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. 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. 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.

Foreign-funded NGOs can actually help make societies more meaningfully democratic. In practice, as opposed to democracy’s idealized theory, many citizens are voiceless and unrepresented. Foreign-funded NGOs can help give them a voice. Rural Indian villagers living near nuclear plants are the ones who most directly bear the costs of the Modi government’s development push. They shouldn’t have a veto, but they should have a say. These small farmers can’t make themselves heard, however, either in India’s parliament or in their state legislatures. After all, the costs of political mobilization are prohibitive for those living hand to mouth. Funding from foreign environmentalist groups, which share villagers’ concerns, lowers the costs of mobilization and helps compensate for Indian democracy’s deficits. Starving these local activists of such funding would deprive them of representation.

The second objection to foreign funding is rooted in nationalism. From this perspective, the funders — especially government aid agencies — are not apolitical humanitarians but loyal servants of their own nations’ selfish interests. By funding local NGOs, giving their ideas unwarranted prominence, and underwriting their activities, foreign government donors seek to shift the target state’s policies to their own, at times reprehensible, ends. This means, critics argue, that no matter how sincere local activists may be, they are succumbing to the call of foreign sirens when they embrace foreign money. Their reliance on external aid makes them — in effect if not intent — foreign agents doing the will of outside governments. As India’s Intelligence Bureau put it in 2014, “Foreign donors lead local NGOs to provide field reports which are used to build a record against India and serve as tools for the strategic foreign policy interests of the Western government.” From Russia to Israel, similar accusations fly against human rights activists. Local activists, according to this view, are essentially traitors.

This argument cannot be easily dismissed, especially today. With good reason, Westerners have railed against surreptitious Russian meddling in their elections, just as non-Westerners have long feared U.S. and Russian interference in their elections. Most Westerners, however, cannot seem to understand that many political elites and even some ordinary people across the globe — Russians, Indians, Israelis, Ethiopians, and many others — see Western support of liberal NGOs in their countries as equally unwarranted intrusions.

But there is a crucial difference. Local rights activists are products of their own societies, pursuing their own principled ideals. Unlike classic foreign agents, they are not working as lobbyists for foreign governments or taking orders from foreign officials. Giving an amplifier to an acoustic rocker allows her to play in a larger venue and to a larger crowd, but her sound remains authentic. So, too, with almost all local activists. Foreign funding makes their voices louder but does not change the activists’ identity or message. When their voices are amplified, that surely shapes domestic politics. But foreign donors did not create an NGO sector from scratch; it exists because of local citizens’ grievances and demands.

Local NGOs can, and should, work harder to cultivate domestic support, both financial and political. The stronger their local financial base, the better they will weather global economic storms. The stronger their local political base, the better they will resist domestic scapegoating. But their reliance on outside aid should not be mistaken as anti-democratic or seditious.

Defenders of democracy everywhere — in the developed and the developing world alike — should welcome foreign funding of local NGOs. Democracy is much more than free and fair elections alone. At its heart lies the idea that competition among meaningful alternatives generates better policy outcomes — or at least helps governments avoid the worst ones.

Democracy fails if it does not nurture and sustain meaningful alternative political choices and policies. Formal rights to free speech are merely a means to the end of freewheeling policy debate and competition. If real local alternatives can’t get a hearing due to a lack of domestic funding, the democratic marketplace of ideas suffers, and democracy cannot fulfill its promise. Sometimes, local democracy can get by only with a little help from its (foreign) friends.

Originally published at on June 7, 2018.


James Ron grew up in Israel and taught sociology in American, Canadian and Mexican universities.

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James Ron

James Ron grew up in Israel and taught sociology in American, Canadian and Mexican universities.