Since the turn of the century, an increasing number of governments around the world has introduced or tightened restrictions on civil society organizations (CSOs). Attempts by local CSOs and external actors to counter this trend of shrinking civic spaces have been mostly unsuccessful. In a few notable cases, however, civic space restrictions have been reversed or even prevented from being adopted in the first place. Focusing on resistance to so-called NGO laws, this paper explores the strategies, causal mechanisms and scope conditions that help explain the successful defense of civic space. In a first step, the paper develops a theoretical framework by drawing on research on the diffusion and promotion of international norms, civic resistance and social movements. Second, it looks at two cases – Kenya (2013) and Kyrgyzstan (2013–2016) – in which governmental attempts to impose legal restrictions on foreign-funded NGOs were effectively aborted. The analysis finds that successful resistance in both cases was based on domestic campaigns organized by broad alliances of local CSOs, which were able to draw on preexisting mobilizing structures and put forward a socioeconomic narrative to lobby against civic space restrictions. In Kyrgyzstan, but not in Kenya, external actors also played a significant role.
- A rapid and concerted domestic response by civil society organizations (CSOs) seems crucial when it comes to preventing the adoption of legal civic space restrictions.
- Domestic resistance campaigns benefit from the inclusion of a broad range of CSOs that goes beyond a narrow set of advocacy NGOs. Local and international actors should consider to further invest in CSO alliance and network building as well as in institutionalized exchange.
- Arguments that resonate with both the general public and politicians are crucial when it comes to lobbying and advocating against civic space restrictions. Activists should pay attention to identifying context-specific and effective counter-narratives and integrating them in their respective communication strategies. Evidence-based assessments of the tangible consequences of the (planned) legal restrictions are a good starting point for those considerations.
- External actors should investigate if and how they can best lend targeted support to domestic CSO campaigns. Close consultations with local actors are key to meet their needs.