Constraining Is Enabling? Exploring the Influence of National Context on Civil Society Strength

Jelmer Kamstra*, Ben Pelzer, Willem Elbers, Ruerd Ruben

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)


This article analyses the influence of national context on civil society strength based on four key dimensions: level of democracy, political stability, rule of law and economic development. Whereas existing studies mainly focus on Western and post-communist countries, we explicitly include developing countries in our analysis. We use associational membership as proxy for civil society strength and include data of 53 countries. Rule of law, economic development and (to a lesser extent) political stability emerge from our multilevel regression models as the main factors affecting civil society membership. Unlike previous studies, we show that these relations are quadratic instead of linear. This means that where existing theories predict a drop in memberships in developing countries, we find a rise. In other words, harsh conditions actually strengthen civil society in terms of membership levels. We argue that this could be the case because reasons for CSO membership are essentially different in the developed and in the developing world. Contrary to theoretical assumptions, democratic rights do not appear critically important for civil society membership.

Original languageEnglish
Article number3
Pages (from-to)1023-1044
JournalVOLUNTAS: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations
Publication statusPublished - 2016



  • Associational membership
  • Civil society
  • Cross-national analysis
  • Developing countries
  • Enabling environment
  • Multilevel analysis

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