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

Governments around the world increasingly restrict independent civil society organizations (CSOs). Different theories converge on the expectation that independent and active CSOs are important for ensuring the delivery of core public goods in conformity with international norms and priorities, such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A joint and yet unexplored implication is that restrictions on the activity of CSOs will signal the under-delivery of core public goods. Using original data on a wide variety of government-imposed restrictions on CSOs for a global sample of countries in the 1994–2016 period we test this implication. Our analyses focus on three international priorities: protection of physical integrity rights, control of corruption, and environmental protection. Controlling for unobserved cross-country heterogeneity and a variety of potential confounding variables, we find that contemporaneous and past restrictions on CSOs negatively correlate with the achievement of these priority goals. While actors central to liberal international order, including the UN, have long warned of the negative consequences of restrictions on CSOs, our analyses provide the first systematic evidence that restrictions are indeed a red flag for governments’ failure to deliver public goods that enable human progress.

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