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 The authors suggest that much of the current impasse results foremost from outdated and increasingly ill-suited regulatory frameworks that fail to accommodate a much more diverse and expanded set of civil society organizations (CSO).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: 290


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 The authors’ argument focuses on regulatory frameworks that they consider ‘outdated and ill-suited’ to fit an increasingly diverse set of CSOs.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.”

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).