International democracy support organizations (DSOs) are operating in increasingly difficult country environments. For more than a decade, the world has witnessed a creeping phenomenon of closing civic space. This trend has tightened restrictions on civil society and made it harder for democratic activists to receive support from outside actors. In many countries, the situation has deteriorated beyond the problem of closing space to the point at which external democracy support faces a fully hostile environment.
If the autocratization trend noted around the world continues, the number of countries with fully hostile environments will increase, obstructing democracy support even further. This makes it vital to draw the right lessons from existing international democracy support in such countries.
DSOs have sought to adapt to the increasingly closed civic space around the world. They have looked for ways to channel their support to less directly political entities. Many have funded informal and cultural groups as well as spaces for dialogue, rather than projects focused on political action directly against regimes’ authoritarianism. DSOs have also helped keep activists out of harm’s way.
While these creative tactics often make a difference, repressive regimes increasingly seek to neutralize many of them. As a result, international DSOs risk losing traction and the ability to influence positive change even through these means. To avoid this, these organizations need to supplement their useful indirect initiatives with more directly political approaches.
Democracy Support in Fully Hostile Environments
A fully hostile environment (FHE) is defined here as one in which the state is closing the space for domestic democratic actors, is unwilling to engage with external actors in democracy support programs, and tries to cut off domestic actors from both international and domestic support. Such an environment makes the barriers to, and the risks of, helping democratic activists more prohibitive for domestic and external actors alike. Examples include countries such as Azerbaijan, Belarus, Egypt, Myanmar, Russia, and Turkmenistan.
In such cases, there has been a general trend for DSOs to adapt their work by adopting less overtly political policies and programs. DSOs have focused primarily on less directly political themes, such as culture and the arts, the environment, education and youth, media diversity, social entrepreneurship, and gender and disability rights. For example, in many countries, DSOs have backed the development of the culture and arts sector to address issues of evolving national identity in the hope of fostering democratic civic attitudes. Projects covering these themes have political relevance, but often in a relatively oblique fashion.
The range of less overtly political actors that DSOs have supported has widened to include informal and grassroots civic groups, initiatives, and movements. Organizations have provided support to individual activists and human rights defenders. DSOs have also made a greater effort to reach provincial and rural actors, balancing the previous focus on capitals and major cities. Support to independent and critical media now includes informal actors, such as bloggers, vloggers, citizen journalists, and social media figures. These newer forms of support are partly driven by funders’ aim to engage with a wider range of society and are carried out even in quite open contexts, but they also reflect a defensive adjustment to more hostile environments.
One element that underlies the work of DSOs with these more diverse themes and actors is the fostering and protection of key civic infrastructure. This refers to a growing variety of networks, hubs, spaces, community forums, and the like that provide activists and members of the public with opportunities to meet, deliberate, and plan actions to address civic or socioeconomic needs. Support to civic infrastructure can build up a society’s civic capital by enabling political agency from the ground up. It can also offer venues for civil society organizations to engage with individuals to channel their agency in more organized and impactful ways. Backing for social entrepreneurship can help generate further domestic funds for civic and democracy initiatives.
Some funders have moved away from having a physical presence with an office and staff in countries with hostile environments. In some cases, DSOs can be driven out by being blacklisted or because of legal, financial, or even physical risk. In other cases, organizations choose to end their physical presence if the compromises required to stay are too great. DSOs increasingly operate from outside and use informal points of contact based in the country—in the most repressive cases, they meet these contacts only outside the country.
More and more, DSOs have worked through intermediaries, using out-of-country organizations or subgranters to fund domestic actors. Where a regime makes it nearly impossible for DSOs to transfer money into a country, partner organizations can be helped to register abroad so that they have a legal entity that can receive funds. Where even subgranting is too difficult, donors have provided small cash transfers or even cryptocurrency to individuals or groups in need or as seed capital for informal groups and initiatives.
Donors have also turned to nonfinancial support. One example is the focus on vital technological solutions, such as secure communication and information tools, training and expertise, and hardware. Nonfinancial support also covers the provision of legal aid—including through networks of providers of pro bono legal representation and advice or legal education and training—psychological support, and emergency relocation out of a country.
One trend in the shift to less overtly political democracy support has become especially relevant for FHEs: working with and through democracy actors that have left their country because of repression. As this trend spreads, DSOs must grapple with the question of how to engage in more systematic and sophisticated democracy support that is delocalized or implemented outside FHE countries. Currently, most of this support goes to individuals in the form of practical support to help activists relocate and set up a new life abroad, but it will also need to help organizations relocate.
Challenges to Recent Approaches
To date, the tactics listed above have been creative and flexible enough to enable some international democracy support to keep flowing in highly repressive countries. Valuable assistance to democratic actors has continued, and local activists generally solicit more backing of this kind. This is a testament to the adaptability of some DSOs in recent years. However, recent trends strongly suggest that this indirect approach needs to be accompanied by a more directly political dimension.
Most FHE states are rapidly catching on to the support going to less directly political civic actors. For example, repressive laws and regulations now often cover individuals in addition to registered organizations. Regimes also target actors that DSOs judge to be relatively apolitical, like theater groups or environmental campaigners. Engaging with outside partners entails heightened risk for these actors, including travel bans; financial and administrative penalties; problems in obtaining certain accreditations, educational qualifications, and legal provisions; or even imprisonment.
Regimes can easily create difficulties for recipients of democracy support by accusing them of lacking national loyalty and siding with foreign powers. In addition, widespread public intolerance of anything resembling foreign interference is a challenge. In some societies, external support can be detrimental to any actor’s reputation, regardless of whether it is political or not. This means that pro-democracy actors are increasingly hesitant about applying for foreign funding and sometimes avoid contact with their external supporters.
The work of international DSOs in sectors such as culture and the arts, the environment, and socioeconomic issues has been useful in helping domestic actors’ agency. However, as regimes clamp down on these innovative and relatively apolitical domestic actors, they also target the international support that they receive by making it difficult to access such external funding.
Repressive regimes are becoming more aware of the use of intermediaries for the delivery of democracy support, too. In many countries, the blacklisting or targeting of subgranting organizations is widening. Communication channels, including technologically sophisticated ones, between DSOs and their partners are also becoming compromised, either through state capacities or because of vulnerabilities caused by the dealings of some hardware or software companies with the state. The technological solutions adopted by DSOs have finite shelf lives as state surveillance catches up.
All of this means that the creative workarounds of DSOs may be successful for a while but that repressive regimes will adapt and increasingly counteract them. The indirect approach remains important, but it needs to be refined. When it comes to working with intermediaries such as subgranters, the blacklisting trend suggests that more sophisticated structures of intermediation are needed. More discreet ways of providing financial and nonfinancial support to democratic actors on the ground may also be necessary.
A degree of divergence has opened up among international DSOs on these questions. Some have engaged in increasingly creative forms of support; indeed, some organizations, like the European Endowment for Democracy and the Prague Civil Society Centre, were created expressly with such a remit; in the United States, the National Endowment for Democracy has moved in a similar direction. Yet, the trend is toward caution, and many have had to retreat from difficult political work. This has created some tension, as domestic actors often complain that the more risk-averse DSOs have become too self-restrained and too quick to withdraw their solidarity—and that local actors, rather than lukewarm external organizations, must decide on acceptable levels of risk.
Support for delocalized democracy action will continue to be important, but DSOs need to develop broader strategies beyond their current focus on relocation assistance for activists. Once individuals have resettled abroad and there is at least some basic structure for them to carry out activities, some themes appear by their nature more suited than others to delocalized democracy work. These include media and journalism, digital tech initiatives, and the provision of education and training.
DSOs must be careful, however, that this approach does not cause them to overlook other activities that are more difficult to implement out of the country but are equally important. Organizations also need to be cognizant that the flight of citizens from FHE countries represents a substantial brain drain, leaving the domestic scene deprived of some of its most politically aware and civically minded elements and of highly skilled people with whom DSOs normally engage on the ground, including in the technology and communication sectors.
One priority for delocalized democracy support is to maintain connections between actors inside and outside the country. Some DSOs increasingly work to ensure that they do not unwittingly contribute to democracy communities diverging into two separate parts and instead help build bridges between internal and external elements. Support for organizing physical meetings is particularly important to do this. DSOs also need to take a lucid view of the potential time frame for delocalized support. They should not operate under the assumption that it will be possible for democratic actors to return to an FHE country in the near future—in many cases, it is very likely they will work with out-of-country actors for years to come. The risk of widening divergence between those inside and those outside the country increases over time.
More Political Approaches
In sum, many international DSOs have increasingly focused on indirect ways of helping democratic progress and on informal activism—both to widen their traditional democracy strategies and to get around the actions of hostile regimes. Even organizations that continue with fairly direct political approaches in some countries channel more of their funds to less overtly political initiatives. Now many are becoming aware that on its own, this strategy is not enough in FHEs. The time has come for DSOs to explore how to add more directly political elements to their strategies.
This does not mean dropping the less directly political strategies that have gained traction in recent years, but rather adding to them. Broadening the scope of support to, for example, cultural and informal actors and themes has been highly valuable and should be extended alongside support for more directly political individuals and activities. DSOs can also adapt the indirect methods they have developed and apply these widely for a new generation of more directly political support. Democracy support should include a mutually reinforcing combination of more and less political approaches.
Faced with more hostile environments, some DSOs have tended to reconceptualize their mission from democracy support to democracy protection, and then to survival. This is understandable, but it can reduce their agenda to a set of defensive objectives. Yet, with democratization progress in FHE countries being a long-term challenge, less reactive approaches are equally necessary. It is essential to provide immediate protection for individual activists at risk and lifelines to threatened organizations at the same time as focusing on longer-term processes of institutional reshaping.
In the case of government funders—including intergovernmental organizations like the European Union (EU)—a more overtly political focus also requires a better connection between democracy programs and the wider foreign policy agenda. The relationship between democracy support and foreign policy needs to move toward center stage. This does not mean subsuming or distorting democracy support to calculations of geopolitical interest. Rather, it means that high-level diplomatic and security strategies should not compound the challenges of fostering democracy in hostile environments. At present, governments often focus on protecting a few individual activists from repressive regimes while supporting those same regimes on security and commercial questions.
From the point of view of DSOs, the imperative is not just to ensure adequate funds from governments, although organizations that work in hostile environments tend to incur higher operational costs. What DSOs often need most from their government funders is political support, tactical flexibility, and greater integration of democracy into diplomatic engagement. Pushing back against regimes’ hostility to external support needs to be a foreign policy priority. This now represents a major strategic issue, not simply a niche concern for aid policy. The ongoing spread of hostile environments means it is no longer tenable for democratic powers to pursue the diplomatic and aid dimensions of their external policy as separate tracks. A better strategic fusion of these two levels would require most European states to almost reverse the route they have chosen in the last decade. The severity and ubiquity of these hostile environment challenges make such a policy review increasingly unavoidable.
An updated, more directly political approach to international democracy support, based on a fuller understanding of what democratic activism entails in hostile environments, should include the following goals.
First, DSOs could do more to foster connections between different kinds of democratic actors. New strategies should center on building alliances between cultural and informal groups on the one hand and conventional pro-democracy groups on the other. Where appropriate to the country context, these strategies could also build more engagement with protest movements, rather than avoiding them as has largely been the case under the more apolitical approaches of recent years. Social protests are becoming a leading edge of resistance to repression, and while there are risks to engaging with such movements, there are ways for DSOs to support them when requested. In particular, external support could help such movements endure over time and channel their dynamism into mainstream political spheres as an effective way of addressing the creeping restrictions of hostile environments.
Second, discreet forms of funding for democracy actors in FHEs will need to be developed on a much more systematic basis. As more countries become increasingly hostile to international democracy support, DSOs will look to less vulnerable forms of support. There are clearly risks in discreet ways of working, so DSOs and their funders need to have clear rules of the game for the use of such tactics. More detailed guidelines and deeper reflection are needed to ensure that discreet forms of support do not backfire or harm the prospect of democratization. EU states should formulate principles to ensure this approach is rooted in full democratic accountability.
Third, democracy supporters should do more to bring together democratic actors inside and outside their country of origin. The risks in relying too much on out-of-country activists have been exhaustively debated over many years, but DSOs know this work is an inevitable new normal. In many countries, a crucial part of the pro-democracy constituency will continue to be based abroad for long periods. All donor governments and other democracy funders should recognize that out-of-country actors are often just as important to support as those in the country. Better integration of foreign and democracy policies can also be beneficial in this regard, as donor governments could convince more reluctant ones to take in relocated democracy actors.
Localized and delocalized support will need to function as a seamless whole to keep pace with this reality. One guiding norm could be that all backing to activists outside their countries should be accompanied by a component that supports links to groups in the country. DSOs can apply a more comprehensive concept of their emphasis on building civic infrastructure and networking democracy actors to bring together those in the country and those outside. Organizations could also make a particular contribution by supporting regional networks of democratic actors.
Given the long time frame necessary for delocalized support, democracy support strategies should work to enable publics in FHE countries to become aware of and have access to the products of out-of-country democracy activities, such as media and information projects. It will also be important to support efforts to build bridges between recent political exiles and older, broader diasporas from FHE countries. The two groups have potentially different entry points into local society, which could have productive implications for democracy support. More broadly, DSOs need to develop a deep understanding of the ways to build diasporas into full-fledged alternatives to a country’s undemocratic status quo, with the necessary strategies and resources this implies.
Because of their limited resources, DSOs will need to strike a careful balance between support outside and inside the country. Delocalized work should not become the default option for FHE countries. Even if this will often be the easier option and if, more generally, the physical location of partners may be less important for democracy support, DSOs need to avoid the temptation of limiting efforts to support actors in the country because of the higher difficulty involved and the presence of a relatively easier alternative.
Fourth and finally, governments and DSOs need to get ahead of the curve. It is necessary to move out of the ad hoc and reactive frame that has all too often dominated democracy support for years. Restrictive measures that impede democratic actions and support can no longer be passed off as surprising anomalies. They represent a spreading norm. The EU and other actors need to be more attentive to new hostile restrictions as they develop. This goes well beyond the standard and often-repeated call for better early-warning mechanisms. Funders need to be ready to identify where regimes are becoming more hostile, work on the basis that more countries will become fully hostile, and introduce preemptive changes to their democracy support strategies. A more detailed and systematic audit is required of external democracy policies to analyze the trends toward more hostile environments and to examine whether and how the EU and other actors have made timely tactical shifts in response.
These suggestions can serve as guiding principles for an updated political approach to helping democratic actors function in hostile environments and for the creation of a more comprehensive hostile environment strategy for international democracy support. These proposals would need to be operationalized in detail in each country context. Above all, a general ethos is now required that combines the best of direct and indirect political democracy support. This adjustment is pressing, as dealing with hostile environments is no longer an occasional challenge but increasingly the core business of democracy support.
Ultimately and fundamentally, getting ahead of the curve and developing a new generation of democracy support requires governments and DSOs to set and articulate clear strategic political goals for their efforts in countries with hostile environments. Democracy support has long been marred by a lack of clarity in this regard. As they recognize that the global environment is one of widening and deepening hostility to democracy support, DSOs and governments must be clearer about their aims, what can realistically be achieved, and what time frames and resources are required.
Nicolas Bouchet is a visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Ken Godfrey is the executive director of the European Partnership for Democracy.
This article is part of the European Democracy Hub initiative run by Carnegie Europe and the European Partnership for Democracy.
Carnegie Europe and the European Partnership for Democracy are grateful to the European Endowment for Democracy for its support of this publication.