Examining Civil Society Legitimacy

Saskia Brechenmacher and Thomas Carothers at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “Civil society is under stress globally as dozens of governments across multiple regions are reducing space for independent civil society organizations, restricting or prohibiting international support for civic groups, and propagating government-controlled nongovernmental organizations. Although civic activists in most places are no strangers to repression, this wave of anti–civil society actions and attitudes is the widest and deepest in decades. It is an integral part of two broader global shifts that raise concerns about the overall health of the international liberal order: the stagnation of democracy worldwide and the rekindling of nationalistic sovereignty, often with authoritarian features.

Attacks on civil society take myriad forms, from legal and regulatory measures to physical harassment, and usually include efforts to delegitimize civil society. Governments engaged in closing civil society spaces not only target specific civic groups but also spread doubt about the legitimacy of the very idea of an autonomous civic sphere that can activate and channel citizens’ interests and demands. These legitimacy attacks typically revolve around four arguments or accusations:

  • That civil society organizations are self-appointed rather than elected, and thus do not represent the popular will. For example, the Hungarian government justified new restrictions on foreign-funded civil society organizations by arguing that “society is represented by the elected governments and elected politicians, and no one voted for a single civil organization.”
  • That civil society organizations receiving foreign funding are accountable to external rather than domestic constituencies, and advance foreign rather than local agendas. In India, for example, the Modi government has denounced foreign-funded environmental NGOs as “anti-national,” echoing similar accusations in Egypt, Macedonia, Romania, Turkey, and elsewhere.
  • That civil society groups are partisan political actors disguised as nonpartisan civic actors: political wolves in citizen sheep’s clothing. Governments denounce both the goals and methods of civic groups as being illegitimately political, and hold up any contacts between civic groups and opposition parties as proof of the accusation.
  • That civil society groups are elite actors who are not representative of the people they claim to represent. Critics point to the foreign education backgrounds, high salaries, and frequent foreign travel of civic activists to portray them as out of touch with the concerns of ordinary citizens and only working to perpetuate their own privileged lifestyle.

Attacks on civil society legitimacy are particularly appealing for populist leaders who draw on their nationalist, majoritarian, and anti-elite positioning to deride civil society groups as foreign, unrepresentative, and elitist. Other leaders borrow from the populist toolbox to boost their negative campaigns against civil society support. The overall aim is clear: to close civil society space, governments seek to exploit and widen existing cleavages between civil society and potential supporters in the population. Rather than engaging with the substantive issues and critiques raised by civil society groups, they draw public attention to the real and alleged shortcomings of civil society actors as channels for citizen grievances and demands.

The widening attacks on the legitimacy of civil society oblige civil society organizations and their supporters to revisit various fundamental questions: What are the sources of legitimacy of civil society? How can civil society organizations strengthen their legitimacy to help them weather government attacks and build strong coalitions to advance their causes? And how can international actors ensure that their support reinforces rather than undermines the legitimacy of local civic activism?

To help us find answers to these questions, we asked civil society activists working in ten countries around the world—from Guatemala to Tunisia and from Kenya to Thailand—to write about their experiences with and responses to legitimacy challenges. Their essays follow here. We conclude with a final section in which we extract and discuss the key themes that emerge from their contributions as well as our own research…

  1. Saskia Brechenmacher and Thomas Carothers, The Legitimacy Landscape
  2. César Rodríguez-Garavito, Objectivity Without Neutrality: Reflections From Colombia
  3. Walter Flores, Legitimacy From Below: Supporting Indigenous Rights in Guatemala
  4. Arthur Larok, Pushing Back: Lessons From Civic Activism in Uganda
  5. Kimani Njogu, Confronting Partisanship and Divisions in Kenya
  6. Youssef Cherif, Delegitimizing Civil Society in Tunisia
  7. Janjira Sombatpoonsiri, The Legitimacy Deficit of Thailand’s Civil Society
  8. Özge Zihnioğlu, Navigating Politics and Polarization in Turkey
  9. Stefánia Kapronczay, Beyond Apathy and Mistrust: Defending Civic Activism in Hungary
  10. Zohra Moosa, On Our Own Behalf: The Legitimacy of Feminist Movements
  11. Nilda Bullain and Douglas Rutzen, All for One, One for All: Protecting Sectoral Legitimacy
  12. Saskia Brechenmacher and Thomas Carothers, The Legitimacy Menu.(More)”.