It has become commonplace to observe that across the world civic spaces are shrinking and democracies are regressing. Year after year, organizations such as Freedom House and Civicus regularly publish evidence of a steady and progressive erosion of democratic principles and practices in most parts of the world. This erosion is most evident in government efforts to limit freedom of expression, movement and collective action.

The dramatic increase in surveillance and security legislation over the past decade is just one indicator of the growing number of levers governments have to silence those who would criticize their actions or call for more transparency. and responsibility. We see these trends across the Asia region, and they are troubling.

However, the trend of democratic regression and the shrinking of civic spaces does not manifest itself in the same way everywhere, nor are civil society actors simply victims on the front lines. Our previous research on civic spaces in Southeast Asia in 2019 has suggested that the terrain for voice and action is shrinking and shifting, while at the same time opportunities for collective action exist, sometimes surprising and unpredictable way.

Seeking to better understand these opportunities as they manifest themselves in South Asia, we piloted a survey instrument with 96 civil society organizations in Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. We sought to capture the perspectives of a range of different people on the changing parameters of civic spaces – to understand where opportunities may exist to support civic space in ways that promote democratic resilience and inclusive development, while strengthening the case for strengthening civic space. spaces as a fundamental global development priority. For the purposes of our research, we define “civic space” as the public space (physical or virtual) in which formal and informal non-governmental organizations, associations or enterprises, social movements and/or independent media can: access government information; participate in and influence public policy and decision-making; share information, communicate freely and mobilize; and – above all – publicly challenge and criticize government decisions and actions. We asked participants about their experiences with each of these elements and what they perceive to be trends at the national level from their perspective.

What did we find? In all three countries, respondents reported that civic spaces are closing, but there are differences in the degree to which this is happening.

In Nepal, compared to Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, we found that civic spaces are quite dynamic. Despite considerable political instability over the past two years and the economic and social challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, civil society in Nepal appears optimistic about the spaces it is occupying. Most respondents indicated that their organizations can easily access information, communicate freely and challenge government decisions. 74% of participants said they were able to share information and communicate freely online, while only 16% said it was becoming more difficult to protect individual rights and freedoms. However, when asked directly, most respondents (65%) agreed with the statement “civic spaces are shrinking”, and 80% of respondents said that certain issues – such as fight against corruption, access to justice and public sector reform – have become too difficult for civil society actors to undertake.

In Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, most respondents said sharing information and communicating was becoming more difficult and the space to challenge the government was shrinking. More than two-thirds of respondents (77% in Bangladesh and 70% in Sri Lanka) said it has become more difficult to protest against government decisions. The majority of both also noted that it is more difficult for the media to criticize the government than it was a few years ago, and that it is more difficult to share information and communicate freely online (and in Bangladesh, also in physical spaces). A very significant majority in both countries (94% in Bangladesh; 73% in Sri Lanka) observed an increase in government surveillance of online activities. As in Nepal, most respondents in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are unequivocal that civic spaces are shrinking (85% and 96%, respectively) and that their countries are becoming less democratic (68% and 67%, respectively).

Yet there are nuances. In Bangladesh, a slim majority of participants believe that it is easier to access information from national and local governments than it was a few years ago, and that there are issues on which it is increasingly easier for civil society to engage, such as climate change. 68% of respondents in Bangladesh believe social media facilitates citizen and civil society engagement with government (compared to 37% in Sri Lanka).

Our results also revealed an interesting anomaly: a majority in all three countries indicated that collaboration between civil society and government, at national and local levels, has improved over the past five years.

What do these findings suggest? While civil society actors face many constraints – and these are increasing in Bangladesh and perhaps again in Sri Lanka – they tend to relate to roles in which civil society challenges or criticizes the government. Levels of engagement with government are either stable or increasing, particularly at the local level, illustrating the critical role that civil society organizations often play in supporting the execution and implementation of government programs and programs.

On the one hand, this may have interesting implications for the emergence of new opportunities, particularly for the success of decentralization programs in the three countries. On the other hand, it may indicate that the tendency to encourage civil society to “more constructive engagement” with government may itself contribute to closing some of the most contested spaces, making it more difficult for those maintaining a critical distance from the government to operate. Issue-focused sectoral spaces exist or appear to be opening up where the issue is unlikely to challenge political legitimacy or government agendas.

Our results also seem to illustrate how the political system affects the shape of civic space. Nepal is rapidly federalising, with power and authority moving away from the centre, while Bangladesh and Sri Lanka (pre-political crisis) are strongly recentrating power and authority. There may also be a relationship between the health of “political space” and civic space. Nepal exhibits considerable plurality with a diversity of political parties, while Bangladesh and Sri Lanka have seen dominance or increased political monopolies in recent years.

Finally, our research suggests that diversity in civic space can be key to democratic resilience. Nepal has a more diverse and vibrant civil society, including more informal organizations and social enterprises, enabling a more agile sector and faster coalescing of coalitions and networks. Civic spaces in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka tend to be dominated by more formal and established civil society organizations.

In the next stage of our research, we aim to understand in more depth how different actors are responding to restrictions on civic spaces in the region, and what this might tell us about emerging opportunities for external supporters of democratic resilience.

Sri Lanka Postscript

Our data was collected in early 2022, before the full brunt of the debt-centric economic crisis was felt, and before the wave of violence that rocked the beleaguered country on May 9. It is not at all clear how the situation will evolve, or what impacts – short or long term – it may have on civic spaces, but it highlights the important role that collectives and informal movements can play in reclaiming of civic spaces and the demand for empowerment, even if these spaces may be limited. Given the history of authoritarian rule, it is inspiring to watch the collective action of ordinary citizens – in some cases bridging traditional political loyalties – who camp outside the president’s desk, demanding restrictions on unfettered executive powers, the restoration of democratic principles and the protection of civic and fundamental rights.

A central theme that emerges from our research so far is the centrality of open, dynamic and inclusive civic spaces that provide the ground for a diversity of actors to imagine and act. As the extraordinary protests in Sri Lanka show, these spaces are being reconfigured as new, unconventional actors move in to protect democratic values ​​and civic freedom.

This article is part of a collaborative series with The Asia Foundation.

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