Why governments are cracking down on civil society


Why are some governments cracking down on civil society or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)? By our count, 39 of the world’s 153 low- and middle-income countries enacted restrictive funding laws between 1993 and 2012, targeting NGOs operating in-country with foreign funding, note analysts Kendra Dupuy, James Ron and Aseem Prakash.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Western governments, international organizations and private foundations turned to NGOs in the belief that foreign monies could help create vibrant, pro-democratic civil societies in nascent democracies, they write for The Washington Post:

Social scientists such as Robert PutnamElinor Ostrom and James Coleman, for example, found that domestic civil society plays a crucial role in development and democracy. Civil society scholar Lester Salamon wrote in 1994 that an “associational revolution” was fundamentally transforming the world…Foreign policy expert Jessica Mathews said a global “power shift” was transferring political clout to NGOs.

Logically, there is no reason to suspect that NGOs, in and of themselves, pose an inherent threat to political incumbents. Instead, the trouble seems to start when these groups embrace a “rights-based approach” arguing that citizens have a basic “right” to transparent, accountable and adequate public services, they add:

Scholarly understanding of the factors systematically driving public support — or lack thereof — for local NGOs is still nascent. When NGOs depend on outsiders for their existence, they are drawn into an “NGO scramble” for international aid that leaves them locally disconnected and politically vulnerable. …To avoid a politically unfortunate “NGOization” of civil society, domestic groups must raise more local funds. Although difficult, raising money for local NGOs is not impossible — research shows that people in developing countries already contribute to charity, especially religious charities.

“The challenge now is to motivate support for locally based, human rights-oriented civic actors,” they suggest. “If international donors truly want to help develop civil society groups, a good place to start might be an effort to broaden fundraising activities on the local level.”


Kendra Dupuy is a political economist at Chr. Michelsen Institute and a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo in Norway. James Ron is a professor of political science and public affairs at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, and the editor of OpenGlobalRights. Aseem Prakash is professor of political science and the Walker Family professor at the University of Washington in Seattle.

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