Swedish Civil Society Support to Turkey in Times of Shrinking Civil Space

  • Johanna Caminati Engström Lund University


The size, scale and capacity of civil society have increased dramatically over the past twenty years. Its role in democratic processes has received increasing attention, capturing the hopes of a global community which dreams of active citizen involvement for more democratic societies. Meanwhile, civil society faces unprecedented levels of restriction and challenging the power has become increasingly dangerous, with civic space being constrained in 106 countries. In the world of development cooperation, donor countries channel government funding through civil society organizations in the so-called developing countries as key actors to help promote democracy and the rule of law.

Sweden is no exception and gives bilateral aid to Turkey within a regional strategy for reform cooperation with Eastern Europe, Western Balkans and Turkey, having made commitment to support civil society as a central actor for democratization. The underlying assumption is that a strong civil society in developing countries is a prerequisite for developing democracy and that CSOs in donor countries can help to strengthen civil society through cooperation. This assumption has today a strong positive connotation which is increasingly questioned.

From a civil society perspective, the Turkish case is interesting. The country is said in most national and international NGO reports to be suffering from shrinking space for civil society and strong social polarization. This is part of a global trend but is particularly engaging to examine in Turkey because of its historical and cultural context. In this paper I investigate how civil society’s role is expressed in the Swedish policies containing the guidelines for aid allocation with specific focus on Turkey. In doing so, some of the underlying assumptions about civil society’s role in democratic processes will be presented and discussed.