The Closing Space Problem and Democracy SupportFebruary 26, 2014
The Carnegie Endowment has put out an interesting report by Thomas Carothers and Saskia Brechenmacher that looks at the phenomenon of the ‘closing space’ for international democracy and human right support. The core argument is that more and more governments (and not just the usual authoritarian suspects) are enacting legal constraints on the operation of civil society groups and their ability to receive support from abroad in the form of money, training or other support. They argue that this is not an isolated or temporary phenomenon and stems from recipient governments gaining a better understanding of what democracy support is and what it appears (to them at least) it can do.
The report looks at the impact of this ‘pushback’ and what donor countries have done about this and what they can do about it. Part of the problem is that democracy support practices have developed piecemeal and that the sector is fragmented across different governments, different agencies within governments and non-governmental organizations and then across countries. This works against coordinated responses to host governments clamping down and learning across the sector. The authors make the point that they think that the people doing the learning are authoritarian governments – if one can force donors to back off from pro-democracy activities others will take similar actions. Also if donors don’t take the same view on what democracy support is for and what is acceptable then there is a lack of mutual support.
One of the strengths of this paper is that it recognizes the tensions between sovereignty and democracy support efforts, it also appreciates that typical liberal strategies of depoliticisation may not always work; for instance offering help with building the capability of political parties may not help if on one side you have a well entrenched incumbent versus poorly resourced challengers.
This is obviously a policy oriented report and it points towards the need to resolve some more fundamental theoretical and conceptual issues.
Firstly, to what extent is it acceptable to restrict foreign support for NGO and similar organizations? Given that most (all?) countries have limits on foreign political contributions or media ownership because of concerns about the impact on the political process a straight libertarian answer will lack credibility.
Secondly, is it possible for donor countries/agencies to reach a consensus on aims and means in democracy support work that would make it easier for them to work together and develop a coordinated response to the ‘closing space’ problem?