A major debate within foreign aid literature is whether civil society can be ‘purchased’ through outside assistance. We test this proposition by exploring the influence of aid provided by the United States Agency for International Development on post-communist civil rights environments. A review of research critical of international assistance highlights the risk of unsustainability, polarization and dependence among recipient civic organizations. We argue that a more effective stimulant is socio-economic growth, which stimulates committed constituencies, higher citizen expectations and pressure on the state to protect civil freedoms. Using cross-sectional, time-series data from 27 post-communist countries, we find no evidence that aid independently promotes stronger civil rights environments but that economic growth produces substantial improvements. Further, any aid effectiveness appears to be conditional on economic strength. We conclude that developmental organizations should reassess how and where civil society aid is targeted.