A view from the bottom-up: “Civil Society Space” in Latin America and the Caribbean

Over the past half century, our global society has undergone a transition from a society divided by ideology to a society united by ideals. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are a reflection of this transition. While countries across the world have very different political systems—ranging from more autocratic to more democratic regimes (and in fact, most countries have a mix of these different elements)—there is a growing agreement about what types of policy outcomes these systems should work toward achieving for their citizens.

An important way by which democratic societies advance progress toward achieving these goals is by engaging citizens. We can think in particular of four complementary pillars by which citizens play a role in democratically influencing policy outcomes: voting, political organization, social organization, and public deliberation.  In celebration of the International Day of Democracy, this #GraphForThought dives deeper into the democratic pillar of social organization in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Using data from the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) database, this graph looks at how the institutional environment for social organization is changing in the region. To explore this, the graph looks at how two key variables are changing in tandem: “CSO entry and exit” and “government censorship of the media.” The first variable measures the extent to which governments impede the formation or operation of civil society organizations (CSOs) and the second variable measures the extent to which governments routinely attempt to censor media either directly or indirectly (in the case of indirect censorship, this may take the form of actions such as politically motivated awarding of broadcast frequencies, withdrawal of financial support, influence over printing facilities and distribution networks, selected distribution of advertising, onerous registration requirements, prohibitive tariffs, or bribery. Indeed, effective social organization requires both an institutional setting which enables citizens to collectively act and make demands (which often happens through autonomous civil society organizations) as well as available channels through which those demands can be publicized and made accessible (which often happens though independent media organizations). It is important to note, however, that in our age of social networks, rapid information flows, and rising misinformation—the impacts of media censorship on civil society space may be changing.

In a way, the size of the “space” that civil society has for social organization can be thought as the distance between these two variables (calculated as the score for CSO entry and exit minus government censorship of media). A “large” civil society space would thus be one with a high score in CSO entry and exit (closer to 4) and a low score in government censorship of media (closer to 0). Conversely, a “small” civil society space would be one with a low score in CSO entry and exit (closer to 0) and a “high” score in government censorship of media (closer to 4). When we look at the data over time, we see that for most of the 20th century, civil society space in LAC was very small—and was actually “negative.” Starting in 1978, the size of civil society space began expanding steadily and rapidly (and becoming “positive” in 1985). This expansion coincided with the transition away from military dictatorships in several countries across the region. Since the early 2000s, however, the size of civil society space has remained relatively stable in the region. While its expansion has halted—the trend has not yet reversed. In this way, it is outperforming global trends which have experienced a slight retraction since 2011.

While the regional trend has stayed relatively stable since the early 2000s, there is quite a bit of heterogeneity across countries. In a few countries in the region, dramatic changes have occurred in recent years. For example, countries such as Ecuador (since 2016) and Mexico (since 2014) have seen recent expansions in the size of civil society space. Other countries, such as Brazil (since 2015), Colombia (since 2017), and Nicaragua (since 2012) have seen recent shrinkages.

If our region’s democracies are to remain strong, healthy and vibrant—it is critical that governments invest in expanding civil society space. Social organization is a vital pillar of democracy, and serves as a means for citizens to voice their demands in ways that other mechanisms of democratic participation (such as voting, political organization, and public deliberation) cannot necessarily achieve. This is ever more important in the current political moment we are living in now—one in our region’s citizens are increasingly losing trust that governments are willing to respond to the needs of the “many” rather than only the “few.” To ensure that democracies function for all, we need to create space in which citizens can peacefully mobilize to raise their collective voice.