Civil society under pressure

What is shrinking civic space?

Civil society’s scope of action (that is to say, the area of society between the state, the market and the private family sphere, in which citizens can become involved in voluntary, collective actions and organisations without intending to make a profit), is increasingly subjected to attacks in many countries around the world. These attacks come from state actors, and also from businesses, ranging from legal restrictions and bureaucratic harassment even to physical and psychological violence against activists. After a period of growth and increased political recognition for civil society organisations (CSOs), especially in the former Eastern bloc countries or in Latin America, a phase of the deligitimisation of civil society actors is emerging. The debate about these attacks is encapsulated by the anglicism shrinking civic space (SCS), which problematises the social contestation of the civil scope for action.

Characteristics of the SCS are constitutionally protected fundamental rights, such as freedom of assembly and freedom of expression through repressive police action, the public stigmatisation of CSOs, but also increasing state surveillance. Restrictions on civic actions also result from the control and restriction of funding for philanthropic activities, especially those of international donors. State regulatory initiatives that are teamed with strict requirements for accountability are restrictive when they are misused against organisations that are critical of the government or they are overburdening where they impose disproportionately high administrative constraints. Regulatory measures also often entail secondary restrictions, if banks, wary of the considerable hurdles imposed by accountability regulations, do not provide loans or other services to organisations or are deterred from them by donors and businesses (Hayes et al. 2017).

Laws introduced to control CSOs by the state with the aim of steering their activities or dissolving them are known as anti-NGO laws. Well-known examples include the Foreign Agent Laws in Russia or the Law on the Work of Non-Profit Associations in Egypt.

The SCS debate in Germany and in the European Union

Repressive measures were initially seen as a problem of autocracies and defective democracies, but there are increasing reports of problems in the European Union. Hungary, Slovakia and Poland especially are cautionary examples here, introducing legislation and public measures to control and censor civil society. They limit the access of non-profit organisations to funding and particularly target activists and activities working to protect the rights of women, LGBTQ+ people, minorities, migrants and refugees. However, laws restricting civil society action have been enacted in recent years in France, Spain, the Netherlands and former member state the United Kingdom, such as the so-called gag law in Spain, the emergency laws in France or the laws against political interference before elections in England.

In Germany, the debate about shrinking space is reflected in two aspects in particular. On the one hand, there is a debate on the extent to which tax-favoured non-profit status can and should be compatible with political involvement. Following the ruling by the Federal Fiscal Court (V R 14/20) that revoked the non-profit status of the ATTAC organisation, which is critical of globalisation, many CSOs are uncertain of the extent to which they may express or act on their political views, without being exposed to the risk of losing their non-profit status. On the other hand, attacks by right-wing and extremist actors on civil society activists can also be observed in Germany, especially in the areas of refugee support and protection for women and minorities, but also increasingly in the environmental and cultural spheres. Both of these factors restrict the ability of civil society to enable its citizens to formulate their will and express their opinions, which is so important for a democracy.

Research literature


Anheier, Helmut K.; Lang, Markus; Toepler, Stefan (2019): Civil society in times of change: shrinking, changing and expanding spaces and the need for new regulatory approaches. In: Economics: The Open-Access, Open-Assessment E-Journal 13 (2019-8). DOI: 10.5018/economics-ejournal.ja.2019-8.

Ayvazyan, Karen (2019): The Shrinking Space of Civil Society. A Report on Trends, Responses, and the Role of Donors. Maecenata Institut für Philanthropie und Zivilgesellschaft. Berlin (Opusculum, 128)

Carothers, Thomas; Brechenmacher, Saskia (2019): Defending Civic Space: Four Unresolved Questions. Carnegie endowment for international peace (OECD Development Matters). Online available at space-four-unresolved-questions-pub-79250

Hayes, Ben; Barat, Frank; Geuskens, Isabelle (2017): On “Shrinking Space”. A framing paper. Transnational Institute. Online available at downloads/on_shrinking_space_2.pdf

Hummel, Siri (2020): Shrinking Spaces? Contested Spaces! Zum Paradox im zivilgesellschaftlichen Handlungsraum. In: Forschungsjournal Soziale Bewegungen Band 33: Heft 3 2020

Global monitoring

There are several initiatives that measure and observe the global ‘condition’ of civil society:

The above showed Civicus Monitor is an initiative for the global, transnational observation and indexing of civil society, which ranks countries on a 5-point scale from open to closed.

The CSO Sustainability Index Explorer measures the quality of national civil societies on a 7-point scale for several countries, especially those in Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.

The ‘Associational Space’ variable bundle of the democracy index V-Dem shows thedegree of autonomy of CSOs from the state and the possibility for citizens to freely and actively pursue their political and civic goals.