Civil Society is Here to Stay! A Report on the Shrinking Civic Space Project (2019-2023)

Opusculum 186 | 01.03.2024 | New report on the research and policy project conducted by the Maecenata Institute from 2019 to 2023


When the Maecenata Institute’s European Civic Space Observatory (ECSO) project was planned and initiated in 2018/19, it was grounded on the observation of a global democratic regression, which affected the freedom of scope and action for civil society in Europe. Since then, the situation has dramatically worsened. Freedom House noted in its (50th) 2023 edition of Freedom in the World: “Global freedom declined for the 17th consecutive year”. (Freedom House 2023, 1) And the Economist Democracy Index 2023 noted that only 8% of the world’s population live in a full democracy today, and that this figure is in decline (Economist Intelligence Unit 2023). The COVID-19 pandemic has had deeper effects on our social resilience than was originally believed, and has demonstrated the consequences of a psychological and physical exhaustion of society and the economy. It has substantially hit civil society not least due to its strong dependency on the will to give, be this in the form of empathy, volunteering, donating or contributing to public affairs in the form of social movements. Since then, several more immediate crises have affected our societies, notably the attack of Russia on Ukraine on 24th February, 2022, and the war in the Middle East following the seizure of 250 Israeli hostages by Hamas on 7th October, 2023. “We are currently in the middle of multiple global crises that leave us with a different outlook than the optimism that characterized the decades of the 1990s and early 2000s. The belief in continuous global democratic and developmental progress has been replaced by concerns for irreversible climate change, global geopolitical instability, democratic decline, new manifestations of authoritarian populism, and a reversal of developmental gains…”[1]  The growth of civil society and the expansion of the civic space has been seriously affected by this succession of crises as by the downsizing of funds available for sustaining civil society organisations in Europe. Furthermore, the readiness of governments and the private sector to accept civil society as partner in the public sphere has seriously suffered.

The Maecenata Institute’s European Civil Society Observatory Project, designed to take a critical bird’s eye view of the civic space in Europe, received generous financial support from Porticus and the Open Society Initiative for Europe. It involved exchanges with 6 international governmental and non-governmental organisations (ICJA, Civil Liberties Union for Europe, European Civic Forum, Fundamental Rights Agency of the European Union, OECD, and PHILEA) and researchers and experts from and/or working on 19 European and non-European countries (Armenia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Croatia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, The Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Spain, Switzerland, Ukraine, United Kingdom, United States). Their important contributions to the project are thankfully acknowledged.

In the course of the project, 1 book, 1 special issue of the journal Nonprofit Policy Forum (2022), 2 comprehensive country reports (on Austria and Germany) (online 2021), 11 other working papers in the Maecenata Opuscula online series, 9 policy papers in the Maecenata Observatorium online series, and 2 European reports in the Maecenata Europe Bottom-Up online series were published, mostly in English (see enclosed list). Though impaired by the covid pandemic, the project was able to move the issue by convening. Findings were presented at a number of conferences, workshops, meetings, and parliamentary hearings, including the World Conference of the International Society for Third Sector Research in Montreal, Canada, in 2023. Also in 2023, an international conference, organised by the Maecenata Institute, was held in Berlin (see report enclosed). Also, a database was developed and made publicly available ( Furthermore, Maecenata staff[2] provided answers, information, materials, comments &c. to diverse parties throughout Europe and beyond. Importantly, in the course of the project, evidence-based results were assembled that provide a base for pursuing the issue, and a network of experts who are ready to continue working together was established.

To sum up, through this project, an overview was gained which ascertained that the civic space is contested, is in many instances shrinking, but has also gained momentum and cohesion both across national borders and across divides of purpose, structure, size, and citizens involved.

This final publication in the 2019 – 2023 research, policy, and publication project will highlight some of the outcomes, as presented in a ‘deep-dive’ workshop organised by Porticus in January, 2024. The chapter ‘Civil Society is Here to Stay’ reflects some of the points made in the presentation and discussed with participants. In addition, a number of relevant reports and documents are put on record in this volume.

Berlin, in February 2024

Dr. Rupert Graf Strachwitz and Dr. Siri Hummel

[1] Biekart, Kees / Kontinen, Tiina / Millstein, Marianne (2023): Introduction. In: Civil Society Responses to Changing Civic Spaces. Springer Nature (Palgrave Macmillan) Cham, Switzerland 2023, p. 3.

[2] We would like to express our gratitude to Laura Pfirter, Florian Faltenbacher, Flavia Gerner and Johannes Roth, whose contributions were crucial to the successful completion of this publication.

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Rupert Strachwitz

Dr. phil. Rupert Graf Strachwitz

Vorstandsmitglied der Maecenata Stiftung

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Siri Hummel

Dr. Siri Hummel

Direktorin des Maecenata Instituts

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