar.

To conclude, there are many challenges facing citizens in democracies today in terms of the civic space open to them. New forms of repression, such as digital surveillance and internet shutdowns, easily paint a bleak picture. This negative trend is real and worrying. However, a focus on repression (and resistance) alone as the defining feature of civic space can obscure the nuances and diversity of what citizens actually do within their communities, as well as the potentially new forms that public life can take. International support for democratic outcomes must be grounded in an approach that recognises and builds from the heterogenous, local, context-specific efforts of civil society actors to adapt to shifting civic space amidst new threats and opportunities.