Civil Society Under Assault: Repression and Responses


The closing of civic space has become a defining feature of political life in an ever-increasing number of countries, notes Saskia Brechenmacher, an associate fellow in Carnegie’s Democracy and Rule of Law Program. Civil society organizations worldwide are facing systematic efforts to reduce their legitimacy and effectiveness, she writes in a new report:

Russia, Egypt, and Ethiopia have been at the forefront of this global trend. In all three countries, governments’ sweeping assault on associational life has forced civic groups to reorient their activities, seek out new funding sources, and move toward more resilient organizational models. Competing security and geopolitical interests have muddled U.S. and European responses, with governments divided over the value of aggressive pushback versus continued engagement.

Consequences and responses

  • Scaling back. Government restrictions have not only weakened human rights groups: advocacy, service delivery, and capacity-building groups have also faced funding shortages, bureaucratic hurdles, and government interference, forcing them to cut back and reorient their work.
  • Diminished societal reach. Smear campaigns and legal restrictions have undermined both horizontal ties among civic actors and vertical ties between activists and political elites, thereby reducing activists’ ability to form coalitions and influence policy debates.
  • Search for alternative funding. Funding restrictions have pushed groups to raise resources through crowdfunding, membership fees, and income-generating activities—often with limited success. Others have adapted by shifting their focus to less politically sensitive activities in order to qualify for foreign funding and government support.
  • Shift to new organizational models. Complex registration, reporting, and audit requirements and the constant threat of legal challenges have spurred some activists to abandon the traditional NGO model in favor of nonregistered and informal initiatives.
  • Hesitant diplomatic pushback. The competing security and geopolitical interests of Western governments vis-à-vis governments that restrict civil society have hindered coherent responses. As a result, civic space issues have frequently been sidelined at high-level meetings and decoupled from other areas of cooperation—resulting in incoherent messaging.
  • Tactical uncertainty. U.S. and European governments have also faced internal divisions over the effectiveness of aggressive pushback and isolation versus continued engagement and behind-the-scenes pressure, with the latter resulting in limited tactical successes but no overall change in the closing space trend.



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