Brown University

So you want to weaken your civil society? Cut off its foreign funding. By Victor Brechenmacher @ Brown University

On Saturday, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed into law a bill mandating that all foreign-funded media in Russia register as ‘foreign agents.’ The move echoes a 2012 Russian law requiring the same of any domestic NGO receiving external funding. In June, Hungary passed a law forcing any NGO that receives more than 24,000 Euros a year in foreign donations to register as a ‘foreign-supported organization.’ Israel set up a similar register in 2016, requiring any NGO getting more than half of its funds from abroad to indicate this fact prominently in its publications. Prime Minister Netanyahu has since been calling for limits on foreign funding to Israeli civil society groups.

If you’re spotting a pattern, you’re on to something. Authoritarian regimes have always sought to defang civil society as a potential source of dissent, but the three cases above are part of a new trend. Instead of trying to overtly coopt or repress civil society, many states are turning to a simpler strategy: starving out civil society groups that rely on foreign assistance under the guise of protecting national sovereignty. This trend extends beyond outright authoritarian states – Hungary and Israel were both classified as ‘free’ in this year’s Freedom House ranking – and it represents a threat to democratic consolidation worldwide.

Why is an independent and well-funded civil society vital for democracy? One answer lies in the idea of responsiveness, as articulated by scholars like Robert Dahl: If a democratic government is supposed to be responsive its citizens, people need the institutional space to develop and communicate their interests in a setting free from state control. Civil society organizations (CSOs) provide this space in countless ways. Anticorruption watchdog groups and election monitors act as alternative sources of information and transparency. Many NGOs work to increase people’s ability to articulate informed interests, be it through human rights advocacy, civic education, women’s empowerment, or environmental activism. Meanwhile, other NGOs work to make states better at responding to these interests, providing assistance and training to parties and parliamentarians in fledgling democracies. Others yet work to strengthen the rule of law by training judges.

Such activities are often a thorn in the side of incumbent political leaders. Rulers seeking to tighten their grip on power feel threatened by independent civil society and its capacity to organize and mobilize people. This is particularly true for groups promoting democracy and the rule of law. In the traditional authoritarian playbook, the response to this threat is a mix of cooptation, repression and violence. This strategy persists today, but it has become costlier. Scholars like Nancy Bermeo and Ozan Varol argue that nowadays, states which openly flout democratic norms run the risk of facing international opprobrium and even sanctions.

In response, many rulers have devised more subtle strategies to hold on to power. This kind of “stealth authoritarianism,” as Varol calls it, has reshaped how states seek to control civil society. Aware that many domestic NGOs engaged in democracy promotion rely on foreign funding and grants to carry out their work, governments set up administrative and legal hurdles to limit or block this funding.

These hurdles come in many different varieties, according to a 2014 study by researchers at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Some states, such as Ethiopia, impose limits on the permissible percentage of foreign funding. Others, such as India or Venezuela, restrict or ban foreign funding for issues like human rights. Other popular measures include onerous registration and reporting requirements as well as government discretion over allowing or blocking funds from abroad. The measures substitute the power of red tape for the blunt force of the police baton, but they are no less consequential: Of the 158 NGOs labeled as ‘foreign agents’ by the Russian government as of September 2017, some 30 groups shut down rather than work under the label, according to Human Rights Watch.

The new rules often go hand in hand with government attempts to portray NGOs that receive external funding as puppets doing the bidding of foreign masters. The restrictions, so the argument goes, are in place to ensure transparency and prevent the subversion of democracy by outside powers. In the Hungarian case, the push to register foreign-backed NGOs has coincided with a sustained public campaign against Hungarian-born US financier and philanthropist George Soros, whose foundation supports pro-democracy civil society groups in Hungary. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has accused Soros of trying to undermine Europe by stoking mass refugee migration, and his government has put up anti-Soros billboards around the country. Similarly, after Uganda passed a restrictive NGO law in 2015, a human rights activist described the Ugandan government as “flash[ing] the sovereignty card demonizing NGOs as agents of foreign interests.” When Russia expelled USAID in 2012, it accused the US agency, which had provided funding to many pro-democracy groups inside Russia, of meddling in its elections.

This is an intuitive, but ultimately unconvincing rhetorical strategy. Granted, foreign attempts to directly shape political outcomes in a country, e.g. by interfering in an election, clearly run counter to democratic norms. After all, foreign governments are not accountable to the citizens of the state whose politics they are influencing. Likewise, states usually limit foreign the rights of foreign individuals and groups to participate in national politics, for example by prohibiting them from voting or making donations in national elections.

However, foreign-backed providers of democracy assistance tend to argue that their activities are non-partisan and aimed at consolidating democratic processes in general, rather than at favoring one political actor or group over another. As the authors of the 2014 Carnegie study note, this distinction is often a challenging one in practice, and even civil society is often rife with partisan divisions. But the authors also point out that, when democracy promotion benefits some actors more than others, “donors have argued that they are not taking sides in a pluralist, democratic context, but instead helping level an uneven playing field to give pro-democratic actors a better chance.”

This distinction should not be missed. Inevitably, efforts at promoting an independent civil society in a semi-authoritarian setting run up against the interests of entrenched political elites. Efforts at strengthening democratic norms in such a setting – e.g., by supporting election monitors – often amount to empowering dissidents, but this is not so much by design as by definition. The bottom line is that countries are legally entitled to invoke national sovereignty to shut CSOs up from foreign funding, but this does not mean that such measures will strengthen democracy – quite to the contrary. Cutting off a crucial lifeline for a robust civil society from the outside, governments are working to ensure that they face less dissent from within.


  1. Jonathan Silin

    December 7, 2017 at 5:31 pm

    Victor, I think your piece is very timely in concisely addressing a problem that appears to be indiscriminately affecting the entire world. As you point out, the presence of civil society is a mark of the Dahlian responsiveness of a democratic government. However, I think that we ought to view healthy civil society in the context of is responsitivity. By this I mean the role civil society and CSOs play in vocalizing in revealing and demonstrating against government injustice and the infraction against democratic rights. Recent events in Kyrgyzstan speak volumes to this point. In May 2016, Kyrgyz lawmakers rejected a similar law that would target NGOs receiving foreign funding. An assortment of citizen groups, human rights NGOs and parliamentarians opposed to the bill rallied together to show their strong disapproval. In this sense, there is a certain truth to the circular argument that a strong civil society is key to a strong civil society. On a more serious note, this can be understood as a vocal civil society is key to a strong civil society. Of course, in the case of Kyrgyzstan, liberal members parliament willing to listen also played an important role in containing the government’s stealth authoritarian tactics. Using Kyrgyzstan to answer the question your post implicitly sets up––what can be done to stop such legislation?––it appears that an outspoken civil society and a group of political elites sympathetic to liberalism can serve as a winning combination in combating such acts of stealth authoritarianism.

  2. Artur Avkhadiev

    December 7, 2017 at 7:53 pm

    It is interesting that even in the case when foreign funding is cut off, civil society can find the means to sustain itself. In the case of Russia, NGOs like the Anti-Corruption Foundation have fostered the culture of donations and adapted to operate independently from foreign funding, To a large extent, the Internet facilitated the success of the new funding model: most of the outreach efforts of donation-run NGOs take place online, and most of the donations are wired via online payment services like PayPal. Increased activity of NGOs online is also shaping modern Russian civil society. Over the last several years, the number of young people — among them, even high school students! — participating in public demonstrations and protests has increased significantly.

    It seems that in response to the Russian government’s attempts to weaken democracy, civil society mutated, becoming more resilient and strong. Lust and Waldner point out that direct foreign funding is associated with democratic backsliding. They explain that direct financial assistance undermines the incentives the government may have to remain responsive and accountable to its citizens, thus creating a potential for democratic erosion. To a lesser extent, it may be true that forcing civil society groups to depend on domestic decentralized sources of funding, such as donations of private citizens via the Internet, can actually strengthen civil society and contribute to democratic consolidation. That said, I absolutely agree that strengthening civil society is not the Kremlin’s motivation for cutting off foreign funding.

    1. Victor Brechenmacher

      December 7, 2017 at 8:40 pm

      Artur, I think you make a number of interesting points. You’re right in pointing out that limitations on foreign funding need not be a death-knell for civil society organizations invested in democracy promotion – in fact, it can lead them to innovate and seek other funding channels. I also agree that seeking individual donations on a domestic level can help counter some of the criticisms often levelled against foreign-backed NGOs, especially the suspicion that their agenda is excessively shaped by the priorities and mindset of foreign donors (the supply side), rather than by domestic needs (the demand side). To the extent that such problems exist, a greater reliance on individual, domestic donations may actually lead to improvements.
      I would add that funding is not the only way that CSOs interact and strengthen each other across borders. Training programs, exchanges, and the building of transnational activist networks (TANs) are also a crucial way in which domestic CSOs can leverage international connections, and these paths are not necessarily closed-off by state-imposed funding restrictions.
      That said, I would caution against too much optimism: Civil society organizations can prove resilient and innovative, but they are forced to be innovative because their range of action is being restricted – after all, many CSOs already benefit from individual donations to sustain part of their operations, but foreign funding restrictions mean that they have to expand these fund-raising efforts to make up for lost income from other sources. This inevitably means uncertainty and the need to spend more time than before trying to obtain funds – not exactly an optimal outcome.

  3. Roxana Sanchez

    December 11, 2017 at 7:12 am

    I agree with you Victor that a country validly invoking its sovereignty to cut off foreign funding for CSOs is not an intentional step towards democracy. I would argue that it is not as detrimental as it might seem, especially in countries that have experienced NGOzation. Granted that the countries that have experienced NGOization are often the ones that have also experienced civil war and internationally sponsored reconstruction. But they stand as a loose counterfactual of the negative effects of such a big reliance of foreign funding.

    While it is true that political opponents exaggerate the use of foreign funding of CSOs as the strings that allow foreign masters to control national politics, to gain political capital, that claim is not 100% deniable. In my own research regarding NGOs in Sierra Leone, Dr. Marda Mustapha, expressed concern that the heavy reliance on foreign funding leads to an inherent deformation of interests that occured because of the interests of foreign funders. Which does not lead to a healthy local civil society in the long term. While in the cases of clearly semi-authoritarian regimes such as Russia- it is clear that the intention is to weaken civil society, that might not necessarily be the outcome. There is something to be said about the fact that one of the most significant contributions of NGOs is their injecting and spreading of norms, in this case democratic ones. I guess the real test here is to see how much of those norms stick around despite the cutting off of foreign funding and whether this will force more local and citizen-led manifestations of democratic norms in civil society.

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