Tarnishing The Halo

By Monroe Price

Increasingly, and for good reason relating to their effectiveness, large-scale global advocacy organizations—Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and many others—are in the crosshairs of governments seeking to keep control over political activity within their borders. Egypt, Russia, Bahrain, Venezuela, Israel and other countries are creating what might be called a jurisprudence of regulation of nonprofit organizations. This occurs as great and ambitious projects, often based in the United States and elsewhere in the West, promote a myriad of social and political issues abroad. This is especially true as repressive regimes link charitable activities to the “meddling” interventions of foreign governments in the United States and elsewhere.

These entities, known as NGOs or non-governmental organizations1, see themselves as forces for good in their efforts to champion a particular cause—protecting the environment, promoting democracy, supporting religious freedom. Many have become large-scale operations, bold and consequential. They operate within a complex formula of international, political, and civil rights, and have become vital innovators in the process of reshaping public opinion and affecting policy.

Neutral Actors or Strategic Players?

NGOs promote themselves as standing for neutral, almost universally acceptable values—often justifiably, elegantly and passionately. The label of “NGO” has, itself, become a status to utilize in arguing for a privileged entry and capacity to function in local and global debates. The category bestows a halo of respect. Yet the perception of these entities is changing.

The great, dramatic NGOs, like Human Rights Watch, seek to gain traction for their causes and build support not only in the societies that gave birth to them, but in the external societies whose texture must be affected if the solutions they put forward are to be globally meaningful. They have become actors affecting political arrangements and the structure of societies.

In short, they are increasingly acting as, and seeking to become, strategic players—and are recognized as such. The environments in which they compete and operate are becoming far more challenging. More nations, particularly repressive and fragile regimes, are seeking to limit their range of actions—to exclude their agents from entering a territory, to threaten them for arrest, to harass them for violations of ordinary laws, including tax laws and currency regulations.

And despite their name and their striving for independence, their very status of “non-governmental” is being questioned. Many NGOs receive substantial funding from the government in their home country; that becomes an excuse for seeing them as surrogates, not independent actors. Their very foreignness also is increasingly a basis for exclusion or discrimination.

Caught in the Crosshairs: NGO Activity and Governmental Restrictions

Many current examples could be provided. In September, Russia announced that it would shut down all USAID activities in the country by October 1, citing the agency’s “attempts to exert influence, via the distribution of grants, upon political processes, including elections of various levels and institutions of civil society.”2  This decision was preceded by Vladimir Putin’s efforts, during an election period marked with a much more robust set of protests than anticipated and an invigorated opposition, to criticize foreign governments for “meddling” and involvement in Russian political processes.

Putin argued that the U.S. Ambassador, Michael McFaul, had been chosen specifically because of his prior work with civil society and was deploying his expertise through an improper involvement in the Russian election cycle. Russia also has provided examples of state efforts to force NGOs to comply with what are supposedly general laws—for example, particular NGOs have been prosecuted for minor currency offenses or tax breaches.

The Arab Spring also has underlined the complexity of government-NGO relationships. Though it has been common to emphasize the role that “the street” and civil society played in building the effectiveness of the protests in the Middle East and North Africa, international NGOs took some degree of credit as well. According to an account by The New York Times, “The United States’ democracy-building campaigns played a bigger role in fomenting protests than was previously known, with key leaders of the movements having been trained by the Americans in campaigning, organizing through new media tools and monitoring elections.”3

The Times report, which drew on interviews and information revealed in the American diplomatic cables released through WikiLeaks, highlighted the growing strains between such organizations and the countries in which they operate. Groups and individuals directly involved in the revolts and reforms—such as the April 6 Youth Movement in Egypt, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, and grassroots activists—received training and financing from various groups. These included the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute (neither of which are technically NGOs, though similar in form and activities), as well as Freedom House, an organization well-known for its ranking of countries in terms of their implementation of free press principles and the assistance it provides in achieving such goals.

These organizations were doing exactly what their funders and donors expected them to accomplish—furthering democratic societies—and it was this, precisely, that was considered a threat.

The WikiLeaks disclosures meant that NGOs and similar organizations found themselves treading a fine line. Any attempts to claim partial credit for the fall of Mubarak would confirm the fears and apprehensions of other governments about the patterns of persuasion in the region and the effectiveness of the NGO strategy of systematic, long-term work with populations to develop leadership, contacts, timing and approaches to political transitions.

The relationship of these entities to political change and to the governments in their home countries flared into significance in late 2011 and early 2012, when Egyptian government officials of the post-Tahrir Square Egyptian military government raided the offices of 17 local and international organizations, including Freedom House, the National Democratic Institute, and the International Republican Institute. Prosecutors charged these entities with violating Egyptian law concerning registration and payment of taxes; in the background were charges, often unsubstantiated, that the organizations were doing more than just providing technical assistance on how to conduct or monitor elections.

Implicit was the argument that the organizations were taking sides—during the key transitional elections, assisting candidates, organizations or groups whose agenda was more compatible with a Western-desired outcome.4 The context was so palpably combustible that employees of the indicted organizations sought asylum in the American Embassy, and representatives of the U.S. Congress threatened to withhold more than a billion dollars in U.S. aid to the Egyptian military. While the Egyptian instances were largely (though not wholly) resolved, they are more importantly seen as a trend, evident also in Russia, Israel and elsewhere, to redefine NGOs in a hostile way.

NGOs and the “Market for Loyalties”

Thomas Carothers, a consistent and perceptive chronicler of the process of NGO assistance for democratic transitions, has written extensively about different moments in the history of this effort, and poses a provocative argument concerning the presence of NGOs in foreign countries and the strategic dimensions that influence their behavior:

There are relatively coherent international norms about democratic political practice, embodied in a raft of multilateral and regional agreements. But there is no well-settled body of norms about acceptable forms of involvement in democratization across borders. In fact, the line between reasonable and unreasonable restrictions on outside political aid is not at all clear. Simply pushing other governments to follow U.S. or Western standards in this area will not help much. To the extent there are generalized standards, they generally allow less space for outside influence than Western democracy promoters usually seek. Would Washington countenance the presence, during elections, of foreign organizations—especially ones funded by a powerful, possibly hostile government—that underwrite and help carry out voter-education campaigns, the training of and provision of material aid to political parties, parallel vote counts, and citizen-mobilization efforts?5  

This perspective offered by Carothers provides one framework for exploring the role that NGOs (particularly those concerned with civil society building and democracy promotion) play. The issue of managing the timing, intensity and effectiveness of domestic political change has nominally been within the remit of national governments; this is the essence of the functioning of what I describe as the governing cartel in the “market for loyalties”—a market where large-scale competitors for power use the regulation of communications to organize imagery and identity among themselves.6   As global NGOs challenge the status quo—claiming new civil and political rights—states react vigorously to assert control and defend against what they perceive to be destabilization.

How this takes place, and the relationship to “rights discourse,” can be seen in the recent examples of particular national reactions, in Russia and Egypt as well as elsewhere. For example, Iran banned contact with more than 100 international civil society organizations and sought to discredit major international human rights organizations.7  And Venezuela, in 2010, passed a law that imposes severe restrictions on Venezuelan NGOs, prompted by President Hugo Chavez’s call against NGOs and political organizations that are financed by the “Yankee Empire.”

Different Roles for Campaigning and Service NGOs—At Least Until Now

There is a distinction to be made between campaigning NGOs and those that can be called “service” NGOs. Medical and children’s charities are archetypal in this latter category. If these service entities have a communications strategy—and many do—it may include efforts to differentiate perceptions in the society where they work from perceptions in societies where they gain financial support and where knowledge of their work in general is essential for their long-time survival.

Campaigning and service NGOs face very different struggles when they enter complex markets for loyalties and attempt to achieve their strategic goals. Service NGOs sometimes have it slightly easier, from a persuasion perspective, as they may be seen not as countering existing political arrangements (even if what they seek to accomplish may underscore regime deficiencies) but rather as solving a problem. For instance, aside from simple service provision, their objective might be to engender large-scale behavior change in fields such as health, where their agenda may be supported by the target country’s government as well.

Yet even this line is blurring, as Oxfam, Save the Children, and Amnesty International are increasingly influential and visible in the public realm, becoming key actors in international debates, rivaling external governments in terms of influence. As they push to become more successful players, these groups rely on the general adoption of a model of access—acceptance of certain international norms—that gives them greater opportunity to function in local and global markets.

They seek the support of their sponsors and donors, including state sponsors, to eliminate restrictions on their capacity to persuade. State sponsors provide this encouragement (as well as financial incentives) so long as the agenda of these representatives of international civil society meshes with the state’s own sense of international goals. And even those NGOs that are studiously apolitical can be rendered involuntarily political by the mere act of being involved in a contentious situation (Sudan and Somalia have presented examples).8

NGOs are thrillingly ambitious, as they should be. They have achieved amazing successes—both on their own and as supporters of local, grassroots change. They have mobilized. They have set new standards. They have shifted attitudes on issues of great moment. It is no surprise that these accomplishments have attracted the nervous and sometimes nasty oversight of officials, especially those hostile to change.

As strategic players, NGOs are now facing these issues far more frequently and with extraordinary consequences as to their future. How to respond, how to thrive, how to maintain momentum will require more and more attention, more careful understanding of the competing political forces, more creativity and innovation and greater respect for international human rights norms.

Monroe Price is Director of the Center for Global Communication Studies at the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania and the Joseph and Sadie Danciger Professor of Law and Director of the Howard M. Squadron Program in Law, Media and Society at the Cardozo School of Law. This article is an excerpt from a book in progress, with the working title of Seeking Resilience, Confronting Anxiety: Strategic Communicators in Global Markets for Loyalties.

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