New Space Race? How to create civic openings in authoritarian settings


Closing civic space is a critical issue, threatening basic democratic rights, and adverse trends have accelerated under COVID-19, notes a Professor at the UK’s Institute of Development Studies (IDS).

For the last five years, the Action for Empowerment and Accountability Research Program at IDS has been exploring the question of what forms of action strengthen citizen empowerment and democratic accountability in increasingly hostile environments. The research covers 22 countries, including Mozambique, Myanmar, Nigeria and Pakistan, which have legacies of conflict, military rule and authoritarianism, he writes for The Conversation.

A key pillar to supporting civil society abroad is to cultivate capable democratic leaders willing to work for reform in their own countries, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. Independent grantees with deep expertise, like the National Endowment for Democracy’s entities and Freedom House, are far wiser conduits for funding and training potential leaders than contractors who offer cookie-cutter programs and tend to micromanage, it suggests.

The pressure on civil society in the so called “shrinking humanitarian space” is only part of a bigger story, the “rise of impunity,” according to David Miliband, head of the International Rescue Committee.

“And that this impunity comes from and represents an imbalance in power, and that as we consider our responses as individuals, organizations, and as a sector, we need to think about what we do as part of a struggle to re-establish a balance of power between those with power and those without,” he told today’s AidEx 10th Anniversary Conference.

The current “democratic recession” is a consequence of the undermining of the post-1945  international rules-based order which was conceived as a bulwark against democratic erosion, he added in a speech on Civil Society and the Age of Impunity.  Such trends “are consequences of deliberate, intentional, and strategic choices made by state and non-state actors operating in conflict zones and crises around the world,” said Miliband, a former UK foreign minister.

Efforts are underway to mobilize governments to make commitments for democratic renewal and reform. But the focus instead should be on more intermediary outcomes, which can serve as building blocks for longer term democratic renewal, Gaventa adds, including:

  • increased visibility of previously excluded issues and voices;
  • improved access to higher levels of authority by local groups;
  • a strengthened sense of rights and citizenship among the citizenry;
  • greater responsiveness from authorities on certain concrete issues;
  • changing norms, including gender norms, increased expectations and cultures of accountability;
  • greater trust between people and public authorities, as well strengthened solidarity between groups.



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