Civil Societies, Uncivil States: State Repression of NGOs

Under contract at Cornell University Press, forthcoming 2025

Awarded Best Human Rights Dissertation, American Political Science Association, 2018

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) are central to contemporary global governance, and their influence has grown dramatically since the middle of the twentieth century. However, in the last three decades, more than 130 states have cracked down on these organized civil society groups. Despite this widespread assault, as well as growing policy attention to this phenomenon of ‘closing civic space,’ much remains unexplained. Although some existing scholarship has studied violent state crackdowns on NGOs, this book is the first systematic study that encompasses both violence against NGOs and less violent but still effective methods of state repression through the use of anti-civil society laws, or what I term administrative crackdown. Why are governments increasingly cracking down on NGOs? Under what conditions do states repress local and international NGOs using violent or administrative crackdown?

The core argument of the book is that states’ calculus toward NGOs has changed with the shrinking boundaries of the liberal international order (LIO), namely the declining influence of the West and the rise of alternative patron states in recent years. As a result, states no longer need to act in accordance with the norms and values promoted by the institutions and networks underpinning this order. Rather, governments have increasing space to enact their political preferences towards norms surrounding free civil society and NGOs. Many states violently attack NGOs that promote largely liberal values and rights-based agendas, including but not limited to political rights, human rights, gender equality, environmental protections, media freedoms, and democratization, for both punitive and deterrent purposes. But violence also has adverse domestic and international consequences, jeopardizing the material and reputational benefits that some states still want to continue receiving from this liberal order. Administrative crackdown allows governments to maintain a democratic façade to continue receiving these benefits. At the same time, since publics view legal crackdown as regulation rather than repression, leaders are less concerned about domestic backlash in response to the passage of these laws. Evidence for the theory using three original cross-national datasets, interviews with government officials, donors, NGOs and activists, and a case study of India.

Together, my findings show that crackdown on civil society groups is not just limited to authoritarian regimes — even democracies are becoming more clever at meeting the legitimacy requirements associated with allowing civil society to exist, while simultaneously finding new ways to control opposing voices. Controlling and repressing NGOs through administrative repression is part of a broader strategic approach that states take to navigate hybrid democratic spaces, as it allows them to evade criticism. Repression of these organizations may ultimately be the canary in the coal mine that sets the groundwork for future democratic erosion.