There was a time in the 1990s when development practitioners, former leftist revolutionaries, activists, and academics reified civil society, notes Christopher Sabatini, PhD, the editor of www.LatinAmericaGoesGlobal.org and an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA).
There was nothing it couldn’t do, from mobilizing citizens’ participation to energizing political parties to building civic culture to leveraging state reform. And foundation and development assistance followed, fostering and sustaining human rights organizations, election monitoring groups, women’s organizations, and journalists’ networks, adds Sabatini, a former Latin America program director at the National Endowment for Democracy:
Global organizations and scholars like the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law (ICNL) and Tom Carothers at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace have carefully documented the rise of anti-NGO regulations in places like Russia, China, Egypt, and Belarus. All of those are sad, but, to be honest, somewhat expected given the infamously autocratic nature of the governments and, in cases like Russia and Egypt, their imperfect, fragile early democratic experiments. More surprising has been the clampdown in Latin America, often with lessons and examples taken from outside the hemisphere. According to a report by the World Movement for Democracy and ICNL, these restrictions on civil society and its support include a range of legal barriers.
“While the Journal of Democracy, ICNL, the international civil society network and think tank CIVICUS, and Carothers have written and advocated around the issue of what Carothers calls ‘push back,’ Reaction hasn’t reached the fevered pitch of the civil society-as-magic-bullet rhetoric and activity of years ago,” he notes.