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Development Alternatives Research

Posted on 22 January 2020

Pushing Back: Supporting Human Rights Defenders and Social Movements in Contexts of Shrinking Civic and Democratic Space.

The Development Alternatives Research is ongoing.

"The phenomenon of shrinking civil society space – a recent and dramatic escalation of repression of non-state actors – has been described by the UN as “an epic struggle... that could shape the course of our world for generations to come” (UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association 2017: 2). Despite decades of investment by human rights and development agencies into programmes to empower civil society and increase the space for participation, shrinking civil society space remains a challenge at a foundational level. Restrictions on freedom of information, expression, assembly, and public participation hinder the ability of state and
non-state actors to recognise and collaborate on solutions to development challenges; disempower marginalised communities; limit creative problem-solving; and hinder inclusive transformative change (Gready 2019).

This paper responds to a request from the international development federation ActionAid to assist the organisation and its partners to identify concrete examples of push back against restrictions on civic and democratic space and make a contribution to the exploration of viable development alternatives that expand civic space. The paper presents a situated ‘long view’ on these concerns through the analysis of interviews with in-situ civic space specialists, Human Rights Defenders (HRDs), and empirical, evidence-based case studies of civil society resistance and resilience. Civil, political, social and economic distinctions begin to fall apart, and we are left with active descriptions of the push for civic space in the face of lost livelihoods, criminalisation and government impunity. Claiming civic space from a situated perspective encompasses the political and physical capacity to lead a dignified livelihood, embedding the push for civic space in the political economies of the “real real world” (HRD, Guatemala).

In addition to highlighting the strategies and tools that are working for practitioners in the field, and contributing to lesson learning within ActionAid and other international non-governmental organisations, this grounded approach raises some useful questions about the way in which we understand shrinking civic space. Firstly, the research questions the extent to which shrinking civic space is new. Secondly, it brings into focus those who have never had any civic space. And thirdly, it opens up a useful debate about who should be responsible for expanding civic space and how to scale up the pushback towards more systemic change."

Executive summary taken from: Pushing Back: Supporting Human Rights Defenders and Social Movements. (PDF , 1,290kb)

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