Democracies Need a Little Help From Their Friends

India may be the world’s largest democracy, but it is also extremely hostile to nongovernmental organizations, which Prime Minister Narendra Modi has accused of everything from hindering economic growth to conspiring to bring down his government. In recent years, a major flash point has been the Kudankulam nuclear power plant in the southern state of Tamil Nadu. Modi is eager to bring electricity to the 300 million rural Indians lacking power, and he sees nuclear plants as the solution. More plants are reportedly coming to other parts of the country, and the government versus NGO battle is likely to heat up.

Indian environmentalists protesting Kudankulam’s expansion are a thorn in the government’s side, and many rely heavily on foreign funding for their operations. Modi accuses these and other foreign-supported groups of preventing him from lifting the nation out of poverty. In a leaked 2014 report, India’s Intelligence Bureau, the country’s internal security service, estimated that environmentalist NGOs were costing the country 2 to 3 percent annually in economic growth. The bureau went on to allege that foreign donors, both governmental and private, were illegitimately fueling the protests.

As part of the crackdown, the Modi government has cut Indian NGOs’ access to foreign funding, depriving thousands of organizations of a key financial lifeline. To be fair, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — in power since 2014 — was not the first to try to stanch the flow of foreign money to local NGOs. It was the BJP’s predecessor, the Indian National Congress, that in 2010 updated and tightened the country’s long-standing Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA). Under its terms, civil society groups can receive funds from abroad — whether from governments or private foundations and individuals — only if they are granted the right by the Indian government, which can deny permission for vague reasons such as “activities not conducive to the national interest.”

Although the Congress party devised the FCRA, the restrictive legislation suited the populist, Hindu nationalist BJP even more, and Modi’s government has enforced it very aggressively. On Modi’s watch, in 2016 some 13,000 NGOs had their FCRA licenses canceled or suspended.

On Modi’s watch, in 2016 some 13,000 NGOs had their FCRA licenses canceled or suspended.

Even local branches of larger, more powerful global networks have not escaped the government’s wrath. Major international funders, including an agency of the Danish government, have been placed on Home Ministry watchlists. In addition, Indian officials deregistered Greenpeace India in 2015, reportedly for activities “prejudicially affecting the public interest and economic interest of the state.” And the U.S.-based Christian organization Compassion International, which combats child poverty and is one of India’s largest international donors, announced in February 2017 that it would shut down its India operations. Local Indian NGOs have gotten the message: steer clear of challenging the government, avoid foreign funding, or both.

In defense of its crackdown, the Modi government has charged religious Christian charities with secretly proselytizing, and these allegations may be true in some cases. Clearly this accusation does not apply, however, to secular organizations such as Greenpeace and the Ford Foundation or to Western government aid agencies. The Indian government has also said many Indian NGOs are actually fronts for criminal gangs laundering money; once again, this may be true in some instances. Still, criminal behavior cannot account for the huge number of NGOs being targeted by the government. At stake might be a much deeper philosophical principle: that Indian politics should reflect authentic Indian interests and influences. But that, too, clearly does not much trouble the Modi government, which has ironically made it easier for foreign companies to contribute to Indian political parties and has recently shielded the last 50 years of such contributions from scrutiny.

Modi’s war on India’s NGOs places his country at the forefront of a growing worldwide trend of governments seeking to limit and delegitimize foreign funding to local NGOs.

Modi’s war on India’s NGOs places his country at the forefront of a growing worldwide trend of governments seeking to limit and delegitimize foreign funding to local NGOs.

From Russia to Ethiopia to Hungary to Israel, dozens of governments, authoritarian and democratic alike, have realized that activists cannot live on vision and passion alone. They need money. And governments have lately been using strong-arm tactics to deprive them of funds.

From 1993 to 2012, according to one study, 39 of the world’s 153 low- and middle-income countries passed new restrictions on foreign funding to locally operating NGOs. More have imposed restrictions since. Some, like India, are countries with strong democratic traditions and identities. In Israel, beginning this month, NGOs receiving 50 percent or more of their funding from foreign governments will have to advertise this fact in publications, in correspondence with government officials, and prior to giving testimony in parliament. It is not yet clear how many Israeli NGOs will fall on the wrong side of this threshold. But the law’s clear purpose is to stigmatize as un-Israeli and nefarious those that receive foreign funding — and, generally, these are NGOs on the political left. Indeed, groups that receive private funding, including many associated with the Israeli political right, are not affected by this new law.

This strategy also works well across much of the non-Western world, where progressive civil society relies heavily on foreign funding. In Nigeria, for example, more than 90 percent of local human rights NGOs’ funding comes from foreign sources. In Ethiopia, the number of domestic rights groups plummeted after a 2010 law limiting how much money they could take from abroad.

These government attacks on foreign aid to domestic NGOs may seem, at first glance, to be justified. Foreign funding strikes many as running contrary to the spirit of democracy or as undermining national self-governance. The assault on foreign funding, however, is short-sighted, unwise, and often unjustified.

The first argument put forward by critics is that foreign funding of local NGOs is undemocratic. It’s one thing, they say, when civil society organizations raise the operating funds they need at home. But foreign funding would seem to pervert the will of the people. As the spokesman for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban recently charged, “These organizations definitely don’t have a democratic mandate because they have never been voted for, nobody elected them, and definitely the only force is the money behind them.” The democratic argument against foreign funding seems intuitive. How can democratic government be “of the people, by the people, for the people” when key voices in civil society are receiving funds from foreign individuals and governments — who are by definition not “of the people”?

However, what we know about real democracy should make us skeptical of this line of argument. Most people in most countries in most elections do not vote. Most people do not have the time, resources, or inclination to learn what they need to know about the issues. Most people do not learn enough even to judge whether their leaders have done a good job or have delivered on their promises. Instead, what the people want is often shaped by the ways in which pollsters, political elites, and the media frame issues and options. For all these reasons, on issues including taxation and foreign policy, the voices and preferences of the wealthy and powerful and of concentrated special interests often trump those of the average citizen.

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