How State Restrictions Are Reshaping Civic Space Around the World

Soldiers try to stop protesters in Bishoftu, Ethiopia, during a declared state of emergency. May 4, 2017 (Associated Press)

In April 2017, the Russian Ministry of Justice designated the Kola Ecological Center, a small environmental group in Russia’s Murmansk region, a “foreign agent.” The organization’s offense? It had advised regional authorities on nuclear waste handling and opposed plans to extend the run time of a local nuclear power plant—and, importantly, it had accepted Norwegian funding in the past. It now joins more than 150 Russian NGOs for whom the foreign agent label has led to crippling fines, onerous lawsuits, and, in the most extreme cases, liquidation.

Russia is not an isolated case. Governments around the world are cracking down on civil society activism. Pointing to threats of terrorism or the need to protect national sovereignty, they are erecting new barriers to the operations and funding of NGOs, harassing and demonizing civic activists, and criminalizing dissent through expansive anti-terrorism laws. Between 2014 and 2016, more than 60 countries restricted citizens’ freedom of assembly and civil society’s ability to access funding.

This phenomenon has multiple drivers. After a decade of rapid expansion in the 1990s, democratic progress has stalled in many parts of the world. Newly assertive illiberal regimes are reaffirming strong sovereignty norms and pushing back against cross-border political assistance. At the same time, entrenched political and economic elites increasingly fear the power of civic activism; popular uprisings throughout the Middle East and the post-communist world have sparked a new wave of preemptive measures aimed at deterring future civic mobilization.

What is the local impact of these restrictions? How do civil society organizations adapt to a context of shrinking civic space? To answer these questions, it is instructive to look at three cases that have been at the forefront of this global trend: Russia, Egypt, and Ethiopia. In all three countries, governments have imposed sweeping restrictions on associational life. Smear campaigns, state harassment, and funding regulations have weakened independent groups, forcing them to reorient or scale back activities and given rise to new organizational models.

A Widening Net of Legal Constraints

Governments have become increasingly adept at using bureaucratic and legal tools to marginalize and obstruct civil society organizations. Complex registration, permitting, and auditing requirements create ample opportunities for authorities to disrupt activities that are considered threatening, or press charges based on alleged violations.

In Russia, Egypt, and Ethiopia, civil society organizations have had to wrestle with a widening net of regulatory and legal constraints that limit their access to funding, hinder their outreach and advocacy work, and increase their vulnerability to legal harassment. For example, as of November 2016, Russian authorities had launched 235 judicial proceedings against NGOs for alleged noncompliance with government regulations—in addition to 98 cases initiated by NGOs themselves to challenge government fines and interference. These types of cases require significant resources, time, and organizational capacity. In Egypt, 41 of the country’s most prominent human rights organizations are currently under investigation over alleged funding violations; police raids, interrogations, asset freezes, and detentions have made their work increasingly risky and difficult.

In addition to heightened administrative and legal harassment, activists fear prosecution under sweeping anti-terrorism measures. Ethiopian authorities have used the 2009 Anti-Terror Proclamation to selectively target journalists, lawyers, and civil society leaders. In Egypt, president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in September 2014 amended Article 78 of the penal code to ban the receipt of foreign funding for any activity that harms “national interests”—a clause that  purportedly targets terrorist groups, but could easily be used to prosecute civic activists. These  measures have led to a pervasive climate of fear, pushing prominent human rights defenders to go into exile and leading others to censor their work.

A Difficult Funding Landscape

Funding restrictions have proven particularly stifling. In Russia and Egypt, many civil society groups have backed away from foreign funding in fear of stigmatization and judicial harassment. In Ethiopia, the 2009 Charities and Societies Proclamation effectively bars a wide range of advocacy and rights organizations from receiving external support—while preserving access to such funding for development and service delivery organizations.

In all three countries, independent NGOs face a difficult domestic funding landscape, particularly if they want to continue working on policy and rights issues. Activists have adopted different coping strategies. In Ethiopia, hundreds of organization decided to abandon rights-based programming and shift their focus toward politically neutral capacity-building and local service delivery in order to preserve their access to foreign support. A 2011 survey found that 70% of development NGOs and 44% of human rights organizations changed their mandates and activities in response to the government’s NGO regulations. For example, groups that previously worked on juvenile justice and child labor have moved toward providing direct support to vulnerable children.

Others have tried to raise money from domestic sources—often with limited success. Private sector donors in all three countries remain reluctant to fund civic activities that could attract the ire of state authorities. Accepting state funding, if available, risks compromising organizational independence. In Russia, the government has significantly expanded its support for domestic NGOs, yet the bidding process is opaque and generally favors apolitical or pro-government groups. A case in point: The Russian Orthodox Church has been one of the biggest beneficiaries in recent years, with church-affiliated groups receiving over $3 million between 2013 and 2015.

As a result, NGOs have had to increasingly rely on individual donations. Organizations that can draw on volunteers or complement their activities with income-generating work have generally proven most resilient; many nevertheless have had to scale back their work. Examples abound: In Egypt, prominent NGOs such as the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights has downsized its staff and doubled down on key priority areas, such as defending those detained and convicted under the country’s new repressive legal regime. Similarly, Ethiopia’s largest human rights monitoring organization, the Human Rights Council, was forced to close nine of its 12 branch offices and cut the number of field investigators from 17 to four, which has curtailed its ability to effectively collect and verify information about human rights abuses.

Diminished Domestic and International Reach

In this context of shrinking resources and heightened harassment, activists struggle to forge new domestic and international partnerships and reach a broad audience with their work. Government restrictions often aim at undermining collaboration between civil society actors. For example, in Ethiopia, NGO regulations have weakened the role of umbrella organizations, which are no longer allowed to engage in advocacy work. In Russia, service-oriented organizations have become more wary of cooperating with NGOs that have been stigmatized as foreign agents, fearful that doing so my taint their reputation and threaten their access to state support.

Budget cuts and government pressure also impede cooperation with international counterparts. In Egypt, travel bans have repeatedly barred activists from traveling abroad. Between June 2014 and November 2016, Egyptian security services imposed at least 80 travel bans against lawyers, academics, and activists, often without formal justification. In addition, foreign researchers and staff have been prevented from entering the country, straining cross-border collaboration. For local activists, participating in international forums can also be life-threatening: In both Egypt and Ethiopia, for example, human rights groups have withdrawn their participation in Universal Periodic Review processes in fear of reprisals.

Lastly, government restrictions and smear campaigns disrupt NGOs’ access to policymakers and state institutions. Russian government officials have been discouraged from collaborating with blacklisted groups, putting an end to longstanding training programs and data-sharing efforts. For example, Moscow city authorities refused to prolong their lease agreement with the migrant rights NGO Civic Assistance Committee after the latter was labeled a foreign agent, and the Federal Migration Service stopped taking part in the group’s seminars. Other groups have faced barriers accessing schools and other public institutions, which undercuts their effectiveness and reach.

Beyond Human Rights Groups

Organizations that challenge entrenched political and economic interests have often borne the brunt of state harassment and repression. Yet in Russia, Egypt, and Ethiopia, the effects of shrinking civic space have been felt far beyond the narrow circle of human rights and pro-democracy groups.

In all three countries, governments have targeted organizations viewed as engaged in “political” work—yet state authorities’ definition of political activities is often extremely expansive. Russian officials have labeled HIV/Aids prevention and treatment organizations, peacebuilding groups, and independent research center as “foreign agents.” In Ethiopia, funding restrictions have targeted hundreds of groups that had pursued rights-based approaches and programming in areas as diverse as children’s rights, gender equality, and conflict resolution, forcing them to shift their areas of focus.

In an even starker example, the Egyptian government since 2013 has shut down more than 1,500 religiously affiliated charities and service delivery groups, accusing them of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood’s political agenda. The main consequence has been a growing gap in service provision, as many of these groups had provided essential support to poor and marginalized communities. One prominent medical charity, El Gameya El Shareya, had maintained more than 1,000 branches across the country—it now operates at a third of its capacity. Egyptian officials have also closed down community groups with no apparent policy agenda or religious affiliation—potentially as the latter provide a space in which civic participation and local leadership can flourish.

In addition, civil society organizations in all three countries have had to wrestle with new funding constraints—no matter their area of work. In Egypt and Russia, international donors have scaled back their grant-making in fear of legal entanglements. The Russian law on undesirable organizations enabled the blacklisting of several key United States civil society donors; other foundations chose to withdraw preemptively. Egyptian development organizations have struggled to obtain foreign funding approvals from the Ministry of Social Solidarity, even when their projects appear to be in line with official development objectives. In Ethiopia, regulations forcing NGOs to spend no more than 30% of their budgets on administrative overhead—defined to include training, transport, and evaluation costs and other key expenses—have pushed development groups to scale back their operations, particularly in rural areas.

Toward New Organizational Models

Faced with escalating restrictions, some traditional NGOs have begun moving toward alternative organizational structures. In Russia, at least 31 organizations that had been designated foreign agents have shut down—but several continue operating in a more informal and fluid manner. For example, the Russian human rights NGO “Freedom of Information Foundation” decided to regroup as a coalition of lawyers who continue their work without formal status, while also maintaining a registered entity abroad. Groups are exploring new funding models that could generate greater community buy-in; some have transferred their advocacy activities to non-institutionalized initiatives while doubling down on legal defense and monitoring work. Others have relocated abroad or continue their activities virtually. For example, escalating government pressure in Egypt led the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies to move its international and regional programs to Tunisia; other organizations and activists have followed.

Examples from Ethiopia, Egypt, and Russia indicate that as civic space shrinks, traditional models of professionalized civil society work come under pressure. Operating without formal status creates new challenges: It becomes more difficult to raise funding from international partners, build specialized expertise, or access public institutions and state authorities. This does not mean the end of civic engagement and mobilization. In all three countries, sporadic protest movements and informal coalitions have emerged, often focused on local grievances. Citizens form new volunteer initiatives to address service delivery gaps and community concerns, and—to the extent possible—use cultural activities and virtual platforms to organize around shared interests. However, these efforts often remain divorced from larger policy discussions—until citizens pour to the streets to voice their discontent, as evidence by recent demonstrations in Russia and Ethiopia. The weakening of traditional civil society organizations leaves key gaps in the monitoring and reporting on government abuses, the representation of marginalized communities, the dissemination of alternative policy proposals, and the overall vibrancy of public debate.

Saskia Brechenmacher is Associate Fellow, Democracy and Rule of Law Program, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. This article was based on the Carnegie report “Civil Society Under Assault: Repression and Responses in Russia, Egypt, and Ethiopia.”