In for a bumpy ride: international aid and the closing space for domestic NGOs

Dozens of governments worldwide are reducing the space for civil society to organize and operate.  One of the most important tools in this “pushback” campaign are government actions to limit or stop foreign funding to domestic civil society, often through restrictive laws. Governments are also vilifying domestic NGOs who receive foreign resources and harassing or even expelling international groups offering civil society support. Governments moving against civil society are learning from and copying each other, spreading “worst practices” in a process that darkly mirrors the international aid community’s “best practices” learning efforts.

This pushback hits many civil society organizations hard, especially those working on politically sensitive issues such as human rights. In these and other politically sensitive areas, local funding sources are typically scarce, and dependence on external support is high. To name one example, a draconian NGO law passed in Ethiopia in 2009 has forced numerous local rights groups to curtail or abandon their work.

The anti-civil society pushback is also a significant challenge to Western policymakers and aid practitioners. Confronted with increasing hostility and suspicions about their work, aid providers face a vexing series of problems in high-profile cases such as Egypt, Russia, and Venezuela, but also in less visible places such as Azerbaijan, Cambodia, Kenya, and Nicaragua.

So far, the international community has struggled to mount a coherent response. After scrambling to respond to one case after another, the United States (U.S.) and European governments, along with other affected actors, are developing a more systematic response. On the margins of the United Nations (U.N.) General Assembly meeting last September, for example, President Obama, along with more than twenty other world leaders, issued a call to actionto protect civil  society actors. The U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of assembly and association, Maina Kiai, dedicated a recent report to the issue casting the issue in terms of international legal frameworks, rather than “Western political interests.” Aid providers are providing protective technology and online security training for threatened groups and activists, and an alert system by the Community of Democracies mobilizes diplomacy against repressive NGO laws. International initiatives such as the multi-donor Lifelinehelp by supporting local  advocacy against toxic, anti-NGO legislation.

Yet negative developments still catch international policymakers by surprise. Competing donor interests, poor coordination, and insufficient awareness of the overall global trend weaken diplomatic objections to specific incidents. Western governments’ desire to maintain good relations with restrictive governments such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, moreover, repeatedly trumps the impulse to fight back in a forceful and coherent fashion.

The weak international response to governments’ civil society crackdown is not only a function of inefficient bureaucracies or countervailing geopolitical objectives, however. The global anti-NGO pushback has raised difficult and unresolved questions about the overall nature, scope, and purpose of international support for democracy and human rights. It has reignited the debate about civil society’s dependence on foreign funding, simmering ever since aid providers moved heavily into civil society support in the 1990s.

Indeed, some voices in the aid, activist and scholarly community argue that the pushback against foreign aid provides an opportunity for both civil society and funders to re-think entrenched aid habits. Some activists suggest the solution may not come solely from re-opening doors to foreign assistance, but also through innovative measures designed to stimulate broader local support for civil society. These include technological advances to facilitate crowd-sourced funding, community outreach, and leaner organizational structures.

New measures to boost local financial support for domestic civil society are crucial, but these new approaches are nowhere near ready to make up for lost international aid.   

Another thorny issue is international respect for domestic laws. Should international aid providers comply with local laws designed to block their activities and suppress civil society? When registration procedures are burdensome and arbitrary, should aid providers fund unregistered NGOs doing important human rights work?  Some aid actors, including the U.S. government, are more willing than others.

Aid transparency is another pressing problem. Some argue that providing governments with more information about aid will alleviate fears of foreign subversion. Skeptics counter that greater transparency will only put vulnerable recipients at greater risk, and will not change the minds of governments suspicion of foreign conspiracies in the guides of civil society aid.

The pushback also puts a sharper edge on debates over the political boundaries democracy-promoting actors should respect. Over the past two decades, the scope of democracy assistance programs has expanded considerably to cover a wide range of sensitive issues, including political party development, elections, and support to independent media. The official guiding principle for this politically-related aid is that this support does not “take sides” in domestic political contests. Instead, it only focuses strengthening democratic procedures, values and systems. Implementation of this a-political principle, however, has proven confusing and difficult in practice.

In authoritarian and semi-authoritarian contexts, the line between neutral assistance and partisan support can be ambiguous.  When aid providers argue that they need to help “level the playing field” for pro-democratic parties against nondemocratic incumbents, they may find themselves explicitly supporting opposition forces, as in Belarus. In these contexts, civil society organizations often play the role of de facto political opposition, or are perceived as such.  

Given these complexities, it seems unlikely that anyone will soon come to consensus on “how political” civil society aid should really be.

The global trend toward shrinking civil society space is not temporary, but rather part of a broader shift in international life from a relatively benign post-Cold War context to a more competitive and conflicted global environment. As such, the pushback is likely to remain with the aid community for the foreseeable future.

Aid providers once assumed they could avoid accusations of interventionism by vaguely characterizing their engagement in the socio-political life of other countries as benign “civil society development.” The current pushback shows these hopes were misplaced. 

The next generation of international supporters for human rights and more just, equitable, and free societies will encounter contention and controversy every step of the way.