Shrinking space for civil society requires countermeasures

At the same time as the importance of civil society for development cooperation is emphasized, its scope for action decreases. The reactions to this have so far been tentative, both in Sweden and internationally. Strategic countermeasures are now required, writes Agneta Gunnarsson, author of one new report about the increasingly harsh climate of civil society.

The importance of civil society for development and human rights has been emphasized in recent years. At meetings that followed up the Paris Declaration on the effectiveness of aid, the important role of civil society has been highlighted. An international working group is currently considering how administrative requirements for civil society aid organizations can be coordinated to facilitate their work. In Sweden, about a third of the development agency Sida's budget is channeled through civil society.

At the same time, there is a global trend that is going in the opposite direction. Civil society's room for maneuver is becoming more and more limited. Organizations working for democracy and human rights are worst affected. In country after country, the opportunities for these organizations to receive support from other countries are restricted, strict restrictions on operations are introduced and unreasonable accounting requirements are set that take time and resources. Threats, disappearances and murders also occur, but have increasingly been replaced by more sophisticated methods that do not provoke as many protests.

Democratic states are no exception

The shrinking space of civil society is not limited to dictatorships and countries with authoritarian tendencies. It has also spread to states that are considered democratic. According to Civicus, a global alliance of non-profit organizations, in 2014 there were threats of various kinds against civil society in almost a hundred countries.

On an overall level, the hardening climate reflects the fact that the spread of democracy in the world is broken. While the US and Europe have struggled with the financial crisis and low growth, China has advanced its positions, including in the area of ​​development aid. Russia has moved in an increasingly authoritarian direction. Many countries have stopped halfway through the transition from dictatorship to democracy.

The so-called war on terrorism led to restrictions on stopping new terrorist attacks, such as travel and money transfers between countries. The war on terrorism also became a pretext for cracking down on civil society. Another reason for the shrinking space is that developments in Ukraine, the "Arab Spring" and similar protests have frightened many in power.

Measures not in proportion to the size of the problem

The reactions so far have been tentative, both in Sweden and internationally. There are several reasons for this. The overview required to see the global pattern has sometimes been lacking. Affected organizations often judge that the best strategy is to stay low. It is also not obvious where the line goes between states' legitimate demands for control and people's right to organize and protest. In addition, there are often interests, such as security or trade policy, that outweigh the safeguarding of civil society's opportunities to operate.

The USA, the EU and also individual countries, such as Sweden, have recently begun to pay attention to the situation. But, according to democracy expert Thomas Carothers, "broad, coordinated measures that are in proportion to the size of the problem" are still missing.

In Sweden, the shrinking space is discussed in connection with new policy documents, Sida contributes to a number of targeted initiatives and individual aid organizations support affected partners, participate in protest actions and more. But there are more measures that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Sida and aid organizations can consider:

- Measures against the hardening climate for civil society are not just about dealing with current problems in individual projects and programs, but should be addressed at policy level. Overall approaches to different aspects of the shrinking space need to be discussed.

- The discussion needs to be broadened from being only about civil society to addressing the conditions for aid that will promote democracy and human rights, the roles of various actors and more.

- Swedish civil society organizations need to exchange experiences and collaborate with each other and with other aid actors at national and international level.

- The Swedish embassies should increase the dialogue with civil society in partner countries, including with organizations outside the capitals.

- In order to continue operating in countries with shrinking space, organizations may need to adapt their efforts and direct more support to activities that are tolerated by the authorities. Experience so far suggests that working at the local level can be such an opportunity.

- More qualified situation analyzes, better documentation and space to draw lessons are needed. Tough times and rapid changes require a good basis for decision-making.

- Support for partner organizations in the South needs to be adapted to the hardening climate and what the organizations themselves demand.

- Sida's requirements for partner organizations should be adapted to the new difficulties faced by these organizations. In order for the civil society organizations' added value not to be lost, it is also important that they are seen as independent actors, not executors of Sweden's development agenda.

- A greater focus on accountability towards the people who will benefit from the efforts can be a way to increase the legitimacy of programs and projects - and thus make it more difficult for the authorities to intervene against them.

Finally: When global civil society is experiencing an increasingly harsh climate, it is particularly unfortunate that aid to civil society organizations is declining. Regardless of the costs of receiving refugees, the government should reconsider proposed cuts. A weaker civil society risks in the long run contributing to poorer respect for human rights - and thus more people being forced to flee.

Agneta Gunnarsson

On April 26, Agneta Gunnarsson will present the report Shrinking space for civil society by one breakfast seminar at Arena idea.

This is a debate article. The author is responsible for analysis and opinions in the text.

Do you also want to write a debate article for Uttvecklingsmagasinet? Contact us at

Share this: