Discussion Paper

No. 2018-80 | November 09, 2018
Civil society in times of change: shrinking, changing and expanding spaces and the need for new regulatory approaches
(Submitted as Global Solutions Paper)


The relationship between many G20 governments and organized civil society has become more complex, laden with tensions, and such that both have to find more optimal modes of engagement. In some instances, state-civil society relations have worsened, leading some experts and activists to speak of a “shrinking space” for civil society. How wide-spread is this phenomenon? Are these more isolated occurrences or indeed part of a more general development? How can countries achieve and maintain an enabling environment for civil society? The authors suggest that much of the current impasse results foremost from outdated and increasingly ill-suited regulatory frameworks that fail to accommodate a much more diverse and expanded set of civil society organizations (CSO). In response, they propose a differentiated model for a regulatory framework based on functional roles. Based on quantitative profiling and expert surveys, moreover, the paper also derives initial recommendations on how governments and civil society could find ways to relate to each other in both national and multilateral contexts.

Data Set

JEL Classification:

F5, L31, H7, K33


  • Downloads: 767


Cite As

Helmut K. Anheier, Markus Lang, and Stefan Toepler (2018). Civil society in times of change: shrinking, changing and expanding spaces and the need for new regulatory approaches. Economics Discussion Papers, No 2018-80, Kiel Institute for the World Economy. http://www.economics-ejournal.org/economics/discussionpapers/2018-80

Comments and Questions

Anonymous - Referee report
December 03, 2018 - 08:01

This paper asks how widespread the phenomenon of shrinking spaces for civil society really is and what states can do to reverse this phenomenon. The authors’ argument focuses on regulatory frameworks that they consider ‘outdated and ill-suited’ to fit an increasingly diverse set of CSOs. They recommend a more differentiated ...[more]

... approach to CSOs that does justice to the complexity of the organisations themselves and suggest a differentiation of CSOs depending on whether they qualify as service providers, civic engagement, private support for the public good, or social investment. They suggest initiating a high-level Commission to analyse and develop best practices for CSO regulatory frameworks.
The paper is a nice read and introduces the reader into a variety of theoretical and empirical literature on CSOs. It draws on quantitative country profiles using VDem data to assess whether spaces are shrinking for CSOs in different regime types and on expert surveys to better understand the issues that CSOs are facing. The second part of the paper then zooms into different regulatory regimes.
While the claims in the paper seem academically well-founded and the suggestions appear highly plausible, I would recommend working out the connection between the two parts of the paper more clearly. The paper spends quite some time on outlining the shrinking spaces argument and portraying the expert survey results, but this does not seem to systematically feed into the subsequent discussion about the need and the proposals for regulatory reform. Is there a systematic variation between shrinking spaces in certain countries and their regulatory practices? If not, the redesign of regulatory issues may not speak to the problem of shrinking spaces.
In addition, the authors may want to consider reducing some redundancies by restructuring the paper to only discuss the various CSO functions (theoretical and empirical) in one paragraph.
I would also recommend portraying CSO developments over a large time horizon (VDem data should allow this, I guess) to enable the reader to better understand the degree to which spaces have indeed (not?) shrunk if compared, for instance, to the early 1990s.
Finally, it would be nice to have some more proof or references for the statement that “…some democracies […] more or less passively let civil society space slowly erode either through the impact of other policies (mostly anti-terrorist, anti-corruption, and national security related legislations and measures) or lack of reform.”

Stefan Toepler - Response to referee
January 08, 2019 - 14:12

We are grateful for the reviewer’s feedback and generally supportive stance. The reviewer recommended strengthening the connections between the two parts of the paper, wondering about systematic variation between shrinking spaces and regulatory practices. We believe this generally to be the case. What we neglected to emphasize in the ...[more]

... original draft is that countries typically shrink civic space through regulation. So in the extreme cases (e.g., Russia’s Foreign Agent Law, China’s Overseas NGO Law), there is a clear and direct correlation between the two. For the vast majority of G20 countries where there is more erosion than active shrinking, our expert survey suggests that perceived needs for regulatory reform at least coincide with perceptions of erosion.
The reviewer also suggested to reduce redundancies. In response, we moved some material from the first into the second part. We then significantly restructured and consolidated the second part, which should also help with strengthening the connections between the two and revamped the conclusion to to bring it all together and point to the fundamental issues.
Looking at developments over a larger time horizon was another suggestion. We agree that this would be both interesting and analytically meaningful in charting the rise of NGOs and civil society since the immediate post-WW II era. From the 1970s and through the Reagan/Thatcher era of the 1980s, the states of the Western industrial world and their public policies failed to fully recognize the socio-economic roles of the sector and these two decades should represent a lack of needed reforms, not entirely dissimilar to what we see in some democracies today, and potentially a tendency towards eroding spaces. 1989 and the rise of civil society in its immediate aftermath, however, changed the roadmap considerably. The need to revamp, or better establish, legal regulation for civil society in the former Warsaw Pact countries sparked regulatory reform efforts in Western Europe as well and propelled the creation of ‘enabling’ legal frameworks for NGOs into the Good Governance agenda in global development policy. Several development institutions issued guidelines for regulatory reforms in the mid-to-late 1990s, including the World Bank’s Handbook of Good Practices for Laws Relating to NGOs. This push opened spaces for civil society across the globe that are now, over the past decade or so, being closed again. We agree that it makes sense to try to follow these developments using V-Dem data, but feel that the complexity of the argument would overburden this paper and requires its own separate treatment in a follow up paper.
Finally, the reviewer asked for support of our contention that democracies allow space to erode through terrorism, security etc. policies. In the revision, we will add some references on the impact of the Financial Access Task Force (FATF), as well as some other literature on security and terrorism policies and their effects on civil society.

Lev Jakobson, National Research University Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia - Comments
December 04, 2018 - 08:51

The paper “Civil society in times of change: shrinking, changing and expanding spaces and the need for new regulatory approaches" by Helmut K. Anheier, Markus Lang, and Stefan Toepler stands out as very timely and indicative of the significance of global transformations in the regulatory frameworks for government-civil society relations. ...[more]

... Equally noteworthy are the insights as to the need of updating the effective regulatory frameworks to support the new functional roles of NGOs and their innovative potential.

However, I would like to note that with regard to Russia (as follows from Appendix 1), the paper replicates the prevailing one-sided approach of Western experts fixated on the restrictions introduced by the “foreign agents’” law and overlooking a different trend: a significant series of laws promoting government-NGO cooperation and engaging NGOs in the delivery of essential social services. Thus the conclusions about the country’s civil society status and trajectory seem not sufficiently grounded in the richness of the empirical material provided by the Russian expert involved in the preparation of this paper as well as by the findings of other important studies of the dual nature of Russian NGO policies (e.g. Salamon L. M., Benevolenski V., Jakobson L. I. Penetrating the Dual Realities of Government–Nonprofit Relations in Russia // Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations. 2015. Vol. 26. No. 6. P. 2178-2214).

Stefan Toepler - Response to Prof. Jakobson
January 08, 2019 - 14:15

Thank you very much for your comment. We appreciate and agree with your point. Accordingly, we chose to include shifting and expanding spaces in the title to indicate that there is more complexity to the issue than what the one-directional shrinking or closing space literature would suggest. In the literature ...[more]

... on hybrid and authoritarian regimes, two types of civil society organizations (CSOs) are generally recognized: critical—mostly advocacy—CSOs pursuing agendas perceived as political, on the one hand; and coopted—typically mass--organizations, used by the regime to mobilize or placate the population on the other. You point to the emergence of social service providers as a third type of CSO that currently sees its space expanding in Russia, which we believe is also the case in China (as we mentioned briefly in the second part), which reflects of course long-standing patterns in the West. We believe this issue supports our call to adapt regulatory frameworks (and our analytical models) to take better account of differences in form and functional roles of CSOs. In the revision, we add additional language to acknowledge the duality of policy postures more clearly.