Rethinking Democracy and Civil Society Support in Acute Crises

Hensing Li 2023 Carnegie
Photo: Angie Bob / Unsplash
11 Apr 2023, 
published in
Carnegie Europe

Whenever an acute crisis — that is, an emergency situation of extreme political volatility and at least a threat of large-scale violence — attracts international attention, calls to support civil society reliably garner broad support among Western publics and policymakers. In Europe, this strong political consensus is reflected in initiatives at the EU level as well as in the policies of individual governments. In Mali, for example, the EU has been implementing substantial support programs for civil society organizations throughout the past decade. Working with local civil society actors has a prominent place in its 2021 Sahel strategy. More broadly, fostering stability was one of the EU’s stated objectives when in 2021 it launched a €1.5 billion support program for civil society organizations in countries outside the union.

Especially where working with governing elites to advance democratic reform and transition processes has proven difficult or ineffective, civil society actors have become partners of choice for Western actors. For example, since their approach of mainly supporting the transition government after the fall of Omar al-Bashir in Sudan in 2019 failed to secure a democratic transition, they have looked at ways to support and work predominantly with civil society actors.

There are many good reasons to support civil society actors in crisis settings. While every crisis has its unique combination of drivers, the lack of accountable governance and of representation of relevant communities is often one of them. An approach that does not address this issue is therefore likely to fail and, at worst, can make external actors complicit with repressive regimes, sowing the seeds of future conflict. Civil society actors rooted in local communities are important partners to drive progress in this regard, with the ability to help address grievances and resolve conflicts. In dynamic situations, impact can plausibly materialize on a fairly short time horizon: for example, civil society actors may drive key reforms through protest mobilization, lobbying or watchdog activities, or advance crisis resolution as conveners of civic exchanges or mediators between conflict parties. 

Still, the consensus on supporting civil society actors in crises is striking because there is little, if any, analysis of some key issues around such support: Who has and who has not been empowered under the vague label of civil society in past efforts? How have the inevitable risks and unintended consequences played out? And what has been achieved in terms of democracy, better governance, or greater stability and peace?

These questions are all the more pressing given the challenging global context in which efforts to support civil society actors in crises take place. Civic space — the room for maneuver for civil society actors to organize and pursue activities — has been shrinking in many places, often including explicit restrictions on external support to local civil society groups. Moreover, civic activism has in recent years increasingly taken the form of mass protests. Though Western governments regularly stress that stabilization does not simply mean preserving the status quo, they tend to view high-stakes confrontations between regimes and protesters with great concern, as most recently on display with regard to Iran. How they can support civil society actors in such situations in ways that mitigate the risk of violent escalation, or that do not inadvertently increase it, is not obvious.

Learning from Recent Experiences

Can donors’ support to civil society actors shape acute crisis dynamics constructively, despite the challenges just outlined, and, if so, how? To answer these questions, we investigated donor efforts to support civil society actors and their impact on crisis dynamics in Belarus, Lebanon, Mali, and Sudan. These four recent cases represent a wide range of crisis situations in diverse societal contexts, including different trajectories of challenged authoritarian systems, an instance of politically induced economic crisis and state failure, and a multidimensional emergency involving center-periphery dynamics, intercommunal conflicts, and jihadist violence.

The understanding of civil society that we employed for our study is broad: we capture actors outside of government, parliament, and business that seek to influence political processes and decisions, whether they are formally registered or not. These include trade unions, media organizations, religious groups, and various kinds of informal groupings and civic networks.

Our analysis shows that, despite best intentions and some positive long-term effects, civil society support in these acute crises has thus far largely failed to live up to its promise. Three observations merit particular emphasis:

Donors have had little immediate impact on crisis dynamics

Local civil society actors are relevant, and sometimes central, in shaping how crises play out. The unseating of the Bashir regime in Sudan was an impressive example. Even if such actors were more effective at disrupting the status quo than at achieving more sustainable political change in the examined cases, Western donors need to actively engage them in stabilization efforts. That said, there is no such thing as a single civil society in any context: various actors pursue different strategies toward distinct, if sometimes overlapping, goals. Some influential civil society actors might also oppose donors’ stabilization agenda, as was the case in Mali. Without a basic understanding of who is who and who wants what, any attempt to engage with civil society is doomed to fail.

Donor efforts in the examined cases helped civil society actors sustain and develop their activities in the face of severe economic conditions, repression, and even violence, contributing to longer-term processes of societal and political change. Even with regard to Belarus, where organized local activism became all but impossible after a drastic crackdown, donors found ways to keep civil society groups alive, even if in exile. Further, donor support to civil society actors has often been provided in a fairly pragmatic fashion and with sensitivity for local conditions.

However, we have found no compelling example of donor support exerting an attributable influence on immediate crisis dynamics. In part, this is because these dynamics are often dominated by factors beyond donors’ control, and because attempts to exert influence via support to civil society actors face major obstacles. For example, such actors involved in crisis situations are often hesitant to accept foreign support due to reputational concerns as well as wariness of external interference with their agendas, as was apparent in Sudan and Lebanon. Moreover, security challenges (as in Mali) or a repressive state apparatus (as in Belarus) may severely limit civil society actors’ room to maneuver. Relatedly, political actors willing and able to defend their interests through armed force may be in a position to block change in ways that no amount of international support to civil society can overcome, at least in the short term. Still, if the record of civil society support with regard to short-term crisis mitigation impact is rather disappointing, this is also due to how donors have approached these efforts.

Many donors’ approaches cannot deal with dynamic crisis situations

To understand civil society actors and to identify partners among them, many donors rely on infrequent mapping exercises that quickly become outdated in dynamic crisis situations. Especially in organizations with a focus on civil society support, such formal analyses are often supplemented with knowledge from individuals within their respective networks, who are a highly valuable resource that should be used more systematically, including across organizations. However, given their knowledge base, donors tend to work with partners who are already close to them, and as a result they may overlook the most innovative or relevant ones. In Sudan, for example, donors were slow to engage with the neighborhood resistance committees that played an important role in mobilizing protests against Bashir. In Mali and Niger, this challenge is further exacerbated by the EU’s modus operandi, as this donor rarely funds civil society actors directly but supports such actors rather via intermediary organizations. While this approach could arguably help with donors’ challenges of flexibility and understanding of the local context, a new Saferworld report found that, in these cases, the way the system currently works marginalizes priorities of local civil society groups.

Despite considerable pragmatism and creativity in donor organizations at the ground level, it usually takes too long to adjust their programming and project implementation to changes in local circumstances. In dynamic situations, lengthy and complex application processes and demanding reporting requirements often hinder smaller and new civil society groups getting support when they need it. Donor attempts to create flexible solutions for much needed support on a case-by-case basis tend to be delayed. Critically, slow responses to changing circumstances can also expose their local partners in ongoing projects to unnecessary risks. This was the case in Belarus, where some activists were prosecuted in the postelection crackdown with the help of documents they had retained on account of donor reporting requirements.

Civil society support in acute crises lacks political strategy

During critical phases of crises (for example, during the first months of the mass protests in Sudan), donors frequently lack a clear political strategy that is based on a sound understanding of potential resolution pathways, the priorities arising from their political aims in the country in question, and the mechanisms through which support to specific civil society actors may influence crisis dynamics toward their preferred outcome. In part, this is a symptom of deeper issues with many donors’ foresight and strategic planning capacities, which hinders their ability to anticipate the outbreak or escalation of a crisis and to quickly develop suitable responses.

Since 2014, the EU has worked with country roadmaps for engaging civil society, which provide a good overview of a country’s civil society landscape and require a definition of priorities as well as of indicators to monitor progress. The introduction of so-called Democracy Profiles has also helped draw attention to political economy dynamics and to the conditions under which civil society actors have to operate in practice. While the civil society roadmaps constitute a valuable contribution to making civil society support more strategic, their strong focus on long-term objectives means that they are only of limited help in guiding the EU’s actions in acute crisis situations.

More generally, while the political rhetoric around civil society support in crisis settings often sets expectations of short-term impact, many efforts remain tied to a perspective that sees a vibrant civil society and the protection of civic space fundamentally as an end in itself and a long-term contribution toward a functioning democracy. In contrast, none of the examined cases featured a concerted donor effort in which crisis-specific initiatives regarding civil society were designed and implemented in combination with diplomatic efforts to address incumbent political elites and other stabilization instruments in support of a plausible political way out of the crisis. In short, donors have largely applied the same approach to civil society support in acute crises that they employ in more politically stable environments. While this approach rightly recognizes that engagement over an extended period will often be needed to foster sustainable social change, its ability to make a more immediate contribution to crisis mitigation is inherently limited.

What Donors Should Do

Taken together, the observations above demonstrate that there are serious limitations to donors’ approaches to supporting civil society actors in acute crises. They may even cast doubt on the idea that such support can be a relevant instrument of stabilization policy. The question is whether it would be better for donors to abandon any hopes of influencing crisis dynamics through support to civil society actors and to focus efforts on protecting activists against the worst abuses.

While it is important to rein in exuberant expectations about the impact of such efforts, more strategic donor support to civil society actors has the potential to make a substantial contribution to stabilization efforts, at least in cases where two basic conditions are in place:

  • There are local civil society actors with strong legitimacy in at least substantial constituencies and a certain degree of organizational capacity.
  • At least some of these civil society actors are open to the idea of accepting foreign support.

Where either is lacking, preserving civic space for activities toward long-term change may indeed be the most that donors can hope for. Where both conditions are in place, the level of ambition and focus of support should still take into account the political context. Extremely repressive environments may only allow more defensive support to civil society groups and the protection of activists. In more permissive environments, donors can adopt a more ambitious civil society strategy aimed at actively influencing crisis dynamics. To realize this potential, however, some substantial adjustments to their approach are required.

Engage civil society actors in crisis settings as part of a broader political strategy

Donors need to consider carefully which overarching political goals will guide their approach to a given context, which plausible trajectories out of a crisis situation appear politically desirable within this approach, and how support to specific civil society actors will make these trajectories more likely. To do so, they should consider options for civil society support in conjunction with their engagement with incumbent elites as well as other instruments of stabilization policy. This would amount to a different approach to civil society support than practiced in non-crisis settings. Donors should thus also invest into building specific expertise on civil society support in acute crises, including through a more systematic reflection on internal lessons learned across different crisis contexts. While clarity of their own goals is a precondition for effective engagement, donors also need to ascertain that their strategy for supporting civil society resonates with local dynamics and priorities rather than imposing external templates.

Establish flexible funding and project approval mechanisms for crisis settings

Donors should consider reserving funds for new initiatives with civil society actors immediately related to acute crisis situations, with the flexibility to use these in different countries as needs and opportunities arise. They could establish, ideally in institutions focused on funding civil society, significantly simplified application, assessment, and approval processes for projects funded through these resources. Steps such as the creation of the European Endowment for Democracy (EED) indicate that donors have begun to address the concerns surrounding inflexibility. While the EED has existed for ten years, donors have provided it with relatively modest resources. Donors should put more thinking into how the EED and similar institutions can play a bigger role in crisis contexts. Regarding approval mechanisms, donors should focus on ascertaining the strategic relevance of proposals, on mitigating the risk of major unintended effects on crisis dynamics, and on protecting the safety of civil society partners, while reducing administrative requirements as much as possible.

Invest in near real-time knowledge to inform activities

As a supplement to the expertise of their staff, donors need to cultivate networks of (ideally local) experts to provide targeted input at key stages of program design and seek opportunities to share analyses with like-minded partners. Despite the importance of trusted key individuals, continuously broadening these networks and ensuring a diversity of perspectives is critical to avoid blind spots and biases.

Provide staff with guidance in case of sudden changes in the local situation

This guidance should place particular emphasis on helping avert immediate threats to civil society partners such as violent repression or arrests that may arise from a sudden closure of political space, but also comprise engagement with political opportunities that a changing situation may present. Activities to strengthen preparedness should be taken when signs of an intensification of crisis dynamics accumulate. Subsequent phases should focus on supporting partners’ emergency measures, on adjusting ongoing activities and risk management, and ultimately on strategically adjusting the support portfolio to the new context.


Supporting civil society actors in crisis situations to substantially advance mitigation and resolution efforts is a challenging task over whose outcome donors will never have full control. Realistic expectations of what such efforts can achieve are critical also to prevent civil society support from becoming a fig leaf that allows donors to avoid facing up to shortcomings in other areas of their crisis response.

To date, support to civil society actors in crisis settings can be credited with helping them survive and maintain a degree of vibrancy as they work toward societal change in the face of often extremely challenging circumstances. This is an important accomplishment, but it falls short of the hopes for an immediate contribution to crisis mitigation and resolution that are frequently attached to such efforts. While its potential will always be contingent on local conditions, leveraging civil society support for stabilization more effectively is possible if it is understood as one instrument in the policy toolkit, to be deployed alongside others on the basis of a coherent political strategy.

This commentary was originally published in Carnegie Europe on April 112023.