18. Dezember 2018 | EDP Wire | Annika E. Poppe, Jonas Wolff

Democracy Promotion and the Challenge of Shrinking Civic Spaces

Dieser Wire-Beitrag ist Teil unserer neuen EDP Wire Series für die wir wöchentlich Beiträge aus unserem gemeinsamen EDP Policy Paper veröffentlichen. Aufbauend auf Johannes‘ Einschätzung der besorgniserregenden Entwicklungen in Bezug auf die Qualiät demokratischer Regime weltweit hinsichtlich politischer und ziviler Freiheitsrechte, richten Annika und Jonas ihr Augenmerk auf ein besonders bemerkenswertes Phänomen – Shrinking Spaces für zivilgesellschaftlicher Akteure – und diskutieren, wie diese internationale Demokratieförderung beeinflussen. In den nächsten Wochen werden wir zudem weitere Fragen beantworten, zum Beispiel ob Demokratie als Regierungssystem global im Niedergang begriffen ist, und wie Demokratieförderer und Akteure in verschiedenen Weltregionen mit Erfolgen und Scheitern von Demokratieförderungsaktivitäten umgehen.

Status quo

Over the past 15 years, civil society organizations (CSOs) in many countries all around the world have seen their room for maneuver severely reduced. State restrictions that constrain the space of civil society range from curtailing the freedoms of assembly and association to restricting access to financial resources to openly harassing individual CSOs and activists.[1] This phenomenon of “shrinking” or “closing spaces” is of immediate relevance for democracy promotion efforts. First, the curtailment of basic freedoms directly runs counter to any efforts at political liberalization. Second, restrictions often specifically target the external support of CSOs. In particular, with the spread of so-called NGO laws, many advocacy organizations engaged in politically “sensitive” areas such as human rights and democracy have seen their access to foreign funding significantly limited or entirely closed.[2]

While attempts to constrain civil society activity are certainly not a novelty, the recent trend of increasing restrictions is remarkable, as it concerns countries that have previously been relatively open to external democracy promotion. According to different estimates, since the turn of the century, between 40 and 60 countries have started to actively push back international support for democracy and human rights.[3] This trend covers countries from all world regions and all regime types. The most prominent cases include countries that experienced processes of authoritarianization such as Egypt, Ethiopia, Russia, and Venezuela. But increasing restrictions on international civil society support can also be observed in democratic regimes such as Ecuador, Hungary, India or Israel.


The phenomenon of shrinking spaces poses three challenges to those engaged in democracy promotion: as an operational challenge, the question is how democracy can be promoted in contexts of shrinking space. The diversity of democracy promoting entities, of actors on the “recipient” side as well as of the types of restrictions, make for a large number of different, context-specific operational challenges. External democracy promotion actors often face immediate constraints on their own work: the delay or denial of visa and residence permits, the flow of already allocated money or their activities becoming illegal through new laws, smear campaigns against their work, and sometimes even direct threats to the organization or individuals. Occasionally they also face fading support by their own governments, which are often concerned about not further alienating a partner government on the defensive. But even if external actors still act relatively unrestrainedly, their work is often hindered by restrictions their local partners are confronted with.

As a political challenge, the question is how democracy promoters can respond politically to shrinking spaces. The regular options for political responses by governments apply, ranging from public or quiet diplomacy, to political dialogue, to positive and negative incentives, such as conditional aid or sanctions. Many of those governments which have declared democracy promotion to be a key element of their foreign policy have, not surprisingly, so far responded hesitantly. Just as these governments never went out of their way to promote democracy in other countries – particularly not when this endangered other, more tangible interests – the recent wave of restrictions has not elicited a coherent or united response. On the contrary, the majority of governments took a long time to recognize, situate and begin to understand the phenomenon. Most responses so far have been limited to political dialogue and relatively mild diplomatic pressure. Developing coherent responses has been further complicated by the fact that more and more democratic states have themselves provided convenient templates for authoritarian states to emulate in this regard. For instance, the US-driven “War on Terror” has served as a key justification for increasing state oversight of civil society organizations all around the world.

As a normative challenge, the question is how democracy promotion can be preserved or restored as a legitimate type of external interference. Indeed, this might be the (often denied) key insight that the phenomenon of shrinking space has brought into sharper relief: promoting democracy in a country not one’s own is a political act that, even if invited, constitutes external interference. Consequently, the legitimacy of democracy promotion can be – and regularly is – contested. Over the past 15 years, governments all over the world have more openly and forcefully questioned the legitimacy of outside political activity in their country. And while their motives may indeed often lie in stabilizing their rule or in political power plays, their arguments are based on well-established international norms that are certainly contested, but are difficult to reject outright: national sovereignty, non-interference and self-determination.[4]


Whereas the operational challenges are being tackled more or less successfully in the daily activities of external democracy promoters, the political and normative challenges have turned out to be more difficult to deal with.

In terms of operational responses, many democracy promotion actors have already become creative in their daily work. While local CSOs and their external supporters at times entirely cease their activities, in many cases they manage to adapt pragmatically: they shift their work to conform to new restrictions or simply rebrand what they are doing, they change legal organizational form and/or upgrade their security standards. Thus, operational actors, in many cases, already use the room to maneuver to the extent that this is still possible.

For them to go further and rely on political backup a more coherent political response by “donor” governments is needed. As noted, this is mostly missing, since these governments are regularly conflicted and are restrained by other interests they are pursuing; take the Middle East for example (see van Hüllen in this report), where the European response is subdued by the overarching goal of stopping the flow of refugees, and where the United States has long been hesitant due to anti-terrorism and other strategic concerns. At a minimum here, governments should realign their foreign policies with regard to a do-no-harm approach. This means that, if actively engaging in countering shrinking spaces is not a realistic option, governments should at least make sure that they do not – passively or inadvertently – contribute to a further deterioration of the situation.

For governments seeking to actively engage, there are no easy ways to respond politically to shrinking spaces. All available strategic options come with risks and trade-offs. When devising country-specific response strategies, it might be useful to consider the range of options along two axes:

  1. When it comes to dealing with the restrictive context in a given country, democracy promoters can either adapt to the existing restrictions or try to change the circumstances and thus resist. The first option usually allows for some influence and can help threatened local CSOs to survive. But accepting the status quo risks bolstering the regime, while limited spaces are perpetuated. Resistance stays true to the original cause and may even help create and open spaces, but runs the risk of a counter reaction by the regime that increases threats on local CSOs and/or renders any international engagement impossible.
  2. When it comes to dealing with the “recipient” actors involved, external actors can choose to focus on mediation between the state and CSOs or aim at empowering civil society actors. The former can help alleviate tensions but risks further weakening the relative autonomy of the civil society sector. The latter offers direct help to weakened CSOs, but can also provoke intensified restrictions.[5]

Democracy support actors need to carefully mix and match these strategies (which are ideal types only) – always on the basis of a careful context-sensitive analysis of a given situation and with a view to the potentially ambivalent effects of any measures adopted.

Finally, the normative challenge to the endeavor of democracy promotion has yet to be fully recognized and tackled. Democracy promoting governments have displayed a clear tendency to ignore this issue. It might be fair enough in many cases to disqualify justifications by governments that restrict civil society space as thinly veiled attempts to weaken the opposition and consolidate power. Yet, entirely disregarding the justifications advanced misses the point that the controversy over civil society support challenges fundamental norms that guide and legitimate international democracy promotion. This normative challenge highlights the fact that these norms are not at all clearly spelled out: the legality as well as the legitimacy of external interference in the name of democracy does not rest on a sound or coherent footing. This calls for a serious global debate on international norm development that has barely begun – as difficult as such a debate will certainly be.


[1]     Thomas Carothers/Saskia Brechenmacher 2014: “Closing Space. Democracy and Human Rights Support under Fire”, http://ceip.org/1hBVQKk, 38–39; Douglas Rutzen 2015: Civil Society under Assault, in: Journal of Democracy, 26: 4, 28–39.

[2]     Kendra Dupuy/James Ron/Aseem Prakash 2016: “Hands Off My Regime! Governments‘ Restrictions on Foreign Aid to Non-Governmental Organizations in Poor and Middle-Income Countries”, in: World Development 84, 299–311.

[3]     Annika Elena Poppe/Jonas Wolff 2017: The Contested Spaces of Civil Society in a Plural World. Norm Contestation in the Debate about Restrictions on International Civil Society Support, in: Contemporary Politics, 23: 4, 469–488, here: 472.

[4]     See Poppe/Wolff 2017 (footnote 16).

[5]     Please note that empowering CSOs is not the same as resisting shrinking space, as CSOs may be directly supported with a view to enabling their adaptation to an increasingly restrictive context, just as mediation can be used as a strategy to resist the implementation of restrictive measures.

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