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Emerging Voices: On NGOs and Democratization

Earlier this summer, Julie Fisher appeared as a guest blogger for The Council on Foreign Relations. The following post appeared on their blog on August 8. 

Although democracy brings no guarantees, there is growing global awareness that repressive systems of government are incapable of implementing the socioeconomic and environmental changes essential for the survival of humanity. Fortunately, frustrated citizens around the world are taking to the streets and demanding more honest, accountable, and democratic governance.

Still, Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization, listed only ninety countries as “free” by the end of 2012–a decline since 2006 and only a slight improvement since the 1990s. And according to Freedom House’s 2013 Freedom in the World report, twenty-seven countries have declined in freedom over the past year. These findings support political scientist Larry Diamond’s claim that the world is experiencing a democratic recession. This is in part because, although they are an important ingredient, demonstrations alone do not build democracy. In order for change to stick, there must be a flourishing community of autonomous non-governmental institutions — in other words, civil society.

The good news is that leaders of the global associational revolution, which began forty years ago when nonprofits and NGOs began to address issues ignored by unaccountable governments, are beginning to turn their attention to democratization, as I discuss in my latest book Importing Democracy: The Role of NGOs in South Africa, Tajikistan, and Argentina. In the 1970s, thousands of NGOs focused on sustainable development were founded. The 1980s saw the rise of human rights NGOs, even before the collapse of the Soviet Union. And, as I chronicle in Importing Democracy, a new breed of NGOs began adopting democratic concepts and revitalizing local democratic traditions, such as village councils, in the 1990s. In Tajikistan, for example, an NGO called Jahan has been able to retrain local police in human rights law and humane treatment of suspects.

But, as Will Dobson argues in his book, The Dictator’s Learning Curve, authoritarian governments are now cracking down on NGOs. Ten years ago, most governments, particularly authoritarian ones, were either unaware of civil society or dismissed it as insignificant. Now, however, governments are fearful of political opposition and are systematically suppressing civil society and those who support it in places such as Russiaand Egypt.

International actors need to think long and hard about how to protect pro-democracy individuals and organizations abroad. Foreign donors must also avoid the trap of assuming that they know what another country needs. A recent report on international support for NGOs in Cyprus, published by the Peace Research Institute Oslo, found that “International donors continue to underestimate the importance of peace-orientated civil society and instead attempt to institutionalize, co-opt or marginalize [NGOs].” The report went on to suggest that “donors would do well to see themselves as servants and guardians of [civil society] and its hidden agency and potential, rather than its managers.”

Wealthy donors and international NGOs should learn from and reach out to the thousands of indigenous democratization NGOs promoting change in their home countries. In The Dictator’s Learning Curve, Dobson offers examples of small innovative international NGOs that have successfully reached out to local activists. Otpor, for example, an organization led by the activists who helped overthrow Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, holds clandestine workshops for democracy activists around the world. Similarly, the Albert Einstein Institution (AEI) seeks to encourage nonviolent action and democratization abroad. AEI’s pamphlet From Dictatorship to Democracy, a seventy-nine-page how-to guide, has been translated into twenty-five languages and has been downloaded from the Internet hundreds of thousands of times.

International and indigenous organizations should partner on various projects and exchanges, including facilitating internships and skills-transfers between different national and international NGOs; leading anti-corruption programs; coordinating reform of international and domestic law; and bringing together democratization, development, human rights, and grassroots leaders and organizations. In the end, repression must be replaced by robust citizenship in order for a prosperous, peaceful, and equal world to flourish. By building on what democratization NGOs are already doing and supporting their efforts to learn from each other, international actors can contribute to this better future.

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