Dark Days for Civil Society

What's Going Wrong—And How Data Can Help

An activist kicks the shields of the military police officers during a demonstration in Iguala, Guerrero, January 12, 2015. Jorge Dan Lopez / Courtesy Reuters

When the activist Boris Nemtsov was murdered steps from the Kremlin just before a large march he helped to organize, he joined a long list of human rights activists, journalists, and lawyers who ultimately sacrificed their lives for the illusive ideal of an open Russia. Their brave effort has only gotten tougher with each passing year; since Russian President Vladimir Putin first came to power in the early 2000s, the space for civil society has been shrinking. Although the violence in Russia that accompanies it is an extreme form, the pressures on civil society are by no means just a Russian problem. According to Doug Rutzen, president and CEO of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, “since 2012, more than ninety laws constraining the freedom of association or assembly have been proposed or enacted.” The skrinking space for civil society, in other words, is a global problem.

Government harassment of independent organizations is as old as the state system itself, but this wave has a twenty-first-century twist. Specifically, as citizens find new ways to organize, assemble, and express themselves through the use of affordable technology, governments have found new ways to restrict public political space and suppress information. And those regimes are sharing lessons learned; in the last few years, for example, numerous governments have mimicked or copied laws enacted in other countries that seek to shrink the administrative and legal space in which NGOs work, from Russia to Kyrgyzstan, from Ethiopia to Kenya. Such laws make it administratively difficult to get registered with the government, hold events, or start new programs.

The laws also make it difficult or impossible for civil society groups to get foreign funding, which is sometimes the groups’ only real source of revenue. And even after depriving them of foreign funding, offending governments still label the groups they don’t like as foreign, implying or claiming that the organizations are working on behalf of an alien government. Even governments that rely heavily on foreign assistance themselves, such

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