Looking at the global state of civil society, two aspects emerge at first glance: It seems more alive and active than ever and, at the same time, it seems to be operating under an ever-growing amount of pressure. This simultaneous development has not always been there.
While civil society organisations have been around for a long time, the 1990s are often called the ‘golden era’ of civil society, due to its tangible growth both in numbers and scope of activity. Economic globalisation and privatisation, as well as political developments in central and eastern Europe had weakened the trust in the state’s roles and in turn highlighted the importance of independent organisations and movements, as scholars and activists would agree.
Although since the 1990s this growth has slowed down considerably, the last decade has also seen powerful movements on all continents, challenging states and at times successfully demanding more democratic participation. Egypt, Brazil, Turkey, Ukraine, Poland, Romania, and Venezuela are good examples.
But this positive development also turns out to be a curse: by successfully contesting the states’ power, civil society has increasingly become a target for restrictive measures. In particular weak and/or autocratic regimes who fear a loss of sovereignty are devising specific legislation to hamper civil society action.
Most commonly, unwanted civil society organisations who maintain international connections are tightly monitored and discredited as being controlled by foreign interests. As a result, their funding is cut off. Others are randomly classified as potential supporters of terrorist anti-state causes and find themselves confronted with the rigour of anti-terrorist laws.
These and other measures are part of a global political climate that civil society experts have coined the ‘shrinking space for civil society’, some even referring to a ‘closing space’ or even, in especially drastic cases to ‘no space for civil society’.
However, by concentrating on legal changes the diagnosis of a ‘shrinking space’ does not take into consideration, that the overall state of civil society is not merely shaped by its relationship with the state. Especially in industrialised countries, additional framework conditions and internal aspects must also be taken into account.
In Germany for instance, an ongoing demographic change as well as a growing social inequality will have a significant impact on the future of civil society. According to new research by the Maecenata Institute for Philanthropy and Civil Society in Berlin, major developments in the organisational landscape, financial situation, participation rates but also performance demand in society are to be expected.
And finally, changes are also underway within civil society itself. Since some years back, we can see a new movement emerging that aims at combining personal and public benefit aims.
Social entrepreneurs, social businesses, and other kinds of business models are being developed that may well blur the traditional divide between for-profit and non-profit and draw interest as well as scepticism regarding transparency issues within the field and beyond.
On this basis, it could be argued, that one should refer to a ‘changing space for civil society’, rather than to a ‘shrinking’ one.
On October 17th, 2017, the Maecenata Institute will address some of the most relevant changes civil society is facing in a symposium that will also mark its 20th anniversary as a think-tank for civil society. Civil society scholars and experts from various fields will discuss personal engagement, the role of religious communities and the relevance of the state with regard to the changing space for civil society.
Sarah Albrecht is a Research Associate at the Maecenata Institute for Philanthropy and Civil Society, Berlin.