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Fear of Civil Society: Governments, Repression and Zombie NGOs

More than two decades ago, I published a book about indigenous development NGOs in the Third World.  At that time, my overall impression was that governments were largely unaware of the significance and dramatic growth of civil society in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. This remained true even after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the spread of civil society in Russia and Eastern Europe in the 1990s.

However, during the 1990s governments began to worry that civil society could threaten politics as usual. One reason for this concern was the increasing support for civil society by “official” foreign assistance. Whereas the major international support for Third World NGOs in the 70s and 80s had been “voluntary foreign assistance” provided by international NGOs, by the 1990s, governmental donors (U.S. and western European) had become more prominent, particularly in Russia and Eastern Europe.

International NGOs were, and often continue to be, skilled at finding indigenous partners that already had track records in their own countries. Official donors, especially in the former Soviet sphere in the 1990s, tended, on the other hand, to create NGOs and then fund them, partly  because the growth of indigenous civil society was weaker than in the Third World. 

Not surprisingly, governments in the Third as well as the so-called Second World first turned against NGOs focused on democratization, especially human rights organizations. So, when I did field interviews in preparation for Importing Democracy (2013) with democratization NGOs (including human rights organizations) in South Africa and Argentina, I was pleased but not surprised that at least in these two “flawed democracies”, democratization NGOs were not suppressed. More surprising was Tajikistan, where the 35 plus organizations I interviewed were able to operate despite its authoritarian government, and often had a real impact, particularly on local political participation and freedom of the press. As I researched democratization NGOs in other countries, in preparation for an appendix to the book, I remained encouraged.

There are signs throughout the world, however, that this has begun to change and that government repression has moved beyond Eastern Europe and traditionally repressive countries such as China, to the rest of the world. Thomas Caruthers has described this worrisome trend as the “closing space” for civil society. In 2013, Darin Christensen and Jeremy Weinstein found that most of the 98 countries they studied had either prohibited or restricted foreign funding of any kind for local NGOs. In Russia during the 1990s the Soros Foundation helped literary journals survive and supported university connections to the internet. Now it is banned.

This worrisome global trend is not strictly tied to foreign funding, however. A sweeping law in Uganda prohibits any organization “prejudicial to the dignity of the people.”  In Israel, a proposed NGO bill targets peace and human rights organizations while Settler’s Councils are not regulated at all and receive massive government financial support.  In Azerbaijan, the government has jailed key veterans of the human rights movement. And in a number of countries NGOs have been replaced by what are now called “zombie” NGOs, moribund, but funded by governments.

Would local funding produce less of a backlash? Perhaps it would, particularly in countries where government employees who support civil society have to contend with charges of foreign interference. On the other hand, many governments, while loudly focusing on “foreign donors,” also repress local donors. In Egypt, local philanthropic supporters have been targeted. Environmental NGOs in India supported by local businesses have been attacked by the Modi administration because of perceived challenges to official development plans. Independent local media, another important component of civil society, is also being targeted by many regimes.

Ironically, many governments attacking foreign support for civil society are supportive of foreign business investors and foreign aid that replaces government service provision. Not surprisingly, their key concern is whether funding contributes to reinforcing government policy. So while official foreign support bears some responsibility for what has happened, it is not clear that a shift to voluntary assistance by international NGOs would help.

So, what is to be done? The first priority – better reporting and research- is essential even though it can also be misleading. As Jay Ulfelder has observed, the State Department had one human rights staffer in the early 1970s, and now has over 100. So while repression of civil society has undoubtedly increased, it went largely unreported for many years. Now, when scholars and journalists write about repression, they have to be careful, particularly about the scope and dimensions of their conclusions. 

Years ago governments were largely unaware of civil society, now they misunderstand it. A second priority is, therefore, to ask “What is it that governments don’t understand?”

First of all, governments tend to equate organizational autonomy with opposition. I used the concept of “loyal opposition” as a major theme in Importing Democracy, and applied it to civil society as well a political parties because it kept coming up in my interviews with the leaders of democratization NGOs.  Communicating the meaning of  this apparent contradiction to governments and to the public  is perhaps the toughest democratization challenge that these democracy activists  face.  NGOs could begin to address this by inviting  government officials to observe or be included in NGO programs that are clearly autonomous, but do not threaten the regime. The idea that only NGOs funded by governments (GONGOs or  Government Organized NGOs) are “safe”  has to be consciously undermined. This could strengthen NGO autonomy, if not in dictatorships, at least  in the many flawed democracies where civil society is under siege.

Related to this proposal is the need for a much more widespread public and governmental understanding of the potential contributions of civil society to effective governance. Strong governance has to include  transparency, strengthening the rule of law, improving the lives of ordinary citizens though socio-economic investments, and addressing violence and ethnic extremism.   For their part, civil society activists should seek out and strengthen contacts with individual government officials, because few governments are seamless webs of repression, especially on development issues. In Bolivia, as early as the 1970s, even as cocaine dealers were controlling the apex of governmental power, farsighted individuals in the Ministry of Education were hiring peasants who had already started “development theatres” to teach their communities about boiling water and improving agricultural production.  

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