Siân Herbert
Publication Date
August 28, 2015

"What is the recent evidence of a global trend toward restricted space for civil society? Is the trend specific to particular thematic areas?"

There is consensus in the literature reviewed for this Governance and Social Development Resource Centre (GSDRC) rapid query that the space for civil society to act has been increasingly restricted in the past decade. This is a global phenomenon - occurring in different ways and not in all countries, but in all regions of the world and in all regime types (not just authoritarian countries). Restrictions on civil society space come from a range of actors: different levels of state actor (central, regional, local); security forces; businesses; organised crime; religious groups, etc. A variety of methods are used, including legal or quasi-legal, bureaucratic, financial, political, and security-related methods. A number of overlapping methods identified in the literature include:

  • Restrictions to the formation and registration of civil society organisations (CSOs);
  • Restrictions to the operation of CSOs;
  • Restrictions to funding and/or resourcing of CSOs (especially international);
  • Restrictions of rights to freedom of assembly;
  • Restrictions of rights to freedom of expression (e.g., speech, advocacy, public policy engagement);
  • Restrictions of rights to freedom of association (e.g., communication, cooperation with others);
  • Physical attacks (e.g., imprisonment, harassment, disappearances, execution, and impunity for perpetrators of attacks);
  • Verbal attacks (e.g., intimidation, undermining of civil society's legitimacy to work on an area);
  • Restrictions to the enabling environment of civil society; and
  • Co-option of civil society groups by government or other actors.

Forty-four percent of countries across the world have legislation specifically restricting foreign non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and/or foreign funding. This has increased over time. There have been an increasing number of physical and verbal attacks on CSOs and human rights activists. In response to large-scale civic mobilisations across the world, many governments have increased restrictions against the right to peaceful assembly. In 2014, CIVICUS documented "significant attacks" on fundamental civil society rights of free association, free assembly, and free expression in 96 countries. Freedom House (2015) found for the ninth consecutive year an overall decline in global political rights and civil liberties. The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) identifies that restrictions on the right to freedom have been growing in recent years across all regions and regime types in the world.

Across thematic areas, groups are targeted most where they are seen to challenge power, corruption, or the interests of dominant political parties or national or economic actors. Mostly, governments use restrictions to target groups whom they feel threatened by, or where targeting them benefits the government in some way. Civil society actors that engage in politically sensitive activities or human rights and democracy-related activities are particularly targeted.

General drivers are thought to include: concerns around sovereignty or foreign influence in domestic/national affairs; concerns over terrorism and extremism, which have prompted states to exercise more control over CSOs; aid effectiveness principles; political elites seeing civil society as a threat to political power; and concerns over the legitimacy and accountability of some NGOs.

General impacts are thought to include: organisations shifting to work on less sensitive issues, or to funding civil society through the government; organisations being shut down by governments or put into bureaucratic limbo; organisations shutting due to restrictions on foreign funding; or organisations attempting to represent themselves differently to the host government.

Using Kenya and Ethiopia as case study countries, the report asks: What were the underlying drivers behind the restrictions, and what impacts are the restrictions having on affected organisations and the outcomes they are trying to achieve?

However, at the same time, in some contexts, civil society has acquired new spaces and enabling environments. New technologies have increased the scale, speed, and scope of civil society activities (INTRAC, 2012). However, these aspects are not often explored in the literature on civil society space. GSDRC helpdesk research reports like this one are commissioned by the United Kingdom (UK) Department for International Development.


GSDRC website, May 10 2017. Image credit: Brussels Diplomatic