By Mason Ingram
It is a stunning fact that in 2022, 72% of the global population lived in countries that the research organization V-Dem described as closed or electoral autocracies. Even more stunning, that number was 46% in 2012.
Closing civic space and declining political freedom have also been documented over the last two decades by Freedom House, International IDEA and CIVICUS. This democratic retreat is the consequence of efforts by authoritarian and democratically backsliding governments to preserve their own regimes and limit their accountability to citizens, even while civic activists and mass movements push for more representative and accountable governance.
More than ever, autocratic governments are learning from and supporting one another. Writers like Anne Applebaum describe highly effective systems of mutual assistance among authoritarian regimes. This is evident in the spread of laws that restrict freedom of association and the imposition of state surveillance systems. There is a growing catalogue of ready-to-wear models of “worst practices” that aspiring autocrats can pull off the shelf. And, in clamping down on dissent, those interested in eroding democratic rights have eager supporters in China and Russia.
Despite these headwinds, brave and dedicated civil society organizations (CSOs), social movements and citizen activists are defending democratic rights. The vitality of these efforts is shown dramatically in social and political movements like the recent women-led mass protests for human rights in Iran. It is also exemplified by the efforts of civil society to meet the urgent civic and humanitarian needs of communities in the context of war and conflict in countries including Ethiopia, Myanmar and Ukraine.
There are no silver bullet solutions to the generational challenges of democratic retreat and closing civic space. The complexities of this reality are reflected in the Biden Administration’s Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal, which grew out of the first Summit for Democracy and will provide a framework for reviewing progress at the second Summit, taking place this week. The Presidential Initiative identifies the need to work across multiple domains: supporting independent media, fighting corruption, bolstering democratic reformers, advancing technology for democracy and defending free and fair elections and political processes.
Defending democracy and pushing back against threats to civic space is a global challenge. Pact is proud to support organizations and activists leading the charge.
Pact is proud to work with diverse activists, regional and national partners, peer institutions and donors to advance democratic rights globally. We focus on enabling and amplifying the work of local actors who are on the frontlines in defending civic space in their societies. Effective democracy assistance requires flexibility and continuous adaptation to respond to shifting political environments and the evolving needs of local civic actors. A few of the strategies and approaches we apply include:
· Facilitating local leadership. Across countries, Pact supports local CSOs and other civic actors to lead their own response to civic threats and opportunities. In Ukraine, this has meant supporting and following the lead of more than 20 CSOs to meet urgent civic and humanitarian needs in response to Russia’s unjustified and unprovoked war. These organizations, in turn, were able to extend critical assistance to more than 360,000 citizens, while raising and distributing more than $3.5 million in emergency financial aid to newly liberated areas. The ability of formal and informal civic actors in Ukraine to quickly mobilize to respond to the gravest threats imaginable highlights the organizing potential of civil society at its best. Globally, Pact is working with its partners under CSM-STAND to strengthen its practices to support local leadership, including through co-creation of programs and learning initiatives.
· Prioritizing accountability. Pact works with local partners to advance transparency, accountability and anti-corruption goals even in challenging political environments where this work is highly sensitive. In Zimbabwe, Pact partnered with local residents’ associations and community-based organizations to promote transparent service delivery, while supporting research initiatives on sensitive topics like illicit finance. In Ukraine, Pact is working with local coalitions such as Vision 2030 and the RISE coalition, as well as watchdogs like AntiAC and Environment, People, Law (APL), to advance transparency and anti-corruption agendas that lay the groundwork for accountable recovery efforts.
· Finding space and opportunities for engagement. Space for constructive civic engagement can often be found even in countries where the civic space is closing. In Cambodia, for example, Pact is working with networks of civic and business organizations to promote approaches and actions that empower young women entrepreneurs and youth to understand their rights as they relate to pursuing entrepreneurship. This has included, for example, supporting coalitions of civic actors to successfully engage with and lobby government officials on the issue of access to social protection schemes for young women street vendors.
· Prioritizing collaborative learning. With our co-lead IREX and our entire 19-member CSM-STAND consortium, we are prioritizing learning about how to effectively support civic and media actors, especially in closed or closing political contexts. Specifically, we have developed a global learning agenda aimed at catalyzing learning across three domains: safety and wellbeing for civic activists and journalists; network strengthening and collective action; and informational integrity and trustworthiness of civic and media institutions. These issues are complex and can only be effectively explored and answered through the joint efforts of diverse allies. It is our goal that learning across these and other areas will help drive future programming aimed at effectively serving civic activists and organizations operating in the hardest places.
Defending democracy and pushing back against threats to civic space is a generational challenge. We can all take inspiration from the civil society activists and individual citizens who are leading the struggle for democratic rights across countries and societies. As we look toward the second Summit for Democracy and beyond, Pact will remain focused on meeting the near- and long-term needs of our local partners, while collaborating with regional and international allies to share learning, amplify the work of local civil society and contribute to the next era of effective democracy assistance and civil society support.