Maintaining Civic Space in Backsliding Regimes (2017)

A Literature Review on Civic Space

Research Team:

In 2016, USAID’s Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance launched its Learning Agenda—a set of research questions designed to address the issues that confront staff in USAID field offices working on the intersection of development and democracy, human rights, and governance. This literature review—produced by a team of political scientists, geographers, and an anthropologist—synthesizes scholarship from diverse research traditions on the following Learning Agenda question:

How can citizens keep civic space from shrinking? What enables civic and political participation in countries where civil liberties have been lost? How do forms of civic and political engagement in such contexts differ from forms of engagement in contexts in which civil liberties are protected? Are some forms of civic and political engagement generally more tolerated in newly repressive contexts than others? How do civic actors adapt their engagement tactics to achieve their objectives?

The authors identify five strategies that have worked in at least some instances to pry open civic space under backsliding regimes:

  1. Alliance-and coalition-building with other domestic civil society groups, since larger groups have greater resources and can reach a larger audience.
  2. Indirect resistance and actions, such as charity provision, artistic expression, and local-level political involvement, since strategies that do not overtly confront the regime are less threatened and can still provide a space for community involvement, expression, and problem-solving.
  3. Non-violent contentious action, especially protest, which is more likely to be successful and have domestic and international appeal than violent action.
  4. Creative and careful use of digital technologies, since much of digital communication is beyond the reach of the state.
  5. Maintaining organizational autonomy from the government and international actors, since co-optation by the regime and affiliation with international actors risk compromising a group’s message and goals.