Shrinking civic space within democratic upper middle-income countries

Civic Action22 Jun 2017Melvin van der Veen

Severe violations of the rights of environmental activists are committed in a considerable number of upper middle-income countries. Civil society organizations in these countries are facing an ever-shrinking space in which to do their work legally and safely. These countries are no longer eligible for most European development support, as they are perceived to be ‘rich and developed’ enough to pay for their own development projects. However, experience shows that such simple economic indicators are unsuitable for determining the form of bilateral relationships.

An important role of civil society organizations (CSOs) is to act as watchdogs – to hold governments and the private sector accountable for upholding (international) law and adhering to (international) standards. This role of CSOs is indispensable in any country, irrespective of its economic wealth. Support for the lobbying and advocacy capacity of CSOs is particularly relevant in countries that struggle with high socio-economic inequalities, the structural violation of human rights and the degradation of the environment.

Latin America is a case in point, as many countries in this region are classified as upper middle-income countries (UMICs) by multilateral organizations, most notably the World Bank. Unfortunately, macro-economic wealth does not ensure the safety and wellbeing of all inhabitants. Instead, Latin America has been dubbed “the most dangerous region in the world for environmental activists”.

‘Being a UMIC’ – a label with serious consequences

An exemplary insight into the struggles of UMICs was recently given by Namibia’s president Hage Geingob. Geingob’s address at the UN Conference on Financing for Development highlighted that being a UMIC prevents Namibia from accessing soft loans and grants, which are needed “to accelerate [the] rate of economic growth through trade and investment”. Another side to the story is that told by CSOs from UMICs, which say that “[o]rganizations are finding themselves without a source of financing and there is no replacement for those sources”. Furthermore, the small amount of funds reserved by donors for UMICs are largely being funnelled through government agencies.

The European Union has played a large role in the reduction of development cooperation funding for UMICs. In 2014, the EU decided “to discontinue bilateral aid through [the] Development Cooperation Instrument to both upper-middle-income countries and economies whose gross domestic product represents more than 1 percent of global GDP”. Although the EU spared funding for CSOs, as it sees the support of these organizations as a core task, disappointingly, the combined budget for CSO and NGOs is only 4% of the total EU development cooperation budget. Hence, the EU’s aim to support CSOs is poorly reflected in its allocation of funds in development budgets.

Upper middle-income markets

This changing approach to development cooperation by ‘traditional’ donors (member countries of the OECD) towards upper middle-income countries is related to their macroeconomic status: i.e. to having a GNI per capita of between US $4,036 and US $12,475. The changing relationship between former donors and UMIC recipients is described by the Dutch Minister of Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation in the policy document A world to gain. In this document, the Dutch government explicitly mentions that it will focus “on countries undergoing rapid development, where it is important for the Netherlands to win a share of the market, especially in view of disappointing growth in Europe” in foreign trade.

And, while the Dutch government promotes Dutch business in UMICs, it has excluded these countries from the Dialogue & Dissent policy framework, which aims to support CSOs to fulfil their lobbying and advocacy role safely and effectively. UMICs were excluded because they are considered ‘rich and developed enough’ to pay for development projects themselves. While this may be partly true, and the governments of UMICs should be encouraged to take responsibility for their own development, the logic is flawed if one takes into account the worrying developments within some of these democracies. In recent years, UMICs have struggled with high-level corruption scandals (e.g. Brazil and Mexico), ruling by decree and changes to the constitution to ensure re-election (e.g. Ecuador and Venezuela), and increased authoritarian behaviour and censorship by governments (e.g. Russia and Turkey). Moreover, a number of UMICs are also considered the most dangerous countries for CSOs working in human rights.

Leveling the playing field

Essentially, this article is a plea against the use of simple economic indicators as the main way of defining bilateral relationships between countries. Many UMICs struggle with high socio-economic inequalities, weak public institutions and high levels of corruption. Sure, OECD members may contribute to the economic growth of UMICs by engaging with them as trade partners; however, without the supporting CSOs to defend people’s rights and hold the civic space, the economic interests of the politically and economically powerful will most likely continue to trump the interests of those who have little. Not only does this put people at risk, it can lead to degradation of the environment and international public goods. Strengthening the lobbying and advocacy capacities of civil society organizations should level the playing field, as they can hold governments and companies accountable and demand more inclusive and sustainable practices.