Navigating Civic Space in a Time of Covid-19

Navigating Civic Space examines changing civic space in Nigeria, Mozambique and Pakistan under the impact of COVID-19. How has the pandemic affected ongoing trends of changing civic space? How do civil society actors operate where space is narrowing further, and how do they make the most of newer openings under these circumstances? How should donors work with civil society in authoritarian settings in the context of the pandemic?

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, and enforcement measures included often-brutal police action against political opponents as well as poor and marginalised groups such as street sellers. There have been growing reports 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.

At the same time, many countries have seen a massive increase in grassroots citizen mobilisation for community solidarity, 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, and their longer-term implications for civic space and relationships between states, citizens and civil society organisations remain unclear.

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. Given the restrictions and limits on field work, and in order to provide rapid, real time understanding on the impacts of COVID as they unfold, this study will take an ‘observatory’ approach.

This observatory process, convened by our partners IESE (Mozambique), Spaces for Change (Nigeria) and Collective for Social Science Research (Pakistan), includes establishing monthly dialogues includes establishing monthly dialogues between expert panels of civil society leaders in each study country, carrying out key informant interviews remotely and tracking press and social media.

The analysis will take a directly comparative approach to analysing different trajectories of social, political and policy response in relation both to a common external shock and to different initial conditions in terms of civic space and state-society relations. It will also situate the experience of these specific countries in relation to broader trends across the set of fragile and conflict-affected countries and across the Global South as a whole.

The project aims to produce live updates on emerging findings as they develop, and create policy lessons addressing social and political action on empowerment and accountability in fragile and conflict-affected settings under COVID-19.


Project details

start date
1 January 2020
end date
31 March 2021


About this project


Image of Alex Shankland
Alex Shankland

Research Fellow

Image of John Gaventa
John Gaventa

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

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