Session Submission Summary

Direct link:

Global Civil Society and Democratization: The Role of Service-Providing Organizations

Tue, July 12, 12:00 to 1:30pm, TBA

Session Submission Type: Hybrid Panel


In the past two decades, there has been an increasing scholarly interest in researching civil society, third sector, and nonprofit organizations as ‘agents’ of democracy (Anheier & Salamon, 1997; Auers, 2015; Barry-Murphy & Stephenson, 2018; Christensen & Weinstein, 2013; Howard, 2003; Smith, Moldavanova, & Krasynska, 2018; Toepler & Salamon, 2003; Toepler, Zimmer, Obuch, & Fröhlich, 2020). In many contexts, civil society organizations, especially political and advocacy organizations—often labeled as non-governmental organizations (NGOs)—face the issue of a shrinking or closing space, defined as “attempts by governments to disrupt international funding flows to local civil society organizations and further reduce their political voice through legal restrictions and other forms of repression” (Toepler et al., 2020, p. 1). At the same time, there is also evidence that while the space may be closing for the politically active parts of civil society via governmental restrictions imposed on their ability to obtain foreign funding or increased domestic oversight, such space, in fact, may be expanding for more a-political parts of the sector in efforts to improve quality and availability of social, health, educational, and other public services (Salamon & Toepler, 2015). This ‘opening of space” is taking place as many authoritarian regimes have begun to focus on involving nonprofits in purchase-of-service arrangements to bolster the output legitimacy of the regimes.
Despite these diverse dynamics in state-civil society relations, however, much of the existing literature on civil society and democratization has so far disproportionately focused on one particular type of civil society organization: claims-making (advocacy) NGOs pursuing rights-based agendas. In contrast, service providing organizations are frequently seen as apolitical, and thus not relevant for democratization, or even as depoliticized through cooptation and funding dependencies. In fact, however, these nonprofit service providers are engaged in democracy by performing advocacy roles, serving as platforms for citizen engagement and value expression, and ensuring the broader representation of the various groups of population that the state fails or refuses to serve, among other (Kulmala, 2016; Obuch, 2017; Bogdanova et al., 2018; Dai and Spires, 2018; Toepler & Fröhlich, 2020). Therefore, we argue that it is important to acknowledge and research these critical roles of service providing nonprofits in the process of democratization.
This panel brings together four papers focusing on the role of service-providing organizations in facilitating democratization in the various regions of the world, mostly those regarded as low-income countries. The proposed panel also showcases a variety of disciplinary perspectives illuminating substantive aspects of organizational operations, such as internal democracy, active membership, and participation. The panel contributes to the expansion of comparative nonprofit research and invites its presenting participants and guests to reflect on a variety of aspects about service-providing organizations and democratization.

Sub Unit


Individual Presentations