More on the Closing Space ProblemFebruary 16, 2016
I’ve written before about the ‘closing space problem’ where NGOs are faced by restrictive legislation on their operations and especially constraints on foreign funding. There’s an interesting addition to this literature by Jonas Wolff and Annika Elena Poppe which is worth the attention of public diplomacy researchers. They point out that much comment from Northern NGOs and governments tends to assume an unfettered right of freedom of association and an unlimited right to receive foreign funding. In contrast Southern governments tend to call on the norms of sovereignty as the basis for imposing restrictions. While the advocacy literature tends to see these claims as window dressing for political repression they argue that this should be seen as contest over norms: not least because Northern states impose restrictions on foreign funding of political parties. They also argue that donor states ought to take a more nuanced view on the issue, for instance distinguishing between restrictions on foreign funding and broader restrictions on civil society.
I think that this is an interesting issue for students of public diplomacy because the whole normative basis of the practice is rarely explicitly addressed. On one side there is a whole practice of state to state agreements where there is approval given to public diplomacy activities but there is also a strand of Western statecraft that would take the refusal to allow public diplomacy access as invitation to undertake it – based on human rights norms or a broader liberal political theory.
Jonas Wolff and Annika Elna Poppe, From Closing Space to Contested Spaces: Reassessing Current Conflicts over International Civil Society Support (Frankfurt: Peace Research Institute Frankfurt, 2015)