N.G.O. Bashing

Supporters of the Ukraine’s pro-western oriented presidential candidate Viktor Yuschenko during a rally in Kiev on December 2, 2004. (Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP-Getty Images)

Almost everybody, it seems, has a beef with N.G.O.s these days.

Ahead of recent national elections in Kazakhstan, President Nursultan Nazarbaev warned foreign N.G.O.s inside his country to stay away from Kazakhstan’s internal political process. The Kazakh parliament passed a motion to strengthen restrictions on N.G.O. activity but the constitutional council overruled the bill.

“They [parliament] have seen the dangers that arose in neighboring countries when foreign N.G.O.s insolently pumped in money and destabilized society. The state was defenseless against this.” Nazarbaev said.

Nazarbaev was referring to the so-called “colored” revolutions that have taken place over the last couple of years in Georgia (the rose revolution), Ukraine (the orange revolution), and most recently Kyrgyzstan (the tulip revolution). Back in 2000 Serbia had the velvet revolution, without references to color. The scenario is similar: huge popular protests, organized by opposition parties and N.G.O.s, exert pressure on ruling regimes to surrender. Now other regimes around the world have started to realize the potential power of civil society. And to fear it.

President Alexander Lukashenka of Belarus commented recently: “In our country, there will be no pink or orange, or even banana revolution.” According to him, “All [those] colored revolutions are pure and simple banditry.”

Because of the colored revolutions, Uzbekistan shut down the offices of the Soros foundation in that country. Together with some big U.S. government sponsored organizations, such as the National Endowment for Democracy, National Democratic Institute, International Republican Institute, which work almost exclusively in the field of democracy promotion and sometimes give funding to opposition-oriented groups, the Soros foundation has been sponsoring democratic change in both Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Still, it is not only regimes in power that have had it with N.G.O.s.

Bashar Dost, a former Afghan minister and a candidate in the just completed elections, centered his entire election campaign on N.G.O. bashing. And with success too.

Dost said N.G.O.s were corrupt profit-making enterprises in disguise that do not pay taxes and take up a lot of the money aimed for reconstruction of the country. He wants them expelled — not all of them, just some 2,000 of them.

“We have N.G.O.-ism in Afghanistan,” says Mr. Dost. “Before we had Communism, now it’s N.G.O.-ism.” He adds that the United Nations is also corrupt, even more than the Afghan government.

Dost’s anti-N.G.O. speeches made him very popular with electors, far ahead of other candidates. A former planning minister in the government, he had to resign earlier this year because of his attitude toward and scolding of N.G.O.s.

However, it is not only failed or authoritarian states that have been loud in denouncing the so-called global civil society lately.

This past May, in a speech to the Council of Europe, President Vaclav Klaus of the Czech Republic warned against the phenomenon of post-democracy and criticized groups that “without a democratic mandate try to directly decide various crucial and sensitive public issues.”

“I have in mind various manifestations of N.G.O.-ism, of artificial multiculturalism, of radical human right-ism, of aggressive environmentalism. In these activities, I see new ways of endangering and undermining freedom, which those of us who lived in the communist era take very seriously,” said Klaus.

N.G.O.s quickly fought back and accused Claus of being against freedom of speech.

Berlin-based watchdog Transparency International called Claus’s comments “absolutely flawed.”

Klaus stood on his position: “I do not forbid them their views … it is they who want to forbid me my views, which only shows their inability to live in a free society. It is sad.”

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia has lately been making his position on N.G.O.s known. In July, at a meeting with human rights activists he said that Russia would not tolerate N.G.O.s using foreign money for local political activities.

“We are against overseas funding for the political activities [of N.G.O.s] in Russia. I categorically object,” said Putin, “Not a single state that respects itself does that, and we won’t allow it either.”

In his annual address to the nation, Putin said, “thousands of associations and civil unions exist and work constructively in [Russia]. However, not all of them are concerned with the real interests of the people. For some of these organizations the main objective has become to receive funds from influential foreign and domestic foundations, for others the aim is to serve dubious groups and commercial interests.”

According to experts, the Kremlin started an intensive campaign this year to portray N.G.O.s as foreign enemies and to draw a line between good N.G.O.s that are loyal to the government, and “bad” ones.

Nothing new. A couple of years back the Bush administration realized that N.G.O.s were part of the problem too. On the one hand, N.G.O.s were not making it clear that the assistance they were providing was made possible by the strong financial support of the U.S. government. In the administration’s view, the United States was loosing the publicity battle, in Afghanistan and Iraq, and U.S. N.G.O.s were not doing anything about it. In a speech, USAID Chief Administrator Andrew Natsios said that N.G.O.s should be making it clear that they are an “arm of the U.S. government.”

On the other hand, the United States itself had become a target of human rights advocacy groups such as Amnesty International.

Labor secretary Elaine Chao expressed concern about “N.G.O.s and multilateral organizations becoming key players in global public opinion and global standard setting.”

“They are patiently laying the groundwork in international law, standards and practices that the United States will one day be pressured to adopt,” she warned last year.

A powerful and conservative think tank close to the administration created an “N.G.O. Watch” in 2003 to monitor the their activity. The conference held to launch the project was entitled, “N.G.O.s: The Growing Power of an Unelected Few.”

It is clear that global public opinion has been engaged increasingly with the issue of the “global people-power” as U.N. Secretary General Koffi Annan has described N.G.O.s. Amid the praise, some criticism: N.G.O.s are the world’s largest unregulated industry — that is to say, they often operate without minimum standards, are insufficiently transparent, act like corporations, and are accountable to no one but themselves.

In a recent Newsweek article a trade expert from Columbia University, Jagdish Bhagwati, said that he “can always count on lots of hate mail” when he writes critically about N.G.O.s. He has been criticizing N.G.O.s for entering policy debates they do not understand and ruining good trade deals that can help poor nations

Several years ago, President Gustavo Noboa of Ecuador complained about N.G.O.s that were asking his government to drop an oil and gas development project. He said they were asking Ecuador to put “butterflies, hummingbirds, trees and forests” ahead of “work for our people and food for children.”

Many factors helped to increase the profile of N.G.O.s during the 1990’s — the end of the cold war, growing multilateralism in international relations and leverage of intergovernmental institutions, rising private philanthropy, powerful notions about the need for democracy, human rights and care for the environment.

Now governments are looking back and asking themselves, who unleashed this civil society?

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Risto Karajkov.