Authoritarian regimes have cracked down on civil society groups receiving international assistance because foreign-funded NGOs are threatening for all manner of reasons, analysts Kendra Dupuy, James Ron and Aseem Prakash write for Open Democracy:
First, they tend to enjoy strong reputations among international audiences, a credibility that is both cause and effect of the aid they received. They also tend to unearth sensitive information, fueling concerns over government malfeasance. Many leaders of foreign funded NGOs, moreover, enjoy close personal ties to international personalities such as activists, journalists, and diplomats. As previous research has demonstrated, ties of this sort can be crucial sources of visibility and influence.
What can local and international actors do to combat this trend?:
First, they must realize that foreign aid is always political, regardless of whether it flows through governments, unions, churches or NGOs. Money enhances the legitimacy and influence of those who receive and disburse it. Aid inflows will always strengthen, or disrupt, established patterns of control. Larger inflows of aid will cause even greater uncertainty as actors scramble for advantage. Donors may proclaim that their assistance is purely technical, but few on the receiving end will buy this argument.
Second, both international donors and domestic NGOs must realize that the risk of a crackdown is often highest following contested elections. NGOs and donors should prepare in advance with reserve funds, emergency plans and pre-election legislation to protect them in the post-election period. In the run-up to elections, governments may be more willing to tie their hands than immediately thereafter.
Third, our statistical analysis shows that the likelihood of crackdown is reduced when international NGOs have a larger, formal, in-country presence. More specifically, when the number of per-country registered international NGOs is roughly triple the sample average of 667, the risk of a legal crackdown drops by 12-15%. About 40 countries in our sample have over 1800 registered international NGOs, and while high numbers of this sort do not guarantee protection, they do reduce the probability that governments will pass restrictive foreign aid laws.
This clustering of in-country international NGOs boosts their ability to lobby nationally and internationally against government crackdowns. Even the most repressive government dislikes being internationally “named and shamed,” and external criticism is often highest when international activists are physically present. In Kenya, it is precisely one such organizationally dense coalition of international and local activists that helped block last year’s draconian, government-inspired anti-foreign funding law.
Finally, domestic civil society must raise more funds locally. External actors can and should help, but empowered and thriving civil societies must inevitably spring from below. No matter how well intentioned, foreign aid cannot produce grass roots empowerment from above.