Global Policy Forum

Stronger Civil Society Means More Power for the Weak

 A group of international NGOs, including CIVICUS, Asian Forum for Human Rights, and Freedom House, have created the “Embattled NGO Assistance Fund” (ENA) to help international NGO workers resist government crackdowns and pressure.  While there are an increasing number of draft laws prohibiting international NGO activity that make aid work particularly necessary, particularly in places where NGOs have challenged government human rights violations, this Guardian article cautions against the “soft power” associated with the majority of foreign aid. Many NGOs, like Freedom House, are primarily funded by governments and use their aid work to promote a specific political agenda. It is important that the ENA fund be used for legitimate, rather than political, humanitarian purposes. 

By Jonathan Glennie

July 7, 2011

There are a few truths in development that I hold to be self-evident and this is one of them: no matter what the problem, stronger civil society is always part of the answer. Unfortunately, as my colleague David Booth has pointed out to me, I don't have much evidence for this assertion, and on the face of it, it appears weak (don't you hate it when people insist on evidence?).

If we define development as rapidly rising living standards, some of the fastest growing countries in recent decades (such as China and the East Asian tigers) have been authoritarian regimes with little independent civil society. If we define development as the provision of public goods, like health and education, then a country like Cuba does very well, despite clamping down on dissent.

However, while growth in the last decade has been fairly spectacular in many parts of the world, the fruits of that growth have been shared very unevenly, with inequality generally growing. Strengthening civil society, in my view, will lend political power to those parts of society that need to argue for their needs and rights.

Furthermore, if we allow a broader definition of development, one that covers political and civil rights, not just "MDG-style" improvements in health, education and income, then one of the central aims of development is to enable ("empower") poor people to hold the powerful accountable. That, surely, is what civil society does at its best.

So it is good to see that a new coalition of international NGOs including Frontline Defenders (with whom I have collaborated in the past), Civicus, Freedom House and the Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development, has set up what they are calling the Embattled NGO Assistance Fund. The aim of this fund is to "help civil society activists withstand crackdowns and pressure, enabling them to continue their work to defend citizens' rights and freedoms".

Many people now agree that gradually direct aid to governments needs to be replaced by support to non-governmental activities, including the strengthening of those necessary parts of an effective and democratic state that are not centralised in the government.

There is, however, one major problem – the same one as ever. Aid is a form of soft power used by rich countries to gain influence abroad. Andrew Mitchell, the British development minister, made this memorably clear recently by calling for Britain to be an "aid superpower". That influence has often been used benignly, but equally often it has been used to shore up the interests of those powerful countries. This is a complex paradox at the heart of the development agenda, and it is often most apparent in work on political freedoms.

One of the founding members of the coalition is Freedom House, a US NGO set up 70 years ago to work at home and abroad on embedding political and civil rights. The work it does is commendable, and its ranking of countries as "free", "partially free", "unfree" is used widely. Nevertheless, concerns have been expressed about its strong alignment to US foreign policy interests. You would have to be slightly naive not to notice that 80% of the organisation's funding comes from the US government, and it is hard to understand how such arch-enemies of human rights as Otto Reich, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz have made it onto the board in the past.

This is not to say Freedom House doesn't do important work, but it does bring out the tension inherent in foreign governments supporting political rights (and any kind of development) in countries where they also have strategic interests. Which NGOs will receive funding, and which will be ignored? Those decisions matter if large amounts of money are involved.

Passing money through NGO consortia, as is the case with this new fund, rather than spending it as direct government aid, is generally a good way of reducing the political baggage that comes with it. When I worked at an NGO, I managed a lot of government money and we were given plenty of space to spend it as we saw fit. But the essential conundrum remains: it is hard to separate this kind of funding from the ideology and interests of the giver. Can foreign countries be trusted to support the interests of the poor and voiceless rather than putting their own interests first?

The answer, in short, is no. But there is no better option. The grave situation of human rights defenders in many countries requires concerted action, even if motives turn murky. Examples in the press release for the new fund include "a draft law in Cambodia to increase government control over NGOs, government freezes on NGO bank accounts in Ethiopia, the detention and torture of human rights defenders in Bahrain, coordinated attacks against and restrictions on the movement of opposition members in Iran, and the violent dispersal of demonstrations in Belarus".

Aid is certainly a tool in the armoury of some foreign policy apparatchiks to achieve their self-interested aims (think Otto Reich, Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz), but there are others with more holistic aims than simply the national interest. They exist in governments all over the world, and are especially common in aid ministries, and they need to get their hands on as much money as possible to plough into relatively more progressive endeavours. Because you can be sure the other side is doing the same.

I would be surprised if this new fund wasn't broadly a force for good in the world, particularly as the NGOs involved have demonstrated their independence and deep concern for human rights regardless of politics. And I am going to stick to my belief, evidenced or not. Whatever the assessment an external actor makes of a country's situation, one of the best things it can do is support the growth and development of independent community organisations, NGOs and the media.


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