Insights and Analysis

Shifting Parameters of Civic Space in Southeast Asia

April 14, 2021

By Nicola Nixon

In 2019 and 2020, The Asia Foundation embarked on an inquiry into the changing nature of civic spaces in many parts of Southeast Asia. Civic space is the environment that enables civil society organizations, nongovernmental organizations, community-based organizations, media, social movements, and formal and informal associations of all kinds to play a role in political, economic and social life.

Through interviews and focus groups with over 450 people in Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Timor-Leste, we sought to understand, in broad brushstrokes, the trends, trajectories, and issues affecting civic spaces throughout the region. The following is an abbreviated version of our key conclusions about the limitations on civic spaces and the options for development partners who seek to help them thrive.


Four challenges

Future publications will dwell in more detail on the challenges and the manifold opportunities in each country, as well as on regional trends, but stepping right into the research we see four key challenges for civic spaces in Southeast Asia that should inform any efforts to provide support.

Constrained. Civic spaces across the region are actively constrained by governments in multiple ways, including new cyber-security legislation as well as older legislative frameworks with punitive consequences. There are numerous, overlapping restrictions on freedom of speech and action throughout the region. Covid-19 is making this worse.

Underfunded. Many CSOs in Southeast Asia are simply struggling for funding. In the last few years, funding sources have dried up as donors have left, reduced their aid footprint, or, as we saw in Cambodia, shifted funding from rural to urban areas. Where there is government funding, it tends to be only for delivery of basic services. Competition for project funding is intense, and sustainable core funding is even tougher to come by.

Fragmented internally. In civic spaces across the region, we saw evidence of ideological divisions at many levels that have moved beyond the status of healthy debate and vibrant contestation to a more divisive and destructive tone. Where there is already social and political polarization—for example, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand—pro-democracy organizations face a backlash from more conservative or traditional ones, which in some instances has involved the threat of violence. There are also heated divisions among pro-democracy organizations—for example, over advocacy tactics—that increase siloing and reduce the opportunity for collaboration so important for longer-term, equitable development goals.

Divided generationally. Throughout the region we encountered leaders and members of established organizations and movements who spoke of the challenges of attracting young people to their causes. These challenges often relate to weak governance and succession planning within associations that fail to prioritize attracting new members. There is a disconnect between traditional civil society and newer forms of youth-led civic activism, which revolve in part around skills in social media and digital technology, but which also go deeper into new generational values, norms, and aspirations.


Three recommendations

These dimensions of troubled civic spaces present development partners—in particular, donors—with a range of challenges, opportunities, and imperatives as they seek to support equitable and inclusive development outcomes across the region.

External actors need to be more attuned to local power dynamics between CSOs, NGOs, INGOs, CBOs, the media, other forms of association both formal and informal, and local communities and governments at multiple levels. It is important to recognize when engagement with certain actors can reinforce inequalities and hierarchies within civic space, particularly where donors wish to pursue a localization agenda. Greater attention to the political economy of civil society could mitigate the risk of disempowering some while empowering others, and could mean the full breadth and depth of forms of organized collective action within civic space are afforded opportunities for support.

Provide local organizations with long-term core funding. The negative consequences of solely funding organizations through projects with limited timeframes are overwhelming. When organizations are employed as grantees or subcontractors engaged to implement downstream activities, they tend to be instrumentalized in the achievement of a program goal. This has a range of well-documented negative consequences, such as loss of staff and expertise, reduced clarity of vision and mission, and increased competition, rather than collaboration, between organizations. A better alternative is an equal-partnership model.

Strengthen links. Arguably, the strength of civic space is commensurate with the strength of organizational relationships and networks. Civic spaces are best understood as ecosystems of organizations and associations, both formal and informal, the strengthening of which involves actively supporting networking and convening dialogue to provide the basis for greater collaboration and ultimately the greater likelihood of achieving shared goals.

Together, these three approaches—a strong understanding of local political dynamics, a proactive shift away from instrumentalist approaches, and an ecosystem lens—would enable external donors to support more resilient local civic spaces, perhaps helping them to overcome divisions and fragmentation as democratic backsliding continues apace.


An earlier version of this piece was delivered as a paper at the International IDEA panel “Supporting Civil Society to Protect Civic Space in Southeast Asia,” February 24, 2021. This post also appeared previously, in slightly different form, in the DevPolicy Blog.


Nicola Nixon is The Asia Foundation’s regional director for governance programs. She can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related programs: Good Governance


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