Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

External civil society and politics

Civil society is an important feature of any political system. Why does it seem that many nations are resisting foreign aid funneled through civil society organizations?

The authors are political scientists at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (Norway) and the University of Minnesota.

Across the globe, governments are cracking down on civic organizations. This is why.
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…

In many cases, governments hope to delegitimize NGOs by “naming and shaming” these groups as foreign agents backed by foreign funds…

Our research suggests that NGOs need to generate resources from the communities they serve. This will make them accountable to these communities and enhance their legitimacy. In turn, this resource exchange will incentivize local communities to step up and protect the civic sector from governmental interference…

One reason for the spread of civil society was the way donors chose to deliver foreign aid to developing countries. Frustrated by the perceived ineffectiveness of foreign aid to foster economic development abroad, donors have funneled development aid to NGOs, viewing them as more honest, accountable and responsive to the public’s needs than governments…

Governments love foreign aid when it pays for scarce services, but prefer, whenever possible, to keep it flowing through their own bureaucracies…

[T]rouble 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. When governments will not, or cannot, respond, they become a target for NGO critiques.

Over time, NGO criticisms can make it appear — in government officials’ eyes — that they have sided with the political opposition. At the very least, NGO reports and news conferences may provide a focal point for anti-government rhetoric and mobilization, especially in major cities and in strategic international arenas.

And so governments respond by playing the nationalism card, highlighting the “foreign agent” aspect of these NGOs’ budgets…

Governments know that crackdowns may cost them internationally, but they are often willing to run the risk of censure or criticism. Their bigger fear, however, is widespread domestic protest…

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. If international donors truly want to help develop civil society groups, a good place to start might be an effort to broaden their fundraising activities on the local level.

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