Democracy, Governance and the Space for Civil Society

Good governance fundamentally underpins the solutions to both development challenges and humanitarian crises. A vibrant civil society is necessary for transparent and accountable governance. Good governance is therefore stifled when governments close the space for civil society by targeting funding flows, denying international actors entry, and restricting the ability of local citizens to participate in their own political space. Thus, U.S. government investments in democracy, rights, and governance (DRG) programs are important for its national interest. DRG programs expand the space for a vibrant civil society and independent media; strengthen political and government institutions to be responsive to citizens’ needs; promote transparency and accountability; strengthen the rule of law; foster equitable economic growth; promote tolerance and inclusiveness; protect human and labor rights; and support free and fair elections.

InterAction Recognizes

  • Around the world, democratic norms and civil society are under threat as the operating space for civil society organizations erodes and democracy and human rights groups are under pressure. Governments use increasingly restrictive registration requirements, unevenly apply existing legal provisions, and actively impede the ability of groups to operate freely. The groups targeted often include humanitarian responders seeking to provide life-saving aid to those in distress, development actors wishing to bring social change, human rights defenders protecting their land, and those seeking sustainable economic change.

  • The incoming administration and 115th Congress can have a major positive impact for both U.S. civil society and in-country NGOs. Legislative and executive branch officials should prioritize support for DRG as central component of U.S. national security interests as a way to support our values and allies abroad and to promote an enabling environment for civil society.

  • The new administration should explicitly include DRG in broader U.S. foreign assistance and development policy through both independent programming by DRG organizations and integrated programming involving partnerships between DRG organizations and other sector leaders such as health or education organizations.

  • Congress should appropriate the necessary resources to implement DRG programs. Congress should ensure due consideration of core DRG values such as transparency, accountability, rule of law, and anticorruption, and acknowledge that local civil society groups are important partners in promoting those values. Congress must continue to recognize the unique benefits of grants and cooperative agreements in implementing such programs.

  • The new administration and Congress should revise the 2002 counter terrorism (CT) legal regime in order to enable U.S. civil society to support peacebuilding and humanitarian organizations. Presently, the administration’s guidelines related to the CT legal regime are unclear and out of date. There are no peacebuilding or humanitarian exemptions in the law. This prevents U.S. peacebuilding and humanitarian organizations from providing vital support. The new administration and Congress must act to provide clear guidelines and laws that do not stifle the freedom of association of U.S. civil society.  

Upcoming Opportunities

  • The U.S. federal budget process [Annual]: The highly contentious budget climate of recent years has been detrimental to DRG and civil society. In 2012, U.S. government spending on DRG totaled over $2.8 billion. By 2015, the amount spent fell to $1.9 billion. Congress acted to restore these cuts in the appropriations bills for fiscal years 2016 and 2017 and set aside specific DRG assistance so that funding would not be diverted for other purposes. The incoming administration must work with Congress to expand U.S. foreign assistance spending, including increased funds and a renewed commitment for DRG as nascent, fragile democracies need and welcome outside assistance to help consolidate responsive and accountable government and promote citizen engagement. While funding alone will not resolve the problem of closing civil society space, when coupled with strong presidential initiatives and congressional support, smart funding has a major impact on DRG and helps strengthen civil society.

  • U.S. Leadership in the Community of Democracies [Summer 2017]: The United States will host the Community of Democracies (COD) in Washington, D.C. in the summer of 2017. The COD “was established in in 2000 to bring together governments, civil society, and the private sector in the pursuit of a common goal: supporting democratic rules and strengthening democratic norms and institutions around the world.” By attending and hosting COD, the incoming president has the opportunity to establish leadership in support of DRG and civil society and to highlight a supportive agenda early on in his/her presidency. In addition, high-level participation by newly confirmed cabinet leaders will further add importance to an issue area whose significance will increase over the next eight years. Finally, Congress can play a role in the COD by hosting the Parliamentarian Forum of the COD that, much like previous sessions, has allowed for U.S. members of Congress to collaborate with their legislative counterparts.

  • U.S. Global Leadership through the Sustainable Development Goals [September 2017 and Beyond]:  The multilateral arena also offers an opportunity to promote and expand DRG and civil society through the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Goal 16 calls for the global community to “[p]romote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels.” The SDGs, including SDG 16, now require the full support of global leaders, including the United States, to enact supporting policies and provide funding for programming. The SDGs present an opportunity to better connect with local civil society and elicit country ownership.

Additional Materials

The last 12 years have provided a solid foundation on which to build a forward-looking DRG and civil society agenda. President George W. Bush initiated a Freedom Agenda that sought to "use our foreign assistance to promote democracy and good government.” President Barack Obama established the Stand with Civil Society Agenda, a “global call to action to support, defend, and sustain the operations of civil society organizations (CSOs) amid a rising tide of restrictions globally.” While these initiatives have supported civil society, autocrats and dictators responded in part by targeting funding flows, denying international actors entry, and restricting the ability of local citizens to participate in their own political space, including in many cases by criminalizing civil society organizations and activities. The U.S. must continue funding programs to protect NGO space and local partners. For more information, please see:

  • Aid Barriers and the Rise of Philanthropic Protectionism, 2015,

  • Anxious Dictators, Wavering Democracies: Global Freedom Under Pressure, 2016,

  • Choose to Invest 2016: Democracy, Rights and Governance, 2016,

  • Closing Space: Restrictions on Civil Society Around the World and U.S. Responses, 2016, Congressional Research Service

  • Stand with Civil Society: Best Practices, 2014,

  • State of Civil Society Report 2016, 2016,

  • Why Government Target Civil Society and What Can Be Done in Response: A New Agenda, 2015,

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