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Shrinking The Civil Society Arena


A lawyer gives legal advice to his client inside the USAID-funded Gisenyi Legal Aid Clinic in Rwanda.

“In the past two years, over 50 laws restricting registration, foreign funding, and limiting freedom of assembly have been passed."

Civil society includes activists, non-governmental organizations, associations, trade unions and religious groups who work together for the common good, resolve problems through peaceful means—and is indispensable to building and maintaining a stable, politically pluralistic culture and government. It has a unique ability to affect change.


Because civil society is constituted of individuals working together to peacefully bring about change some governments, and particularly repressive governments, view civil society actors with suspicion and fear.

As a result, the past few years have witnessed a backlash against such groups, reflecting a disturbing trend toward closing civil society space. “It is a global issue,” said U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, Deputy Assistant Administrator Dr. Sarah Mendelson.

“In the past two years, over 50 laws restricting registration, foreign funding, and limiting freedom of assembly have been passed, in every region in which USAID works, affecting Civil Society Organizations in every development sector. This backlash against civil society has expanded to more and more countries; intensified, as seen by the draconian sentences handed down to courageous NGO activists ... and spread, to include not just democracy and human rights organizations, but humanitarian and other development NGOs,” she said.

Because USAID partners with local non-governmental groups in support of their work, restrictions on civil society directly impact its ability to achieve its development goals.

Thus, USAID will follow three basic principles in supporting civil society in restrictive environments. First, USAID will work to prevent developments aimed at restricting civil society through the legal framework. It will adapt its programs to help civil society organizations continue their work in the face of new regulations. And it will continue to support them, even where space is severely restricted.

The U.S. stance is clear, said Deputy Assistant Administrator Mendelson. “Although the environment might be challenging and repressive in some places, our policy is to engage and to stand unequivocally in support of civil society around the world,” she said.

“Defending civil society’s access to sources of funding, both foreign and domestic is a high priority. The U.S. Government reserves the right to work with civil society organizations even in situations where local laws are not in compliance with fundamental freedoms of association, expression, and peaceful assembly.”
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