What kinds of local institutions and external global levers and can most effectively and sustainably counter the closing of civil society spaces?

Lead Research Organisation: King's College London
Department Name: Political Economy


Across the world, from Hungary to Bolivia, Turkey to Thailand, expected democratic and civic dividends from economic growth appears far more fragile than anticipated. Alongside the well-researched, 'middle-income trap', many countries appear to be slipping into a 'fragile democracy trap', in which democratic and civic ambitions are neglected, partly in the expedient hope of keeping the economy moving. The resurgence of populism and political extremism in the West is matched by the suppression of key institutions, individuals and social movements in many developing countries and emerging economies. Wealthier so-called Liberal nations and global institutions' attempts to decelerate these trends are proving wholly inadequate.

Whilst the reasons for threats to democracy are complex, there is increasing recognition that for democracy to flourish, a strong, fully engaged civil society is imperative. Notions of civil society are diffuse and subjective (Edwards, 2014), but there is a general consensus that, in addition to its role in supporting democracies to thrive, a healthy civil society expands the realm of human connection to meet essential needs: well-being, social connections, civic participation, freedom of expression, and belonging. At the same time, the theories and practices of civil society are both being influenced by and influencing a new 'chaotic pluralism' - new means to access state information, digital opportunities that can empower people and organisations to communicate and mobilise locally and globally, and the globalisation of corporations and supply chains.

Although threats to the closing of civil society spaces are continually countered in a variety of ways, there is insufficient evidence about what works, and what works for the longer term. There is too limited understanding about what approaches - whether 'bottom up' from local institutions and social movements, or 'top down' from the interventions of other countries or global institutions - are most effective and sustainable in preventing the closing of civil society spaces. In addition to the rapid reaction that is so vital to countering threats when they arise - for instance, to freedom of expression, we need some broader theoretical underpinning to understand how national and global actors (state and non-state) can develop more proactive, holistic strategies, creating an overall enabling environment where a flourishing civil society is far more likely and attempts to close spaces far more rare.

To answer my research quest I believe that I would need:
- Explanatory breadth to develop a strong understanding and explanation of the diverse causes of this problem, linked to a theories of power in a development context
- Practical depth to apply this understanding to some detailed explorations of particular examples of where threats to the closing of civil society have been successfully or unsuccessfully countered, 'going inside the reality' of different contexts
- Normative space to synthesise the new knowledge gained from these explorations into frameworks and recommendations that have the potential to influence action.

I start with four beliefs which need deep interrogation:

- That whilst single-issue organisations and campaigns, will continue to be crucial actors, new inclusive institutional forms may also be needed - more flexible in terms of goals, areas of focus and mix of methods to achieve change.
- That there may be a particular role for the arts and culture within these institutions as mechanisms to keep civil society open in less predictable and less suppressible ways.
- That approaches to preventing the closing of civil society spaces need to pay far more attention to new understandings and insights around human behaviour and motivations
That, if states are serious about supporting civil society in other countries, they will need to revisit concepts and practices of power, especially relating to the notion of 'soft power'.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000703/1 30/09/2017 29/09/2027
1917845 Studentship ES/P000703/1 30/09/2017 24/02/2021 Joe Hallgarten