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Opinion

Fresh insights on how to create civic spaces in authoritarian settings: small steps matter

Published on 17 November 2021

Image of John Gaventa
John Gaventa

Research Fellow and Director, Action for Empowerment and Accountability (A4EA) programme

Across the world citizens are grappling with the pressing questions of how to defend and renew democracy in the midst of rising authoritarianism globally. They’re also battling with how to protect the civic spaces “within which people express views, assemble, associate and engage in dialogue with one another and with authorities” in the face of this challenge.

Efforts are underway to mobilise governments to make commitments for democratic renewal and reform. The world also expects greater transparency and accountability from those same governments that made pledges at COP26 in Glasgow to protect the future of the planet.

For the last five years, the Action for Empowerment and Accountability Research Programme has been exploring the question of what forms of action strengthen citizen empowerment and democratic accountability in increasingly hostile environments. The project is a collaborative international research programme based at the Institute of Development Studies in the UK.

The project drew on research from 22 countries. Our research focused largely on Mozambique, Myanmar, Nigeria and Pakistan. All have legacies of conflict, military rule and authoritarianism.

Working with partners in each country, we used multiple qualitative and quantitative research methods to understand how relatively marginalised groups perceived authorities and mobilised to express their claims. This included making use of innovative ‘governance diaries’ to record when and how these groups interacted with authorities and on which issues.

With over 200 publications, the research programme provides a unique citizen-eye view on pressing governance issues. Five key findings are particularly important for policymakers and those working towards protecting democratic space and improving accountability.

The findings

First, closing civic space is a critical issue, threatening basic democratic rights. Our work on Navigating civic space shows that the trend towards closing civic space has accelerated under COVID-19.

Commitments to open governance are important. But they don’t go very far if citizens don’t have the basic freedoms to speak truth to power without fear of reprisal. This means also actively protecting democratic space. That includes joining forces with those defending the rights of those speaking out against corruption and abuses of power.

Second, even in increasingly hostile and authoritarian settings, a rich repertoire of citizen actions are taking place. But, not through the normal, established channels which many have come to expect. Sometimes these claims are expressed in cultural forms rather than engaging directly to authorities. One example is the use of political rap lyrics  in Mozambique.

Other times, they are made through informal channels, through networks or intermediaries, as our work using ‘governance diaries’ with marginalised groups found. And, sometimes protests may arise from a sense of collective moral outrage of citizens who, no matter how vulnerable, have just had enough.

We found this for example in struggles for security and against violence, or against sexual harassment, or for access to energy.

Donors and governments seeking to support movements for democratic reform need to start with looking for where these sources of civic energy are actually emerging. This, instead of the more traditional channels where they are often thought they ought to be.

Third, women are often leading the way. Our work found women were often in the front lines of protecting civic space and demanding reforms. This is despite patriarchal social norms, threats of violence, or biases of authorities and political parties who do not recognise women as legitimate claim makers.

We saw, for instance, the power of women’s leadership in the Bring Back our Girls Movement against the abduction of girls in Nigeria, or in widespread mobilising against sexual harassment. We also saw this in struggles for women’s rights in Pakistan.

Commitments to action for protecting or expanding democratic space must include commitments to support women as leaders and champions of reform.

Fourth, small steps matter. In fragile, closed and authoritarian settings, donors and other actors need to re-calibrate their definitions and measures of success. Measuring success through examples of full-blown democratic accountability or well-established democratic institutions is perhaps an unrealistic goal when faced with limited civic space, weak institutional channels for engagement and repressive leadership.

The focus instead should be on more intermediary outcomes, which can serve as building blocks for longer term democratic renewal. In our work, these included:

  • increased visibility of previously excluded issues and voices;
  • improved access to higher levels of authority by local groups;
  • a strengthened sense of rights and citizenship among the citizenry;
  • greater responsiveness from authorities on certain concrete issues;
  • changing norms, including gender norms, increased expectations and cultures of accountability;
  • greater trust between people and public authorities, as well strengthened solidarity between groups.

Outcomes such as these will go a long way to creating the conditions that are possible for larger, more institutionalised democratic reforms.

Finally, our research shows that citizens across the world see access to energy as more than a necessity for cooking, transport, communications and livelihoods. They also see it as a fundamental right. This has led to widespread protests to try and get their voices heard when it is denied.

Linking democratic renewal and climate change

Yet those who consume the least yet need the most are not being listened to. Little attention is made to how to make energy policy more accountable or inclusive, especially in repressive and often resource-rich settings.

Building on our research on civic space and the politics of energy, a new project with African partners will explore the the spaces for inclusive deliberation on what a just transition would look like for the citizens of oil and gas producing regions in sub-Saharan Africa.

So far, our research points to the need to carry the grassroots demands for inclusion on energy policy – which we saw on the streets of Glasgow during the COP26 as well as many countries around the world – into upcoming summits on democracy and open governance.

When the space is created for citizens to truly have a say on their energy futures, especially in often resource-rich but repressive regimes, then perhaps we can perhaps also say that democracy is being renewed.

Two global summits will be taking place in December, with important implications for the state of democracies around the world. On December 9-10, US President Joe Biden will host the virtual Summit for Democracy for leaders from government, civil society, and the private sector. Then on December 15-17, the government of Korea will host the 10th Open Government Partnership Summit.

This article was originally published by The Conversation

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