Navigating Civic Space in a Time of Covid-19

The Navigating Civic Space in a Time of Covid project examined patterns of changing civic space and civic action in Mozambique, Nigeria and Pakistan during the first nine months of the Covid-19 pandemic. How did the pandemic affect already shrinking civic space, particularly for activists and critical voices, in these contexts? How did civil society actors respond to both the closing of space and the pandemic? What openings in civic space, and what closures, came about? What might this mean for the future of governance and citizen-state relations in these countries and globally?

Following the March 2020 declaration of a global pandemic by the WHO, many countries introduced measures severely restricting domestic and international mobility and social and commercial activities. In some countries, these measures directly or indirectly targeted key elements of civic space such as media freedom and the right to protest. Enforcement measures included often-brutal police action against political opponents as well as poor and marginalised groups such as street vendors. Reports abounded of Covid-19 being used to justify informal restrictions on the freedoms of women and minorities, and of armed groups and other non-state actors enforcing quarantines and lockdowns. The evidence is increasingly clear that the pandemic triggered a period of significant democratic backsliding that is likely to change governance and democratic practice across the world.  

At the same time, many countries have seen a massive increase in grassroots citizen mobilisation for community solidarity and demanding accountability, and many civil society groups have been able to establish partnerships with government for joint action on Covid-19 even in settings characterised by high levels of mistrust and/or repression.

The ways in which these different trends are interacting are complex and vary significantly both across countries and within countries. Their combined longer-term implications for civic space and relationships between states, citizens and civil society organisations remain unclear.

Between June and December 2020 we investigated these issues in real-time. Research partners IESE (Mozambique), Spaces for Change (Nigeria) and Collective for Social Science Research (Pakistan) established Observatory Panels of civil society leaders that met monthly to consider events and trends. Alongside this they compiled event catalogues and interviewed key actors in civic mobilisation. Monthly cross-country sessions sought to make sense of what we were seeing, and place it within the global commentary on how civic space and governance was changing during this pandemic.

The Navigating Civic Space in a Time of Covid Synthesis Report provides the final synthesis from this work. It lays out the various ways in which civic space was reduced and freedoms undermined in all three countries, and the ways that civic action coalesced around new issues, through new coalitions and partnerships. It raises important questions about the implications of these changes for the coming years, including for defending and regaining civil liberties and the democratic process – challenges that are likely to be harder still in newer democracies like these.  

Reports are also available for each country, published by our research partners: 

This study was part of theAction for Empowerment and Accountability (A4EA) programme, and builds on previous work of IDS in this area, including‘Measuring the Impact of Closing Civic Space on Development’, a series of case studies on the implications of closing civic space for development.  


Key contacts

Rosemary McGee

Power and Popular Politics Cluster Lead

+44 (0)1273 915738

Project details

start date
1 January 2020
end date
31 March 2021


About this project


Recent work

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