Discussion Paper
No. 2017-45 | July 13, 2017
Helmut K. Anheier
Civil society challenged: towards an enabling policy environment
(Published in Global Solutions Paper)


The roles of non-governmental or civil society organizations have become more complex, especially in the context of changing relationships with nation states and the international community. In many instances, state–civil society relations have worsened, leading experts to speak of a “shrinking space” for civil society nationally as well as internationally. The author proposes to initiate a process for the establishment of an independent high-level commission of eminent persons (i) to examine the changing policy environment for civil society organizations in many countries as well as internationally, (ii) to review the reasons behind the shrinking space civil society encounters in some parts of the world and its steady development in others, and (iii) to make concrete proposals for how the state and the international system on the one hand and civil society on the other hand can relate in productive ways in national and multilateral contexts.

JEL Classification:

F5, L31, H7, K33


Cite As

[Please cite the corresponding journal article] Helmut K. Anheier (2017). Civil society challenged: towards an enabling policy environment. Economics Discussion Papers, No 2017-45, Kiel Institute for the World Economy. http://www.economics-ejournal.org/economics/discussionpapers/2017-45

Comments and Questions

Alena Kimakova, School of Public Policy and Administration, York University, Toronto, Kanada - Comments
August 21, 2017 - 09:54
The paper’s focus on the issues of civil society or non-government organizations (NGOs) – their funding challenges, regulatory hurdles and growing importance in supplementing government provision of social services, for example – are timely and important. The overview of the theoretical frameworks for the interaction between governments and NGOs is also helpful for explaining and analyzing their often complex and evolving relationships. However, the proposal to “initiate a process for the establishment of an independent high-level commission of eminent persons” that would involve representatives of “governments plus leading academic(s)” is both baffling and dangerous. It is baffling because: • governments are political/partisan rather than “independent”; and • “leading academics” and other “eminent persons” are ultimately representative of the mainstream and of an elitist, patronizing approach to policy making which stands in stark contrast to the grassroots nature of civil society organizations that often play the very important role of innovators in society, which the paper duly recognizes. To reinforce these concerns, consider a few examples in the Canadian context: • Indigenous communities have faced a history of violation of their rights, severe forms of government interventions in their lives and continue to face a multitude of social problems requiring intervention. However, can we continue to prescribe public policy approaches and social programs to survivors of residential schools and their families without their input into the policy design process? • LGBTQ rights activists were not so long ago in an outright confrontational position with governments. Without their activism, we would not have the policies and programs we currently take for granted in place and they continue to evolve. And who is to say that the next in line government apology will not be towards Greenpeace? • Policies and programs aimed at combating homelessness have typically resulted in failure. Who are the “experts” on the issue of homelessness that we should consult for the development of new programs and structures to tackle the problem? Academics with PhDs on the subject matter, front-line social workers or should we also include homeless persons and their families? Increasingly, the emphasis in the policy making process has been widespread and inclusive consultations, including marginalized groups and their lived experiences. Academics have a role to play in this process – their decentralized network with resources that are limited, but still a significant and independent complement to civil society resources, can counteract partisanship and elitism as long as they maintain a cooperative relationship with NGOs. Community-driven research is one approach that some universities or academic units within them have adopted and that is more likely to yield policy solutions to the issues at hand outlined in the paper. Unfortunately, economics in particular has been one of the fields that has remained in the “ivory tower” of academics rather than engaging in dialogue with NGOs or even governments. Other issues that remain somewhat unclear or confusing in the paper are: - The focus keeps changing between the G20 and international organizations or international context. If the context is to be wider, international, then again input needs to invited from developing countries and their NGOs to ensure their needs, which may be unique, are also met. And an argument can be made that the regulatory framework for NGOs in G20 countries will have some impact – intentional or unintentional - also on international or local NGOs operating in developing countries. - The number of NGOs is the focus in Figure 1, but how much can their number in itself tell us without considering measures of their size (funds at disposal, staff, clients served, etc.) or autonomy? To put it simply, NGOs and the communities they serve ought to be included as equal or lead partners in the design of policies and regulations that affect their operations.

Helmut K. Anheier - Reply to comment
September 11, 2017 - 11:13
Thank you for your comment and examples in the Canadian context. The proposed Commission as a whole has to reflect a diversity of views, perspectives, experiences and fields. You rightfully point out that governments and academics are not unbiased. What matters most, however, is the overall composition of the Commission. NGOs and civil society representatives should be included, and as part of a balanced membership that reflects a diversity of views.

Marco Ratti - General + Italy
August 24, 2017 - 13:38
Hallo, the paper is useful and timely. So is the proposal for a high level committee, though I am not sure what the overlap may be with Civil-20 and thus whether it makes sense to duplicate. Also I guess that EU action is both more likely (as a prosecution of the past Commission's Social Economy Initiative) and more effective than G-20 with member states. But I admit I am not steeped in these matters. I comment to take issue with two segments, one of general interest and the other about Italian data. General interest: I think the claim that we assist to a "shrinking space" for CSOs is underdocumented. Figures are essentially only for international CSOs which in many advanced countries (including mine) are a tiny minority of CSOs. I am aware that recent national figures are hard to come by and often noncomparable. But while the general idea that cross-national action should be taken urgently to ensure living space for CSOs can be based on principle, its urgency should be based on some kind of alarm. If the alarm is limited to international CSOs, the paper should state so. Also, and especially under such a focus, the link between restrictive actions on international CSOs and the refugee crises should be explored a little better, also to forestall political blocking of the issue by isolationist countries. Italy: the claim in Table 1 that Italy has seen no legislative action is wrong. The country enacted last year (Law no.106, June 2016) a legal framework for the whole of the Third Sector, brought under a common definition for the first time. Implementing regulations have been passed including a new Code of the Third Sector (August 2017), Social Enterprise (July 2017), universal civil service, public funding ("5 per mil" of income tax revenues allotted to CSOs) and other matters. It is true that some of the new rules are somewhat more stringent than old ones (esp on accountability issues with some mildly costly reporting obligations) but an option to remain in the old system is provided and many openings are also contained in the new law, especially as regards productive organisations (social enterprises). Also there are provisions for self regulation as well as generalized Ministry of Labour oversight. So the legislative trend cannot be easily placed on an axis running from restrictive to encouraging. It is both. In the summer of 2017 new, independent regulations have also been passed on handling refugees at sea by CSOs. These are undoubtedly restraining and some CSOs have halted activity altogether, partly due to the behaviour of the government of Libya. This interacts with and pertains to my former, general point. Thanks for attention and best

Helmut K. Anheier - Reply to comment
September 11, 2017 - 11:14
Thank you for your comment and in particular for alerting us to the developments in Italy. The refugee crisis and the tensions between the Italian government and NGOs (code of conduct) are very telling for a need to address some of the fundamental issues of state-NGO relations. I also wholeheartedly agree with your claim that the shrinking space civil society encounters is under-documented and under-researched. We are therefore establishing an international research network to gather an evidence base for the proposed Commission to review.