Navigating Civic Space in Fragile Settings: Implications for Empowerment, Accountability and the SDGs

Changes in civic space are a common challenge for social and political action to promote accountability and empowerment. As the strength and nature of civil society and social movements are closely shaped by the space created by the state, conditions of fragility and violence are typically associated with weak, fragmented or dependent civil societies. But this general truth tells us little about how collective action nevertheless sometimes succeeds, even if in small increments, in empowering people to hold public authorities to account for pro-poor development policies.

Changes in civic space range from formal legal, administrative or financial regulations, to more informal means such as the use of intimidation or stigmatisation to silence or restrain civic activists. But there are also new digital spaces and new unruly and ‘uncivil’ actors and strategies. These changes are together highly likely to have different impacts on civil society and social movements in different settings, and to impact on those development outcomes where they can be expected to have an influence.

How do civil society actors persist in very closed settings, and what strategies do they devise to succeed? How should donors work with civil society in authoritarian settings, both without doing harm and with the likelihood of positive impacts?

This study builds directly on two bodies of research: the Action for Empowerment and Accountability (A4EA) programme, and ‘Measuring the Impact of Closing Civic Space on Development’, a series of case studies on the implications of closing civic space for development. This study aims to assess how civic space shapes action on accountability and empowerment in fragile, conflict- and violence-affected settings. It explores the dynamics of civic space – openings, closures, new entrants and changing strategies – in settings where public authority is fragmented, and/or conflict and violence common.

The project aims to produce policy lessons about how to address the challenges to social and political action on empowerment and accountability in FCVAS countries; to support civil society strategies for navigating in such settings; SDG platforms and indicators for policy engagement.


Project details

start date
1 January 2020
end date
31 March 2021


About this project


Image of Naomi Hossain
Naomi Hossain

Research Fellow

Image of Rosemary McGee
Rosemary McGee

Research Fellow

Recent work

Working Paper

Closing Civic Space and Inclusive Development in Ethiopia

IDS Working Paper 527

This paper presents findings from a case study exploring the prospects for measuring the impacts of restricted civic space on development in Ethiopia. It is part of a larger inquiry into the phenomenon of restrictions on civil society activity around the world, including but not only in...

1 April 2019