The closing space challenge: how are funders responding?

Thomas Carothers


How is the  international aid community responding to the perceived major threat to Western support for civil society development in many parts of the world? This paper looks at how Western funders are responding to closing civil society space measures, highlighting the need for more in-depth research, and increased collaboration between bilaterals, multilaterals and private funders to strengthen responses.

Russia, China and India are setting the pace of increasing restrictions on external support for civil society, yet governments in numerous other countries across the world are taking similar steps, as well. In regions such as Latin America, growing pressure on civil society actors is also coming from private actors.


  • The anti-foreign-intervention line is often used as an umbrella rationale for more generalised limitations on freedom of assembly or a campaign against LGBT activism.
  • Countries engaging in closing space measures space a wider variety of political systems – authoritarian, semi-authoritarian, and democratic – and cut across essentially all regional, economic, and cultural lines, making the reach of the closing space phenomenon extremely wide.
  • Seeing the issue of closing space as the result of broad authoritarian surge in the world overlooks the diversity and complexity of the causes. Multiple factors drive the issue: overconfidence of some power holders, the insecurity of others, rising nationalism, migration flows, clashes between economic interests and environmental and rights advocates, a questioning of Western power.
  • Counter-terrorism policies contribute to the problem too, with growing fears of ‘the enemy within’ fueling efforts to restrict cross-border financial flows to NGOs and the view that civic space is a luxury that countries threatened by terrorism cannot afford.

In response to this restrictive context funders are:

  • changing how they operate. This includes giving greater recognition to the problem and engaging in more knowledge-sharing activities; operating remotely when necessary; developing sharper communication strategies; engaging in greater risk analysis; and attempting to increase co-operation with local funding partners
  • changing what they do. This includes scaling back to avoid triggering local sensitivities; increasing availability of emergency funds for grantees in trouble; expanding protective assistance; searching for alternative ways to support civil society.
  • increasing efforts to limit closing space. This includes pushing back against specific restrictive measures; mounting campaigns to block or modify problematic legislation; engaging with the Financial Action Task Force to reduce conflicts between counterterrorism policies and civic openness; bolstering multilateral engagement; exploring private partnerships.


Whilst some progress is being made in elaborating different lines of action to closing space problems there is much more to be done. Only a small number of official donors have engaged significantly with this issue and it is in relatively limited ways. There are a number of factors which contribute to this. Closing space competes with many other policy issues of international concern (Islamic State, refugee crisis etc.), and is also undercut by the need of donors to accommodate governments that are asserting closing space policies. Further, different international actors continue to work in silo, divided by opinions on what the issue really is and therefore how best to respond.

The following two areas are key to coordinate more effective responses to the closing space:

  • Further in-depth research and strong empirical foundations are needed to highlight the experience of campaigns against restrictive legislation;  the changing nature of civil society in many countries; public attitudes and understanding of civic activism; and the underlying structures of money and power that influence civil society’s development.
  • Greater communication and knowledge-sharing between different international actors will be necessary to mediate and lessen divisions.


Carothers, T. (2015). The closing space challenge. How are funders responding?. Washington DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.