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Recent assaults on foreign-funded civil society groups in Egypt and Russia reflect a worrisome trend: Since 2002, twenty countries have updated their laws to restrict foreign funding to NGOs. Under what conditions do governments set these restrictions in place? Using original data from nearly 100 countries and case studies of regime behavior in East Africa and the former Soviet Union, we find that vulnerable governments restrict foreign support to civil society when they feel vulnerable to domestic challenges. Yet, worries about international retaliation can restrain such behavior if governments believe that clamping down will cost them more than it is worth.

The year 2011 brought many surprises in the Middle East and North Africa, but none greater than the near-upending of the longstanding U.S.-Egyptian security alliance by the seemingly minor issue of foreign funding for civil society.1 In July 2011, five months after President Hosni Mubarak’s fall, Egypt’s Justice Ministry began investigating the activities and funding of numerous nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), including several that received support from the United States. In December, Egyptian police raided a number of NGO offices, seized materials, and arrested 43 civil society workers (including 16 U.S. citizens) on charges of operating without a license, receiving unauthorized foreign funds, and engaging in political activity. Making an issue of outside aid to Egyptian civil society was not new. Mubarak had done it. Indeed, the official driving the probe was a Mubarak-era holdover who repackaged the fallen dictator’s complaints about foreign money coming into Egypt to “promote American and Israeli interests.”

From one angle, Egypt’s decision to target foreign-supported NGOs made a certain sense. Egyptian democracy and human-rights advocates, active in the protests that had toppled Mubarak, had since become vocal critics of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and its handling of the post-Mubarak transition. But in other ways, the government’s response was puzzling. The targeted groups were weak and of scant consequence compared to the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafist parties that were set to dominate the parliamentary elections. Moreover, [End Page 77] the sums in question were small: Out of just over $1.5 billion a year in overall U.S. aid to Egypt, less than $60 million was going to civil society. Most remarkably, the military rulers in Cairo were heightening tensions with Washington at an especially sensitive time, just when the SCAF needed continued U.S. support in the face of mounting protests. The NGO crackdown triggered an unprecedented response from the U.S. Congress, which delayed and threatened to withhold $1.3 billion in military assistance.

Egypt is not alone in taking aggressive action to curtail the activities of foreign-funded NGOs. In July 2012, Russia adopted a law requiring that politically active NGOs receiving foreign funding submit quarterly reports and register with the Justice Ministry as “foreign agents”—a term synonymous with spy in the Russian language. In September came the ejection of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and an expansive redefinition of treason, which now includes foreign NGOs and international groups on the list of potentially treasonous contacts. The law’s authors are openly targeting “groups like Golos, a grassroots election-monitoring organization that actually fielded 50,000 observers in the Duma elections last December . . . Transparency International, the Russian branch, which has done an awful lot of work in naming corrupt officials . . . and the two human rights groups, Memorial and the Moscow Helsinki Group.”2

The Egyptian and Russian cases illustrate a broader trend. In the last few years, the United Arab Emirates has canceled the operating licenses of two international NGOs working on democratic governance, Ecuador has banned projects funded by foreign governments and multilateral organizations, and Zimbabwe has outlawed voter education by foreign-funded NGOs. Restrictive laws are also being considered in Cambodia, Honduras, Iran, and Venezuela. Increased international spending on democracy and governance activities—currently estimated at more than $2 billion annually from the United States alone—is now being countered by controls on whether, how much, and for what purposes NGOs can accept foreign funds.

Scholars and practitioners of democracy promotion have worried about these developments for some time. In the wake of the “color revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, Thomas Carothers identified a “backlash” against international NGOs and foreign funding for local groups. Carl Gershman and Michael Allen linked the “assault on democracy assistance” to the proliferation of hybrid regimes in the aftermath of democracy’s third wave. They argued that anxious autocrats were using these restrictions to hobble their domestic opponents. Though intuitive, this explanation was also puzzling. Carothers framed the question perfectly when he wrote, “Are [these governments] genuinely afraid that relatively modest Western democracy-training programs and financial aid for often weak civic and political groups will [End Page 78] undermine their hold on power, or is this fear just a convenient justification for repressive measures they would take anyway?”3

The growth of this restrictive trend suggests a need for more systematic exploration. How widespread are restrictions on foreign support to civil society? Under what conditions do governments set these restrictions in place? How do donors respond? To answer these questions, it is essential to look both at countries that crack down on external support and those that do not, seeking to identify the factors that distinguish them from one another. Thus our analysis will draw on a new and comprehensive dataset of NGO laws around the world, covering 98 countries, plus a set of careful comparisons of the choices made by a pair of regimes in each of two different regions, East Africa (Rwanda and Uganda) and the former Soviet Union (Belarus and Kazakhstan). All four countries have hybrid regimes, but one government in each pair sought to limit foreign support for domestic NGOs, while the other did not.

The story that emerges is clear: Decisions to restrict foreign support for civil society reflect policy makers’ reading of both domestic and international incentives. Domestic concerns are paramount. Even in partial democracies, vulnerable governments restrict civil society in hopes of weakening groups that might mobilize opposition. Worries about international retaliation can, however, restrain such governments if they come to fear that clamping down will cost them more than it is worth. That some governments seek to squeeze or even cut off civil society’s outside funding is a signal of the efficacy of this form of democracy support. External actors must keep pushing back against restrictions, for without concerted and sustained pushback the space for a free and open civil society—and with it democracy’s prospects in country after country—is likely to shrink even further.

Assessing the Scale and Scope of Restrictions

Governments have various ways to limit the space for domestic civil society. One strategy is to restrict the ability of civil society groups to organize at all. The absence of a constitutional guarantee of freedom of association or the imposition of a mandatory, burdensome registration process can have a chilling effect. Governments also place restrictions on the freedom of civil society groups to engage in political advocacy, through either legal limits on freedom of speech and association or bans on the involvement of NGOs in “political” activities. In addition to imposing legal constraints, regimes also harass and intimidate activists to limit mobilization.

Banning outside funds is another way to disempower and undermine domestic civil society. Restrictions on foreign support for civil society directly target international flows of democracy assistance, which provide essential material and technical aid to nongovernmental groups [End Page 79] that monitor the government, promote human rights, and strengthen the democratic process. It is important to explore foreign-funding restrictions as a distinct policy choice. Fully authoritarian regimes often openly repress independent NGOs in all of these ways; hybrid or democratizing regimes, however, often permit freedom of speech and association while finding other, more subtle ways to limit the scope and scale of independent groups.

Seven years ago, Gershman and Allen estimated that only a quarter of the 80 countries receiving democracy assistance faced these restrictions. Today, the situation has changed substantially. The upward trend in civil society restrictions has continued, and at an increasing pace.

Our data capture information from 98 countries, drawing upon the texts of relevant laws (when available), as well as excellent analyses by the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law or ICNL (34 countries); USAID’s NGO Sustainability Index (48 countries); the World Movement for Democracy (24 countries); Global Integrity (72 countries); and other country reports.4 We consider foreign funding prohibited if the law places a strict upper limit on the receipt of foreign funds for at least a subset of NGOs, and restricted if the law places at least one restriction on the receipt of foreign funds (e.g., requires prior approval or the routing of funds through a state bank or ministry).

It is clear that countries are tightening their regulation of civil society. More than half in our dataset have changed their legal rules to put some form of foreign-funding restriction in place. Twenty countries have enacted new foreign-funding restrictions since 2002. By contrast, only five countries in our dataset have updated their restrictions on political advocacy by NGOs over the same period.

Of our 98 countries, 51 either prohibit (12) or restrict (39) foreign funding of civil society. Even if we assume that all countries for which we have no information are free (which is highly unlikely), at least 26 percent of the UN’s 193 member states limit foreign funding for NGOs. What might explain why some governments actively restrict outside support for NGOs while others do not? Some answers stress domestic politics and others focus on the international environment. With new data in hand, it is possible to put some of these ideas to a simple test.5

The most common explanation holds that governments restrict foreign funding for NGOs in order to prevent political upheaval. In 2005, Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Meles Zenawi explained the expulsion of several foreign-funded civil society groups, stating “there is not going to be a ‘Rose Revolution’ or a ‘Green Revolution’ in Ethiopia after the election.”6 In 2009, his government passed a law prohibiting civil society groups involved in political activities from receiving more than 10 percent of their funding from foreign donors. In July 2012, President Rafael Correa of Ecuador accused foreign NGOs of colluding with rebels and working to replace or destabilize the government; in August, he shut down 16 [End Page 80] foreign-funded NGOs and decreed a ban on further foreign support. These incumbents seem to fear that, given the resources, civil society groups could coordinate a successful electoral opposition or even a revolutionary movement. As an author of Russia’s recent legislation puts it: “There is so much evidence about regime change in Yugoslavia, now in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, in Kosovo—that’s what happens in the world, some governments are working to change regimes in other countries.”7

If this argument is right, we would expect to see restrictions in those countries where, over the last ten years, regimes have sought to prevent the opposition from taking part in elections or undermined the integrity of elections by resorting to fraud.8 Attempts to manipulate elections, in other words, are signs of regime vulnerability. The data suggest this is indeed the case: Most countries with unhindered oppositions and free and fair voting impose no restrictions on foreign funding for NGOs. Conversely, of the countries that engage in electoral manipulation, a majority prohibit or restrict external support for NGOs.

While significant attention has been paid to the potential risks to regimes of a stronger civil society, governments may impose restrictions on foreign funding not to stymie the opposition, but rather to win support among citizens. Where foreign donors are unpopular, leaders can realize a domestic political payoff by limiting donors’ influence—real or perceived. A February 2012 Gallup poll found that 85 percent of Egyptians opposed “the U.S. sending direct aid to Egyptian civil society groups.”9 By restricting foreign funding, Egyptian politicians appear to be responding to electoral incentives. If this argument is correct, countries with high levels of anti-Americanism should be more likely to adopt foreign funding restrictions, as the U.S. provides a large share of the assistance for civil society. Using data from the Pew Global Attitudes Project, we find some evidence that foreign-funding restrictions are more common among countries with high levels of anti-Americanism. However, given the limited coverage of this public-opinion data, these findings should be seen as suggestive at best.

There may be another reason why some governments restrict foreign funding to civil society. Foreign donors increasingly prefer to channel development assistance through NGOs, which they regard as more open and efficient than many recipient governments.10 Governments that rely heavily on foreign aid can be expected to resist this diversion of potential revenues. If this analysis is correct, one would expect to find foreign-funding restrictions in countries that depend on aid but lack quality governance. These are the environments in which donors would be most likely to route [End Page 81] foreign aid through NGOs. By using World Bank data on aid dependence and the quality of governance, we can examine how the extent of restrictions relates to these two factors.11 While restrictions on foreign funding for NGOs are far more likely to be put in place in countries with high levels of foreign assistance, the quality of governance does not appear to matter. Indeed, the enactment of restrictions on civil society may even require a certain level of government capacity. As a result, we may see no restrictions in countries with poor governance, if only because such states may be incapable of putting such restrictions in place.

Whether a government imposes restrictions depends also on its sensitivity to international pressure. Does it fear that the potential costs of retaliation by donor countries and multilateral organizations will outweigh whatever domestic benefits it hopes to gain by restricting civil society’s access to foreign resources?

The costs of restrictions can take several forms. Public criticism is the most visible. The U.S. State Department and Britain’s Foreign Office condemned Russia’s recent legislation as a law “designed to intimidate those civil society activists and organizations that Russia needs most to promote the development of a modern, democratic society.”12 In response to Ethiopia’s 2009 law, the State Department expressed concern that it would “restrict civil society activities and international partners’ ability to support Ethiopia’s own development efforts.”13 Senator Patrick Leahy warned that “abuses of civilians” could cost the country U.S. military assistance.14 The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights recommended that Ecuador, the Gambia, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe—all countries that restrict foreign funding for NGOs—should improve protections for civil society. Canada urged Venezuela to “allow access to international funding so that human rights defenders may continue to carry out their legitimate work.”15

Donors can also sanction restrictive governments by cutting or conditioning foreign assistance. After Egypt’s NGO clampdown, the U.S. Congress for the first time ever attached conditions to military aid bound for Cairo. In response to a restrictive draft law in Cambodia, major international NGOs lobbied donors to reassess their aid commitments, which constitute a major share of the country’s GDP.16 In January 2011, the U.S. State Department urged Cambodia to reconsider the measure, and three months later said that it would “halt its aid if the Cambodian government adopted the law.”17 As of early 2013, the Cambodian government has redrafted the law three times.

Of course, the likelihood and effectiveness of international pressure hinge on the nature of the strategic relationship between the offending country and its donors. Egypt, Ethiopia, and Russia are big or strategically significant enough to risk international disapproval and sanctions. Smaller countries that are less central to U.S. national-security concerns may not feel so confident. Are foreign-funding restrictions more often [End Page 82] found in countries that receive a large share of military aid per capita? We find that countries receiving higher per capita levels of U.S. military aid are more likely to restrict foreign funding for civil society NGOs, but less likely to prohibit such funding altogether. In a class by themselves are certain highly repressive regimes that both receive no U.S. military aid (they are simply too repressive, whatever their strategic value) and ban foreign funding for NGOs. Belarus, Eritrea, and Zimbabwe belong to this group. Among the less democratic countries that are not international pariahs, receiving higher levels of U.S. military aid seems to provide greater leeway for cracking down on U.S. and other foreign support for civil society.

Overall, governments are more likely to restrict external support to civil society when they feel vulnerable to domestic challenges. Restrictions tend to form part of strategic packages along with electoral fraud and manipulation, for instance. It is also clear that the international environment significantly influences the behavior of governments. Governments that are key strategic partners of the United States and other major donors find themselves relatively unconstrained and can choke the flow of funds to domestic groups without fear of meaningful retaliation.

Four Regimes, Two Strategies

A complementary approach to exploring the issue draws on careful comparisons of regimes that have made different choices about how to regulate foreign funding to civil society. Two pairs of cases—Rwanda and Uganda, Kazakhstan and Belarus—are useful here. Each pair is equivalently (un)democratic, has comparable levels of per capita income, and belongs to the same region. By examining “matched sets” such as these we can identify the factors, beyond regime type and wealth, that account for variation in the incidence of foreign-funding restrictions.

Uganda and Rwanda

The environment for NGOs—both domestic and foreign-funded—is more restrictive in Uganda than in Rwanda. The former requires NGOs receiving foreign funding to open an account with the government-controlled Bank of Uganda to receive and disburse donations. For Ugandan NGOs, foreign funding is no small matter: In 2006, 97.5 percent of all funding for the country’s NGOs came from outside its borders. Although ICNL reports that this law is not consistently enforced, the Bank of Uganda recently used its monitoring power to launch an investigation of Advocates’ Coalition on Development and the Environment (ACODE), an NGO working on development and environmental issues. The Ugandan government has also banned NGOs from employing foreigners unless the NGOs can demonstrate that there are no suitable local candidates. Beyond these legal provisions, a 2012 Human Rights Watch report on Ugandan NGOs documents “increasing government attacks on organizations whose focus includes oil revenue [End Page 83] transparency, land acquisition compensation, legal and governance reform, and protection of human rights.”18

In neighboring Rwanda, a 2011 CIVICUS survey found that 88 percent of regional stakeholders believed that “there are no restrictions by the government on civil society’s activities.”19 Furthermore, all stake-holders reported that registration procedures adhere to Rwandan law, and 89 percent agreed that the law was consistently applied—the comparable figures from Uganda in 2006 were 70 and 60 percent, respectively. These perceptions reflect a Rwandan legal environment that raises no barriers against foreign funding.

The differences between Uganda and Rwanda when it comes to foreign-funded NGOs may be ascribed to the perceived ability of NGOs to destabilize the government, along with the perceived costs of transparency. Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni has been in power for 26 years, but the strength of his hold on it has had its ups and downs. In his first presidential election, in 1996, he claimed over 75 percent of the vote, declining to just under 70 percent in 2001 and ten points farther in 2006. In 2011, his vote share moved back up into the high 60s, but he had to contend with significant public unrest. Rwandan president Paul Kagame has been in office for 18 years, and claimed more than 90 percent of the vote in both 2003 and 2010. Given concerns about vote fraud and the harassment of opponents, we do not regard any of these elections as an accurate gauge of popular support for either president. Rather, we take Kagame’s higher figures as evidence that he has been more effective at shutting out his opponents using both persuasion and coercion.

Opinion surveys suggest that Kagame enjoys more popular support than Museveni: A 2012 Gallup poll found that 95 percent of Rwandan respondents had confidence in their national government; in 2011, only 52 percent of Ugandans felt that way.20 Levels of confidence in NGOs seem inversely related to confidence in government. In 2011, only 20.5 percent of Rwandans surveyed by CIVICUS expressed “a great deal” of trust in NGOs. In Uganda in 2006, that proportion was much higher at 51 percent.

Museveni’s justifications for cracking down on foreign-funded NGOs bespeak his worry that they threaten his rule. In a February 2012 speech to Parliament, he attacked civil society for “pursuing the agenda of foreigners” and “working for foreign governments.”21 Internal Affairs Minister Hilary Onek attacked NGOs that “want to destabilize the country because that is what they are paid to do. . . . They are busy stabbing the government in its back yet they are supposed to do humanitarian work.”22 However, Ugandan NGOs are not regarded as more active than their Rwandan counterparts in promoting democracy: In a June 2006 CIVICUS survey of individuals connected to civil society, 59 percent of respondents believed that NGOs in Uganda play a “moderate” or “significant” role in promoting democracy at the local level. The comparable figure from Rwanda was 71.2 percent.

Uganda’s more restrictive law may also spring from concerns about [End Page 84] increased transparency. As noted above, foreign funding for civil society supports independent media and other watchdog organizations. Uganda ranks 143rd on Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index, while Rwanda ranks 49th, ahead of Costa Rica and several East European countries. Perhaps Museveni has more to fear from the monitoring by civil society than Kagame does.

Museveni’s targeting of NGOs that report on the quality of governance is consistent with a concern about increased transparency.23 In addition to the recent ACODE probe, Action Aid, Oxfam, and the Uganda Land Alliance (ULA) have also been targeted by the government, which has threatened the latter two organizations with deregistration. There are signs that the government is particularly sensitive in matters having to do with Uganda’s recently discovered oil reserves.

Comparing the Ugandan and Rwandan cases reminds us that domestic incentives can differ even among regimes that are alike in their relative lack of democracy. The Ugandan regime has fears of instability that its Rwandan counterpart does not share; the latter, therefore, is more willing to allow foreign support for domestic groups.

Belarus and Kazakhstan

These two post-Soviet states both have attempted to restrict foreign funding for civil society. The former did so in 2001 and again in 2003. In the latter year, Belarusian president Alyaksandr Lukashenka decreed that NGOs must receive prior approval before taking donations from abroad, and specified a wide range of political activities for which such funding may not be used.24 In 2005, Kazakhstan’s Parliament introduced but later abandoned draft legislation that would have banned foreign funding for NGOs “created for expressing the political will of citizens, various social groups, as well as for the purposes of representation of their interests.”25

The aims of Lukashenka’s decree and Kazakhstan’s draft law appear similar: to eliminate organizations that are a perceived threat to the autocrat’s survival. Lukashenka claimed that “foreign intelligence agencies” were infiltrating Belarus and aiming to bring down his government.26 In Kazakhstan, the government of President Nursultan Nazarbayev was likely prompted by the “color revolutions” in Georgia (2003), Ukraine (2004), and neighboring Kyrgyzstan (2005).

The question that these two cases raise is why, when both autocrats wanted to restrict foreign funding to civil society, did Nazarbayev abandon the effort? David Moore points to three reasons: 1) The proposed Kazakhstani law was successfully challenged in the Constitutional Court; 2) existing NGOs in Kazakhstan effectively organized in opposition; and 3) the U.S. government and other international organizations exerted pressure.27 The first two reasons overstate the power of domestic actors to constrain the president. Indeed, the president exerts considerable control over the Kazakhstani judiciary: It was Nazarbayev who requested that the court review the bill, and his veto followed severe criticism by Western [End Page 85] governments. Nazarbayev has also used violence to repress dissent—the January 2012 shooting or torture of rioters in western Kazakhstan and the brutal handling of thousands of striking oil workers being only recent examples. Pressure from international actors, Moore’s final reason, appears to have been more important in moving Nazarbayev to abandon the draft law. It appears that he badly wanted to chair the OSCE and realized that choking off funds for civil society would keep him from that goal.28

By contrast, Lukashenka has been impervious to international pressure to permit more freedoms. At the end of 2010, the foreign ministers of Germany and Poland offered aid, more open borders, and promises of wider economic and political relations with the EU in exchange for free elections. Lukashenka opted instead to restore Belarus’s close relationship to Russia. Assessing the failure of the EU’s overture, Anne Applebaum wrote:

The West has few carrots to offer unpopular dictators. . . . European foreign ministers cannot guarantee Lukashenko [sic] personal wealth. They cannot offer corrupt oil deals. They can talk about “freedom”—and they did—but they have to compete with others who talk about “the Chinese model,” who offer more predictable forms of job security, and who aren’t bothered by a few arrests.29

If “carrots” have failed with Lukashenka, so have “sticks.” Both the United States and the EU imposed sanctions after Belarus’s 2006 election, and renewed them in 2011. Over the same period, Belarus’s Freedom House score grew worse.

Why has Nazarbayev been more responsive than Lukashenka to Western pressure? One reason could be Kazakhstan’s greater economic reliance on Europe, which currently consumes 60 percent of Kazakhstan’s annual oil output.30 Belarus does most of its trading with Russia.31

How Do Donors Respond?

Yoweri Museveni attacks civil society because he is vulnerable. Mobilized groups of Ugandans are putting pressure on his crumbling patronage regime. Paul Kagame, who maintains widespread political support and a reputation for competent governance, can afford to be more relaxed. Still, domestic politics are only one piece of the puzzle. Both Nazarbayev and Lukashenka face strong domestic pressures from independent civil society and media organizations. But only Lukashenka has cracked down on civil society’s foreign support. Nazarbayev, with his OSCE-chairing ambitions and stronger economic need for the EU, must pay more attention to international pressure.

Clearly, governments are restricting civil society’s ability to organize in exactly those places where it is most needed, and where the regime is least likely to face other pressure to reform. Is support to these groups drying up as ever-mounting restrictions are set in place? [End Page 86]

Sadly, the short answer is yes. An examination of trends in U.S. foreign assistance before and after the adoption of new legal frameworks for NGOs confirms it. Overall assistance drops considerably in the countries that have prohibited foreign support for civil society (Belarus, Eritrea, the Gambia, Singapore, and Thailand), and this effect is visible in the immediate aftermath of the legislation. Foreign flows are substantially affected where governments restrict external support—on average, aid drops from nearly $50 million to less than $25 million a year once a new law is in place. By contrast, aid flows are higher and keep increasing in countries that continue to allow a largely open environment for civil society.

Given that the vast majority of bilateral U.S. aid does not go directly to governments, the impact of these drops in assistance falls primarily on the U.S. government’s “implementing partners,” such as contractors, international NGOs, and local nongovernmental groups. Governments that feel politically threatened are successfully limiting outside funding for local groups that are working to strengthen democratic institutions, promote human rights, and deliver on the development promises that so many of these governments have made to their own citizens.

Are all donors equally likely to reduce their assistance in the face of new restrictions on external support? Bilateral donors, with their large aid flows and political relationships to maintain, face enormous pressure to accept new laws and curtail their democracy support. But is it possible for other donors that are more insulated from the politics of bilateral relations to continue their engagement with local civil society groups?

In order to answer this question, we explore how financial support from the U.S.-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED) has been affected by the increasing restrictions on civil society. The news here is more encouraging. The NED provides much of its help to groups that operate where restrictions on civil society are in place. At the same time, the recent wave of NGO laws, though it may have made the work harder, has not dramatically reduced NED’s support to at-risk activists. As an independent organization, NED enjoys some distance from the pressure-packed world of interstate relations, and it has been able to use creative strategies to facilitate its work with civil society groups in challenging environments. These include creative funding arrangements, financing through third parties or third countries, the running of programs in adjacent countries, and efforts to work with groups in exile. There is no guarantee, however, that regimes will not seek to block such nongovernmental sources of external support in years to come.

The moves of authoritarian governments against foreign support for domestic civil society groups signals the essential role that these organizations play in promoting human rights and democratic institutions. The evidence suggests that regimes are clamping down because they fear an active, engaged, and empowered nongovernmental sector. Rulers prefer to choke it while maintaining the fiction of an open political system. Regime [End Page 87] vulnerability is a strong predictor of restrictions on civil society. Restrictions do not simply represent a tool for promoting anti-Western sentiment, or for ensuring that governments are not bypassed by donors trying to spend valuable foreign-assistance dollars through nongovernmental mechanisms. Instead, nondemocratic governments see restrictions on foreign support for civil society as important to regime survival, especially when such governments expect that imposing such limits will cost them nothing internationally. Absent an international consensus behind the practice of democracy promotion, governments feel free to implement restrictions that weaken the groups that they fear. Given the risk of exposure by the international media, rulers wish to avoid the shaming that secret-police tactics and other forms of old-school repression will bring. Instead, they seek quietly to starve and isolate any groups that might challenge their authority.

Seven years ago, Gershman and Allen proposed a comprehensive response to the growing assault on civil society. They called for tactical innovations to preserve the space for indigenous NGOs to continue their work, political pressure to deter governments from enacting new restrictions (or to impose costs if they go forward), and a multilateral push to enshrine democracy promotion as an international norm. The hope was that these steps, taken together would help to thwart the backlash against democracy promotion.

The Balance Sheet

Where do we stand today in terms of international mobilization in defense of assistance to beleaguered civil society groups? The groundwork for an ambitious international response has been laid. The ICNL is doing the careful work of tracking restrictive NGO laws around the world, enabling advocates and policy makers to follow these legislative changes in real time. The United States joined with twelve international donors to launch the Lifeline Fund, a mechanism for delivering emergency assistance to embattled local NGOs and civil society organizations. The Community of Democracies (CoD)—an organization of the world’s democracies—has established an alert mechanism designed to mobilize CoD whenever civil society is threatened by pending legislation. Already, the Community has been able to deter governments from implementing five laws that would have restricted civic space. Finally, there has been significant progress in the effort to strengthen international norms regarding the need to safeguard civil society from undue state control. Most notably, the UN Human Rights Council unanimously passed a historic resolution on the freedoms of assembly and association, and established a mandate to monitor respect for these freedoms around the world.

At the same time, it is clear that these efforts have been insufficient. The space for civil society continues to shrink, and often invisible restrictions [End Page 88] are making it impossible for independent groups to raise the funds that they must have to survive.

The most important step that the United States and other governments can take is to develop a consistent and comprehensive policy to defend democracy assistance and protect NGO activists. It is clear that some foreign governments can be deterred from setting new restrictions in place if they believe that the costs of ignoring international pressure will be too high. This will require the United States and others to make the defense of civil society a strategic priority, and to hold diplomats accountable for making progress on this issue. At a minimum, this will mean speaking out forcefully when restrictions are contemplated or implemented; meeting with leading civil society activists who are under threat; supporting efforts to monitor the space for civil society; and, where possible, using “carrots and sticks” to change the incentives of those who would curtail civic space. Of course, it will be toughest to stick to these principles where other vital interests are at stake for the United States and other governments. But if the United States cedes ground in this area to semiauthoritarian regimes that are close allies, the prospects for meaningful and lasting democratic change in these countries will recede even further.

A second essential step will be to explore innovative ways of insulating funding for civil society from the politics (and pressures) of bilateral, government-to-government relations. The ability of the NED to maintain its activities in increasingly closed environments provides evidence of the value of quasi-governmental and nongovernmental means for helping civil society. Europe’s move to create an independent endowment for democracy assistance shows that this evidence is sinking in. Of course, NED has the benefit of operating on a relatively small scale. If external supporters are to continue delivering funds on a larger scale despite growing restrictions, a new approach is needed. A robust, independent, and multilateral body that channels funds directly to local civil society groups might be in a position to overcome the challenges that bilateral donors increasingly confront. With the right members, it would send a powerful signal regarding the world community’s commitment to democracy assistance. Its multilateral character would insulate it from the charge that the assistance serves the narrow bilateral objectives of its members. And its independence from governments could give it the space to operate outside of contentious bilateral relationships.

The final piece of the puzzle, one not often discussed, is the need to develop more sustainable sources of funding for domestic civil society groups. It is not a viable strategy to expect that external donors will continue to foot the bill for domestic NGOs in the years ahead. Financial pressures threaten the budgets of foreign donors, and resistance by host governments is making foreign financing an increasingly risky route for local NGOs, even when severe restrictions are not in place. Moreover, these groups need a stronger and more outspoken base of domestic support. [End Page 89] The obvious alternative is to find ways to spur domestic philanthropic sectors that can make the necessary investments in watchdog organizations, independent media, human-rights groups, and advocacy NGOs. Promoting the growth of the philanthropic sector abroad has not been a priority issue on the international stage to the best of our knowledge, but progress on this front offers the best chance of limiting the efficacy of the autocrats’ favorite new tool for constraining the power and influence of domestic civil society.

Darin Christensen

Darin Christensen is a doctoral candidate in political science at Stanford University.

Jeremy M. Weinstein

Jeremy M. Weinstein is associate professor of political science and senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. From 2009 to 2011, he served on the staff of the U.S. National Security Council. Graphics illustrating this essay may be found at


1. Stephen McInerney, “Fayza Abul Naga and Cairo’s Campaign Against NGOs,”, 22 February 2012.

2. Fred Weir, “Russia’s Expanding Definition of Treason: Transcript,”, 28 September 2012.

3. Carl Gershman and Michael Allen, “The Assault on Democracy Assistance,” Journal of Democracy 17 (April 2006): 36–51; Thomas Carothers, “The Backlash Against Democracy Promotion,” Foreign Affairs 85 (March–April 2006): 62.

4. International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, “NGO Law Monitor,” 2012, Error! Hyperlink reference not valid.Error! Hyperlink reference not valid.; USAID, “NGO Sustainability Index for Central and Eastern Europe,” 2010,; USAID, “NGO Sustainability Index for Sub-Saharan Africa” (2010); World Movement for Democracy, Country Reports, 2008 and 2011, Error! Hyperlink reference not valid.Error! Hyperlink reference not valid.; Global Integrity, “Global Integrity Reports, Assorted Years,” 2004–11, Error! Hyperlink reference not valid.

5. The article offers only simple tests of the face validity of these arguments. We compare the characteristics of countries that implement restrictions to those that do not. We are not focused on identifying causal effects or demonstrating the robustness of these correlations to the inclusion of other covariates.

6. Quoted in Carothers, “Backlash,” 58.

7. “Russian Parliament Gives First Approval to NGO Bill,” BBC, 6 July 2012.

8. Variables are taken from Susan Hyde and Nikolay Marinov, “Which Elections Can Be Lost?” Political Analysis 20 (Spring 2012): 191–210, available at

9. Mohamed Younis and Ahmed Younis, “Egyptian Opposition to U.S. and Other Foreign Aid Increases,” Gallup World, 2012, available at

10. “Sins of the Secular Missionaries,” Economist, 27 January 2000.

11. We measure governance as an average from 2000 through 2010 of the “Control of Corruption” measure collected by the World Bank. Aid dependence is equal to aid as a percentage of GDP averaged from 2000 through 2008. Jan Teorell et al., “The Quality of Government Dataset, version 6Apr11,” 2011, available at

12. “U.S. Says Russia’s Law on NGOs Intimidates Rights Activists,” RIA Novosti, 25 July 2012. [End Page 90]

13. Deputy Spokesman Robert Wood, “New Ethiopian Law Restricts NGO Activities,” U.S. Department of State press statement, 8 January 2009.

14. Yannick Demoustier, “The Next Darfur,” American Interest, July–August 2009.

15. UN Human Rights Council, “Report of the Working Group on the Universal Periodic Review: Venezuela (Bolivarian Republic of),” 7 December 2011, 21.

16. Seth Mydans, “Donors Asked to Withhold Aid Over Proposed Law in Cambodia,” New York Times, 7 April 2011.

17. CIVICUS, “Cambodia Must Halt Slide to Authoritarianism,” press release, 10 August 2011, available at

18. Human Rights Watch, “Uganda: Growing Intimidation, Threats to Civil Society,” 21 August 2012, available at

19. CIVICUS, “The State of Civil Society in Rwanda in National Development,” 31 March 2011, 29.

20. Michael Fairbanks. “Rwanda Is Not an Authoritarian Regime,” New York Times, 19 September 2012; Gallup, “Worldwide Tracking,” 2011.

21. Haggai Matsiko, “ACODE Under Investigation,” Independent, 9 April 2012.

22. Michael Mubangizi, “Uganda: NGOs Tell Govt—You Can Ban Us, But Not the Issues,” Observer (Kampala), 24 July 2012, available at

23. Again, the CIVICUS reports do not suggest that Ugandan NGOs are simply more active in demanding accountability: 64 percent of respondents in Uganda (2006) assessed NGOs role in promoting transparency as “limited” or “moderate.” The comparable figure in Rwanda (2011) was 72 percent.

24. “Decree No. 24 of the President of the Republic of Belarus on the Receipt and Use of Free Foreign Aid,” 28 November 2003, Minsk, available at

25. See ICNL’s 12 May 2005 analysis of Kazakhstan’s draft law at

26. Mark Lenzi, “Lost Civilization: The Thorough Repression of Civil Society in Belarus,” Demokratizatsiya 10 (Summer 2002): 418.

27. David Moore, “Safeguarding Civil Society in Politically Complex Environments,” International Journal of Not-for-Profit Law 9 (July 2007): 3–26.

28. Erica Marat, “NGO’s Allege Kazakhstan Not Ready for OSCE Chairmanship,” Eurasia Daily Monitor, 19 November 2009.

29. Anne Applebaum, “In Belarus, a Slide Toward Eastern Aggression,” Washington Post, 21 December 2010.

30. Alex Walters, “Kazakhstan and Europe: Building Ties, Bridging Divides,” available at

31. European Commission, “Belarus: EU Bilateral Trade and Trade with the World,” 29 November 2012. [End Page 91]

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