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I have heard arguments, mainly from government officials, that civil society is a western concept. Phooey. While the term might be a western coinage, the concept itself has been alive in almost all cultures for centuries. The pallisabhas in Bangladesh, the shuras of Afghanistan, the clans of Somalia, the caste panchayats in India are all forms of civil society and they have been around for centuries. In fact it is the formal Non Governmental Organisations that are amongst the last entrants into this mix.

An area of concern for development practitioners over the last few years has been the steadily shrinking space for civil society.  This is happening all over the world. A Civicus report states that “…in over 90 countries, governments are imposing laws, policies and actions that would severely restrict the space for civil society to operate, thereby inhibiting citizens’ right to organize and frustrating development.”

In extreme cases like North Korea, Eritrea and China, civil society organisations are just not allowed; there is, therefore, no question of space or any form of voice.

Another reason why space has shrunk is insecurity that does not allow access. We can see this in Somalia, Afghanistan and Syria.

There is little that one can really change about these and hence it becomes part of the context we work in.  What is of concern is the deliberate restrictions imposed on civil society space by governments. Even here not all spaces are shrinking. There is, for instance, little shrinking in the space of humanitarian or livelihood (health, education, income generation etc) service delivery.

Where there is serious shrinking of space is in the areas of (1) raising the voice of the powerless and (2) demanding accountability of governments and corporations. There was time when governments did not bother about accountability demanded of corporations. With merging of interests of governments and corporations that has changed. This space is what I am going to focus on in this post.

3-4 decades ago this was not a problem; there were so few, if any, NGOs raising voices that no one really saw them as threats. It is only recently when some NGOs have moved from

  1. service (inputs) delivery to mobilising people and encouraging them to raise their voices
  2. managing foreign money to (encouraging communities) demanding accountability of government spending (Maputo declaration on agriculture spending in Africa, for instance)

that governments are reacting.

Why and how are spaces shrinking? 

  • Authoritarian governments do not want to hear any opposing voice nor want their people to be aware. They use a number of methods to limit space
    • High taxation, funding limitations, making work permits difficult for expatriate staff etc. In some countries NGOs who want to ‘advocate’ cannot receive foreign funds. I agree with this position (here) but what happens when systems or poverty does not allow NGOs to raise money in that country?
    • Imposing confusing legislation open to interpretation: What happens is that there are a plethora of ‘compliances’ that NGOs need to adhere to. In practice government rarely demands compliance to all of them. However, when it is necessary, some bureaucrat or politician can always pull out some regulation that has never been applied and claim that the NGO has not complied.  This makes the whole process arbitrary and dependent on the whims of the person in power – a bit like the royalty in Britain before parliament stepped in and curbed the arbitrariness.
    • One of the strongest accusations that are levied against any civil society voice that challenges government is  of playing politics. Not surprising since all that the politicians are doing is protecting their space by eliminating possible future competition – typical law of the jungle where the alpha lion kills off all male cubs who could challenge him later.
  • In a number of post conflict countries or authoritarian countries the number of CSOs who are even aiming to raise people’s voices is limited. You can see this most in Africa – for one CSO which is genuinely trying to raise voice of people, there are a 100 who just want to deliver activities in whatever area they can raise funding for. Interestingly though, in cases where voices are raised, local organisations are much more aggressive as compared to INGOs who tend to be conservative. Again, not surprising as I found out while discussing risks in Tanzania when the community was less risk averse as compared to NGOs.
  • Civil society, either through fear or through perceived  fear, does not seek to challenge existing power structures but rather work on the periphery and in non-controversial areas. They are shrinking the space themselves. An insidious aspect that we can see in Africa especially is that a number of ambitious people are using NGOs as a vehicle of personal political advancement. They see their role not as empowering community but using funds they raise to provide service / inputs to people and build a constituency. Obviously this is not the case with everyone but it is common enough.
  • Civil Society itself in un-self-regulating. Whenever there is any evidence or perception of inappropriate behaviour on part of any organisation, government seizes a chance to step in and ‘regulate’. This is not a new phenomenon. When the sepoy mutiny broke out in India in 1857, the British government developed stricter controls on organisations of people by regulating them. Funnily (or sadly depending on your view) the Societies Registration Act, 1860 that the British issued is still applicable in democratic India.  
  • In fragile / failed states like Afghanistan, South Sudan, the DRC  or Somalia NGOs can work in any area including raising people’s voices; but in absence of any government it makes no difference since there is no system to shake up.

There is one overriding reason though. Authoritarian governments can act with impunity and limit civil society space just because they know that no one will object. A dictator can squeeze civil society space and violate human rights with nonchalance for years. They know  that so long as they show GDP growth and / or keep markets open and / or be a partner in the ‘war on terror’, no one powerful is really going to complain. This is just a shade different from the cold war days when Northern governments pumped in money to despots just to keep them on their side. The principle of  “He is a bastard but he is our bastard” is applicable even now.

Who really cares about civil society space?

Well. If no one else does, for starters civil society itself should. Shrinking space just means reduction in effectiveness. Any more shrinking as we can all go home and do something else for all the lasting good that we will be able to deliver.

NGOs are slowly realising that they have to wage a war on two fronts; the first with uncaring Northern governments and the second with despotic Southern Governments.

This is going to be a long hard war. It will involve sacrifices. It may involve ouster from some areas of work. Budget squeeze by donors. Are we ready?


(based on a discussion with Fran Equiza)