Cover page of the ACT Alliance synthesis report titled 'DEVELOPMENT NEEDS CIVIL SOCIETY - THE IMPLICATIONS OF CIVIC SPACE FOR THE SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOALS', showing a child flying a kite in a settlement area.

Development needs civil society

The Implications of Civic Space for the Sustainable Development Goals

Executive Summary

This report analyses the implications for the development of the recent wave of closures of civic space that has primarily affected human rights-based and liberal democratic organisations—non-governmental organisations (NGOs), civil society organisations (CSOs), and the media—in countries around the world. It was commissioned by the ACT Alliance from the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex, and included a literature review, 12 desk-based country studies (Bangladesh, Brazil, Cambodia, China, Colombia, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Myanmar/Burma, Nepal, Russia, Rwanda, and Zimbabwe), and four country case studies (Brazil, Cambodia, Nepal, and Zimbabwe).

The study concluded that tighter civic space has different implications for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in different settings, depending on how states use the power they gain from restricting civil society. Despite systematic differences in how this plays out in different political systems, shrinking civic space is overall highly likely to halt or reverse progress towards reducing inequality, ensuring inclusion, and improving sustainability because it is often precisely those at greatest risk whom civil society seeks to empower and protect. Many of the poorest and most marginalised are being ‘left behind by development’. Key conclusions about the impacts on specific SDGs include that:

  • Impacts on SDG 1, End poverty in all its forms everywhere, are unlikely to show up in aggregate national poverty statistics, but without civil society activism to highlight inequalities, exclusionary patterns of economic growth will entrench and deepen divisions. Economic crises and shocks that devastate the poor and marginalized are more common where civil society is unable to hold governments to account over macroeconomic mismanagement, public services, or emergencies.
  • With respect to SDG 2, End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture, closing civic space entails a reduction of the influence of civic actors on food and agriculture policymaking; more latitude for land- and resource-grabbing, impacting in particular on the livelihoods of small and subsistence farmers and indigenous people; and insulating ruling elites from the political effects of food crises, and from civil society advocacy and media reporting on hunger.
  • For SDG 5, Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls, closing civic space is likely to affect poor and disadvantaged women and marginalized groups most directly. Women’s rights and gender equality progress are under threat from efforts to deploy regulatory and administrative channels to prevent activists from pushing for gender-equitable policies and programmes, empowering women, or delivering services. Many face stigmatization and backlash from right-wing groups that threaten their personal security and work.
  • On SDG 8, Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all, the study found that while closing civic space may not have visible adverse impacts on economic growth rates, it has been linked to economic crises in the most closed and repressive countries; political division and conflict over patterns of economic development; exploitation of workers; and suppression of labour rights, including the freedom of association.
  • SDG 10, Reduce inequality within and among countries is likely to be impacted because closures of civic space help mask the worsening of economic, social and political inequality, pave the way for land- and natural-resource grabs, as well as suppression of labour rights, and further enrich powerful economic elites.
  • The achievement of SDG 11, Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable is impacted by limiting citizen participation in urban development and governance processes.
  • For SDG 15, Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss, civil society actors working to protect the environment, forests and biodiversity are under particularly direct attacks and face hostility that prevents them from acting in a growing number of countries around the world.
  • Closing civic space impacts directly on key SDG 16, Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels, by raising levels of violence against civil society actors and activists; subverting the rule of law; increasing corruption; reducing accountability, participation and representation, and also access to information and fundamental freedoms.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development pledges to ‘leave no one behind’ and to ‘reach the furthest behind first’ are highly likely to be violated by the closure of civic space. Changing civic space is likely to generate more unequal and exclusionary development policies and practices, with a significant risk of not only leaving the most vulnerable behind but also of their dispossession and loss of fundamental rights and voice in relation to the development process.

A key overall recommendation for national governments hoping to earn performance legitimacy by achieving the SDGs is to accept that there are no realistic alternatives to building constructive partnerships with civil society, and that it is in their interests to do so. As a priority step, governments should review legal and administrative restrictions on civil society and uphold their civic and political rights by prosecuting the rising number of crimes against civil society activists, journalists, and others.

For monitoring, evidence, and research, it is necessary to recognize that contention over civic space is part of larger national political struggles to do with state power and sovereignty in a globalizing world. The impacts of closing space need to be analyzed within a domestic political context.

The data is not available with which to make robust cross-national measures of the relationship between changing civic space and the SDGs, and more intensive data collection and comparative analysis to assess and test the scale of the impacts are needed. However, the space for undertaking research and data collection, or communicating research findings is also being squeezed, as permissions to undertake research are tightened and respondents find it risky or unwise to speak openly.

Donors have made a range of efforts to monitor and combat efforts to shrink civic space, including efforts to make funding for civil society more flexible and responsive. These are important but limited responses to the wider shift in the global normative environment for development, in particular with the rising importance of China as a development partner. OECD/DAC group donors need to recognize and respond constructively to this shift, and can use the platform provided by SDG 17 Strengthen the means of implementation and revitalize the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development to build a case for civic space as a precondition for achieving the other SDGs.

SDG 17 draws attention to targets on the volume of aid, knowledge, technology, and capacity building; use of government-owned planning and results frameworks; partnerships across state, market and civil society; and the links to the production of statistics and other data in support of the SDGs. A key recommendation is for international donors to use the SDG 17 platform to push back against the closures of civic space, by generating robust evidence about how civil society impacts on development in particular countries, policy domains, and settings, to demonstrate convincingly that civic space is not optional for the attainment of the SDGs.