Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The silent war on NGOs

Underneath all those hot regional conflicts, another war is being fought — one that is conducted much more silently and stealthily. This silent war is nevertheless bound to have a big impact on the global stage. It undermines the very foundations of social progress and stronger democratic rights for hundreds of millions of people around the world.   

This war is conducted by governments in as many as 50 countries, ranging from India to Egypt, Peru and Bolivia to Cambodia, and prominently including Russia and China.

These governments are systematically eroding the operating space of civil society, mainly by issuing a raft of new laws and regulations that impede the work of NGOs.

Measures taken range from sheer intimidation to arrest — and also include licensing requirements, office closures, the blocking of websites as well as the freezing of accounts.

Serving as the co-head of one of Germany’s largest foundations, in our case one primarily focused on promoting sustainable development and civic rights, I know that NGOs can be controversial anywhere, including in our own country, Germany.  But ultimately, that is their essential role. Their purpose and function is to provide ideas and inputs into the very challenging task of advancing societies.  

 Governments everywhere, including those in the Western world, are under great pressure these days.   It is not becoming any easier to manage people’s aspirations and secure or improve their livelihoods.

But civil society plays a critical role in that task, including many NGOs founded and based in developing countries and operated by these countries’ citizens.

To their credit, and to their society’s benefit, an increasing number of NGOs in developing countries have managed to build up networks of intellectual and operational, as well as in some cases financial, support from well-established NGOs in the Western world.

 It is understandable — and entirely legitimate — that the role of foreign NGOs receives critical attention.  And while there may be some “bad apples,” my experience — based on well over two decades of working in this field and covering a vast range of activities in many countries — is that there are very few such cases.

That is why I am very concerned about the present wave of broadly levied — and often unspecified – charges that foreign NGOs improperly seek to influence the domestic affairs in these countries.

For example, Russian lawmakers claim they merely want to ban “undesirable” groups that want to achieve the overthrow of Russia’s government. China says domestic “social organizations” are spreading “Western values.” In Bolivia, the Vice President alleges NGOs are “lying and political meddling” in pursuit of “transnational imperial policy.” And India has accused what it described as “political” (but what is really environmental) NGOs of delaying infrastructure projects in the “national interest” on behalf of foreign parties.

The key point here is simple: NGO activity everywhere essentially follows a demand model. Where there is a problem, it tends to be a good thing if both the government as well as nongovernmental actors respond to the challenge at hand.

NGOs, foreign and domestic, add their competence, capacities and their sense of caring to dealing with these problems. Seeking to push them into the sphere of illegality, whether this strategy is applied to domestic NGOs and/or to their foreign NGO partners, ultimately yields no benefits.

The reason for that is clear: The underlying problems don’t go away. Rather, the opposite effect is achieved. By hampering the work of the NGOs, fewer hands and minds can be brought to bear on resolving the actual problems.

It is a long journey to resolve the various vexing problems that societies face, beginning with our home countries. Coincidentally, that is also why,  virtually nobody who leads an NGO in the developed world is under any illusion that, say, “the West” has the answers for everyone else.    But it is far better to benefit from one another’s experience, learn from one another and collaborate with each other than pursue go-it-alone solutions.

Just as this go-it-alone approach has failed as a strategy with regard to national economic development, so it is bound to be with the social and political development of nations.

Barbara Unmüssig, Berlin is Co-President, Heinrich Boell Foundation, Berlin, Germany.

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