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Resnick, Danielle, and Shilpa Deshpande. 2023. “Illiberal Democracy and Nutrition Advocacy.” Development Policy Review, August.



Across the world, illiberal democracy is on the rise. These majoritarian polities limit individual rights and undermine protections for minorities. Civil society organizations (CSOs) that support human rights and freedom of speech and association in these settings can be repressed.


How does illiberal democracy impact CSOs that lobby for economic and human development? We examine how illiberal democracy affects organizations advocating for nutrition. Ostensibly, improved nutrition is a valence issue that does not threaten a government’s hold on power. But nutrition advocacy may mean criticizing a government’s policies and programmes, and hence be seen by governments as hostile.

Methods and approach

We focus on India, where illiberal democracy has become more pronounced over the last decade. Structured interviews were conducted in 2021 with three dozen advocacy organizations, donors, and government stakeholders who work on nutrition policy in India. We analyse how the financing of nutrition organizations, access to policy-making, and advocacy have been affected under the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

We divide CSOs into organizations that focus on the design of nutrition programmes, those that prioritize evidence-based nutrition policies, and those that advocate for the food and nutrition rights of certain communities, including those who are often marginalized.


Nutrition advocacy organizations’ access to finance has been hampered by amendments to the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA). Partisan ideology and low tolerance of policy accountability affects nutrition CSOs’ access to policy debates and decision-making. Fears about freedom of expression and its impacts on renewal of organizational registrations make the CSOs more timid in their advocacy.

These changes disproportionately affect CSOs that focus on evidence and, above all, those that stand up for rights.

Policy implications

Assessments of enabling environments for nutrition policy need to consider better how partisan ideologies and political settlements exclude some groups in society. Moreover, given that illiberal democracy further weakens the value of evidence in policy-making, donors need to consider how they present evidence and policy feedback when governments see criticism as hostile and politically motivated. Donors also need to consider what illiberal democracy implies for their efforts to support local CSOs: they should be aware that their support can sometimes undermine the legitimacy of CSOs in the eyes of national governments.

The Illiberalism Studies Program studies the different faces of illiberal politics and thought in today’s world, taking into account the diversity of their cultural context, their intellectual genealogy, the sociology of their popular support, and their implications on the international scene.