It’s time for a confession. I have worked as a “foreign agent.”
When I lived and traveled in Asia and Eastern Europe, I was an employee of U.S.-based NGOs. I was paid by these organizations to promote social change in those parts of the world. I worked hand-in-hand with groups that often criticized their own governments. Of course, they were also critical of U.S. policies and those of many other governments, and I helped them with these efforts as well.
In Asia and Eastern Europe, I was in the pay of the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization devoted to peace, justice, and civil rights. My more recent travels to Eastern Europe were underwritten by the Open Society Foundation, the creation of George Soros, the Hungarian-born financier.
Both of these organizations work in partnership with people on the ground to transform societies. They don’t impose their philosophy on the unwilling. They are selective in their approach, seeking out like-minded individuals and groups (or, in some cases, parties willing to dialogue). As a facilitator of this work, I’ve linked arms with anti-military-base activists, environmentalists, women’s movement representatives, and minority rights advocates.
I’m proud of this work.
It’s precisely this kind of subversive activity that many governments want to restrict. Their laws on foreign-financed NGOs are making it harder for outside organizations to help activists.
At the end of last year, China introduced a draft law that forbids foreign NGOs that engage in activities contrary to “Chinese society’s moral customs.” In Russia, organizations that receive foreign funding must register as “foreign agents.” Egypt, Bolivia, Eritrea, and Zimbabwe have passed similar measures.
These governments see malign motives behind many of these foreign-financed initiatives.
Are they right to be worried?
The Rise and Fall of Civil Society
The 1980s and 1990s were golden years for transnational civil society.
Anti-apartheid activists in the United States and Europe helped activists in South Africa and African National Congress members in exile to push for regime change in the racially divided country. Peace and human rights activists in Western Europe supported beleaguered dissidents in the Soviet bloc. Anti-intervention groups in the United States worked in solidarity with grassroots movements that stood up to authoritarian regimes throughout Latin America. Similar solidarity organizations supported democracy activists in Asia, from South Korea and the Philippines to East Timor and Burma.
With the end of the Cold War, transnational civil society tackled other issues — trade agreements, corporate conduct, LGBT rights. The World Social Forum took off, spawning numerous regional gatherings. People power, in the form of civil society organizations, came to represent a new superpower.
And then something happened.
The enthusiasm for civil society began to dim in certain quarters. Many leaders of non-state organizations went into their newly democratic governments, and funding for grassroots initiatives began to dry up.
Some of the democratic states, like Slovakia and Croatia, temporarily relapsed into semi-authoritarianism. In the Middle East and North Africa, governments accused popular movements of being stalking horses for Islamic fundamentalists. The Chinese government’s suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests on June 4, 1989 began to look less like an aberration and more like the shape of things to come.
But it was September 11 that truly set back civil society. The promotion of democracy, under the rule of George W. Bush, concealed an agenda of overtly or covertly seeking to change the regimes in countries opposed to the United States and installing compliant governments in their place. Terrorism, and efforts to combat terrorism, moved to the top of the agenda of the international community.
Governments intolerant of opposition now had a new weapon they could use against groups they didn’t like: label them terrorists.
Civil society didn’t disappear. There would be the Color Revolutions, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement. But these mass protests often did not succeed in their aims. Or if they succeeded, as in Egypt after the Tahrir Square demonstrations, the achievement was soon overturned.
In the first wave of popular uprisings in the age of human rights, many victories were secured, from South Africa to the Philippines to Eastern Europe. In the second round of battle between strong-arm governments and civic movements, the governments had learned a thing or two about survival techniques. More often than not, governments were coming out on top.
By changing the rules of the game, these governments hoped to prevent a third round from taking place.
Solidifying Their Gains
Halfway through the 2000s, certain governments realized that it made little sense simply to wait for their disgruntled citizens to organize a movement, gather in public squares, and demand change. A better strategy was to tilt the legal playing field against civil society. Authoritarian governments had long resorted to strategies like martial law, military coups, and emergency decrees.
The new strategy of the semi-authoritarians was to adjust the rule of law rather than abrogate it.
The first major government to pursue this tack was Russia with its 2006 law on NGOs. Passed in the wake of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Russian law set up a number of obstacles for foreign organizations operating in the country and domestic groups receiving foreign assistance. Such organizations could theoretically meet all the new onerous reporting requirements, but the state still maintained a broad authority to determine if organizations or individuals were acting in an “undesirable” fashion.
In 2009, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev introduced amendments that decreased some of the reporting requirements. But in 2012, shortly after taking office as president, Vladimir Putin instituted the law on “foreign agents,” which once again handicapped organizations that receive money from outside donors. In effect, Putin’s law declared that these organizations engaged in domestic espionage and were thus under suspicion.
The law had an immediate dampening effect on Russian civil society (or, rather, that part of Russian civil society critical of the government). As John Dalhuisen of Amnesty International notes, “The ‘foreign agents law’ was designed to stigmatize and discredit NGOs engaged in human rights, election monitoring and other critical work. It is providing a perfect pretext for fining and closing critical organizations and will cut often vital funding streams.”
Many groups refused to register as foreign agents. Quite a few organizations, including an election watchdog group and an LGBT film festival, went belly up. There are 51 organizations currently on the “foreign agents” list, including most recently the Russian chapter of Transparency International.
Putin’s greatest opposition has come from the critical intelligentsia. The law on “foreign agents” effectively targets this narrow band of activists by putting them under close state surveillance, calling into question their activities, and restricting their sources of money. Such a law doesn’t abolish civil society. It simply encourages some types of public activity — by religious organizations, businesses, pro-government groups — and discourages others.
The new Chinese draft law, meanwhile, comes in the wake of protests in Hong Kong and Taiwan — nicknamed the “umbrella” and the “sunflower” movements, respectively — as well as earlier efforts to monitor finances.
It also follows a general crackdown on civil society organizations. The Washington Post reports that in 2014 “members of the grass-roots New Citizens Movement were given lengthy jail terms for suggesting that government officials declare their assets; a network of mobile rural libraries was shut down; and several members of the Transition Institute of Social and Economic Research in Beijing, a group that looked into exploitation of vulnerable groups, disappeared into detention.”
Russia and China are the leading countries in this new wave of legal restrictions, but they’re not alone.
According to a useful list assembled by the International Center for Not-for Profit Law, the Bolivian law allows the government to dissolve organizations. The Ethiopian law limits foreign contributions to 10 percent of a group’s budget. In Turkmenistan, a government commission must approve beforehand foreign-funded projects. In Ecuador and Venezuela, a wide range of organizations can’t receive any foreign funding at all.
These laws are part of a larger pushback against civil society. In Closing Space, a report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Thomas Carothers and Saskia Brechenmacher write:
After decades of growing global reach, the field of international support for democracy and human rights faces a worrisome trend: widening and increasingly assertive pushback around the developing and postcommunist worlds. Governments are erecting legal and logistical barriers to externally sponsored democracy and rights programs they deem too politically intrusive, publicly vilifying international aid groups engaged in democracy and rights work as well as their local partners, and harassing or expelling such international groups altogether. Of particular concern to many national and international democracy and rights activists is the viral-like spread of new laws restricting foreign funding for domestic nongovernmental organizations.
The Hard Side of Soft Power
Semi-authoritarianism comes in many different flavors: nationalist, socialist, clerical, military, and just plain tin-pot. The restrictions placed on NGOs and civil society are not strictly ideological in most cases. The regulatory crackdown is about power and its preservation, not politics.
But perhaps these states have a point. Just because semi-authoritarian leaders are paranoid doesn’t mean that some people aren’t out to get them.
The U.S. government, for instance, set up an Office of Transition Initiatives in Venezuela to undermine the government of Hugo Chavez. European and U.S. funding agencies supported civil society organizations that contributed to building the Euromaidan movement in Ukraine that ousted Viktor Yanukovych. The Russian government has reportedly provided support for key Euroskeptic parties such as the National Front in France, Jobbik in Hungary, and Attaka in Bulgaria.
Governments use all manner of “soft power” levers to achieve their ends. Still, with their new laws, the semi-authoritarians are conflating two different types of subversion.
The first, undertaken by powerful governments, involves the deliberate manipulation of groups on the ground in other countries to achieve results favorable to the funders. The United States has been the greatest sinner in this regard, but it is not the only state to adopt these strategies.
The second type of work is done not on behalf of any state or states but in service of international norms. These norms might be enshrined in international accords like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, regional charters like the one governing the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or more aspirational documents like the Human Rights Council’s 2011 resolution on LGBT rights. When Amnesty International publishes a report on the dismal state of the prison system in the United States, it is as much an expression of these international norms as a comparable report on the even more dismal state of the prison system in North Korea.
The challenge is that sometimes these two categories are conflated in reality, and not just in the imaginations of the semi-authoritarians. Civic groups committed to universal values will sometimes (inadvertently or deliberately) work on behalf of the interests of foreign states. And sometimes funding from governments — from Canada or Sweden or Norway or even sometimes the United States — falls into the second category and has nothing to do with advancing the specific interests of the state.
In this complicated chess game, what can be done to advance the cause of transnational civil society committed to international norms without supporting the Trojan Horses that some governments deploy to win over hearts and minds?
First of all, laws on foreign funding of NGOs are not by definition a bad idea.
Even the United States requires foreign NGOs to register as non-profits and domestic NGOs to report on funding they receive from foreign sources. Also, the Foreign Agents Registration Act obligates those who are working on behalf of foreign entities to register with the Justice Department and “under certain circumstances to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts, and disbursements in support of those activities.”
The key question is whether such laws have a chilling effect on civil society and public discourse. The laws in Russia, China, Egypt, and elsewhere are designed to squelch dissent, not encourage it.
But civil society organizations also have a responsibility. If they are acting on behalf of foreign powers, they must be clear about their affiliations. And if they’re acting on behalf of international norms, then they should think twice about accepting money and advice from state actors with obvious agendas. If nothing else, such funds compromise the independence of NGOs in the eyes of their governments and sometimes their publics as well.
Much has been made of a report last year of the funding that foreign governments are pouring into U.S. think tanks. My think tank, the Institute for Policy Studies, doesn’t take any government funding, domestic or foreign, and this ensures our independence.
But I don’t necessarily look askance at some of the foreign money flowing into DC. The report’s lead example, for instance, was a $5-million grant from the Norwegian government to the Center for Global Development to push for more U.S. foreign assistance. This was clearly in the interests of global norms, since Norway is never going to get any foreign aid from the United States. In this case, I welcome Norwegian efforts to strengthen that segment of U.S. civil society committed to reducing global economic inequality.
Other money sources make me uncomfortable, for instance from the Saudi government. I wouldn’t accept those funds myself, but I also wouldn’t support restricting the flow. When it comes to such financing, transparency is absolutely necessary. In that way, we can judge on a case-by-case basis whether such “foreign agents” are acting on behalf of narrow state interests or on behalf of the broader concerns of humanity.