There was a time in the 1990s when development practitioners, former leftist revolutionaries, activists, and academics reified civil society. 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.
While the power and purity of civil society was certainly oversold, its potential power and check on authority was not lost on the new breed of autocrats that came to power in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Since then there has quietly emerged a tightening net of restrictions on civil society groups and their international partners’ support. Most surprising is this systematic backlash in Latin America, in many ways the home of the civil society swoon of two decades ago.
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. Among some of the steps typically taken are: throwing up barriers to entry by complicating registration processes; establishing intrusive or even onerous requirements for the operation of NGOs—including reporting requirements and taxation; restricting groups’ ability to receive outside support; and restricting political space for free speech, communication and association. Some of the most extreme cases have been in Russia, where the government of Vladimir Putin has imposed a series of restrictions, harassed local and international NGOs and recently kicked out the U.S. National Democratic Institute (NDI). Another of the more extreme examples has been Uzbekistan. In that country, the government has required that all foreign funding be funneled through a centralized state agency or specific bank account. And Algeria, Jordan, Sudan, and Turkmenistan have established rules that require government approval of foreign funding of NGOs or foreign funding of their specific activities.
Throughout the developing and democratizing world, international assistance from independent private foundations, as well as development organizations and NGOs, is essential to civil society groups in countries that lack the disposable income or the philanthropic culture to support the “third sector,” as it was known in the heyday.
Latin America has not been immune from these restrictions and the smearing of civil society organizations’ motives. In 2010, the Venezuelan National Assembly passed the Defense of Political Sovereignty and National Self-Determination law that prohibits NGOs that receive international assistance from monitoring public bodies or defending political rights. Similarly, the President of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, has attempted to marginalize the election monitoring group Participación Ciudadana, claiming that it—and by association all forms of internationally supported election observation—were part of an imperialist plot. And Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Honduras and Peru have all attempted to take steps—some with success—to limit or assert control over local NGOs and international support for their work.
Yet, despite the development frenzy over civil society in the 1990s—which so came to dominate development discussions in DC that Tom Carothers once commented “what did we talk about before civil society?”—the response among development practitioners and former civil society experts against the crackdown in Latin America has been relatively timid. 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.
In June 2011, the Organization of American States General Assembly adopted the resolution “Promotion of the Rights of Freedom of Assembly and Association in the Americas” that reaffirmed “the right, individually and in association with others, to solicit, receive and utilize resources for the express purpose of promoting and protecting human rights and fundamental freedoms through peaceful means.” Before this the OAS’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights offered its opinion urging member states from refraining from policies and actions that restricted “the financing of human rights organizations.”
If civil society was so crucial to development or—in the trendy parlance of the time—sustainable development in the 1990s, what explains this timid response from development practitioners today? Part of it, as Carothers and Brechenmacher explain in “Closing Space” are the different agendas of groups that support civil society. Groups such as the National Endowment for Democracy and USAID in its democracy programs have been more forward-leaning in promoting more political civil society groups. And certainly the rhetoric and practice of President George W. Bush administration of regime change didn’t help in raising suspicions—and support for the backlash—of U.S. public funding for civil society. Nor did specifically political programs, like USAID’s Cuba program. The program to support Cuban independent civil society was tied to the embargo-tightening 1996 Helms Burton law, linking it both to an unpopular and ineffective policy and to the explicit goal of regime change.
Nevertheless, the lack of a coherent response from one-time civil society champions raises a question: can you really differentiate civil society engaged in political and democratic activism from the imputed critical role of civil society in sustainable development?
There is also something else at work in the region: the fraying consensus over democratic commitments and norms. The Commission’s statement and the OAS’s resolution are welcome voices of collective support. However, both of those institutions have also been caught in the backlash against democracy assistance and international democratic norms.
As we detail in a forthcoming report, “Liberals, Rogues & Enablers,” not only have a handful of governments sided with autocratic governments in a number of international forums on issues of human rights and democracy, many—including giants like Brazil—have preferred to stay on the sidelines. The result is a complicit weakening of the international system and consensus over democratic norms, including in the legitimacy and importance of civil society to development.
Twenty years may seem like a long time, but in the development community it’s just a blip in the endless discussion of how economies and societies evolve sustainably. Unfortunately, like in the fashion world, trends seem to come and go quite quickly in the development community. But unlike the fashion world, the whole-hearted embrace and defense of civil society—unlike the modified leg warmers and high-waisted jeans I’ve been seeing on the streets of New York City—I fear aren’t coming back any time soon.