A Red Flag for Public Goods? The Correlates of Closing Civic Space

Governments around the world increasingly restrict independent civil society organizations (CSOs). Theories of civil society organizations—whether they see these organizations as contributing to a process of norm diffusion or providing third party ‘fire alarm’ monitoring—converge on these organizations’ importance for ensuring government compliance with global governance norms. Indeed, practitioners warn against a host of detrimental consequences of governments restricting the activities of CSOs and ‘shrinking civic space’. While the causal pathways to compliance differ, a joint implication is that government-imposed restrictions on CSO activities will signal public goods failure. Such restrictions are a useful and parsimonious screening device for a lack of compliance with global standards such as human rights, rights at work, environmental protection, and good governance. Using original data on a wide variety of restrictions on CSOs for a global sample of countries in the 1994-2016 period, we test the implications of this argument, honing in on governance related to anti-corruption efforts, the environment, and respect for labor rights and human rights. Our analyses provide evidence for restrictions as a red flag for public goods provision in each of these governance areas. Restrictions significantly and negatively correlate with public goods failures within and across countries and with environmental governance outcomes across countries.

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