Original article found on: The Economist
Sep 13th 2014
THE International Committee of the Red Cross, Médecins Sans Frontières, Human Rights Watch, Transparency International: to most people these and thousands of other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) sound like outfits whose work should be welcomed and encouraged. But that is not how it looks to plenty of governments. In the last few years, around 20 countries have planned or passed laws restricting the freedom of NGOs to raise funds abroad (see article). Some echo the language of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, and now require foreign-funded NGOs to register as “foreign agents”—a phrase that since the cold war has carried the connotation of espionage and treachery.
Many of the new laws grant officials wide discretion in applying them. Russian NGOs face surprise inspections seeking evidence of foreign influence; Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, is “auditing” groups that receive foreign money as part of his self-declared mission to turn his country into an “illiberal state”. Egypt plans to force NGOs to seek permission from a government panel before they can get money from abroad.
Insisting that NGOs are open about where their money comes from and how they spend it is reasonable—especially in the many countries where they receive favourable tax treatment. And proper oversight helps ensure that NGOs are neither fraudulent nor ineffectual. But today’s crackdown is about weakening NGOs, not making them more transparent or effective. It is being undertaken by leaders who, if they accept democracy at all, want it to amount to nothing more than a tame vote every few years. Foreign donations are an easy target for autocrats whose worst nightmare is a flourishing civil society. NGOs’ activities in the “colour” revolutions a decade ago in the former Soviet Union and, more recently, the Arab spring, have sharpened autocrats’ hostility to them.
It is hardly surprising that leaders like Mr Putin want to curb those who seek to promote democracy, but these laws reach far beyond free speech and human rights. NGOs also suffer if they criticise poor public services, stand up for reviled minorities or disclose facts that the powerful want to hide. Mr Orban has targeted a group that publicises discrimination against Roma and another that runs a hotline for battered women. Among those Mr Putin has dubbed foreign agents are a group of women seeking information about Russian servicemen injured and killed while covertly deployed in Ukraine.
Don’t give them cover
Persuading autocrats who have decided that NGOs pose an existential threat to ease up will be a struggle. But donor countries can help stem the illiberal tide.
Initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership, launched in 2011, which supports governments keen to increase transparency and cut corruption, should help to stop the trend spreading. Trade deals offer some bargaining power: many of the governments seeking to block foreign donations are falling over themselves to attract foreign investment, including by providing legal protection for inbound capital. In future it should be made clear that these extend to funds flowing not just to businesses but to non-profits too.
Rich-country governments also need to avoid building barriers themselves. Heavy-handed enforcement of laws aimed at stopping money-laundering and the funding of terrorism has made it harder to send money to NGOs doing good work in some of the countries where civil society is under attack. A bank that knows a single slip could make it liable to draconian penalties may decide simply to close accounts rather than carry out costly checks or risk an expensive misjudgment.
At last year’s UN General Assembly Barack Obama drew on his own experience as a community organiser to praise NGOs for “making governments more effective and holding leaders like me to account”. He should speak more forcefully at this year’s meeting, which will be held later this month. Most important, though, is for rich democracies to practise what they preach. A recent kerfuffle about foreign governments giving grants to think-tanks in Washington, which sparked talk of illegal meddling in America’s sovereign affairs, offered unhelpful cover for the autocrats who are cracking down on NGOs and activists. They would be delighted to be able to point out that the West does it too.
Correction: An earlier version of this article described Viktor Orban as Hungary’s president instead of its prime minister. This was changed on September 15th.
Original article found on: The Economist