ABSTRACT: How do public regulations shape the composition and behavior of non-governmental organizations (NGOs)? Because many NGOs advocate liberal causes, such as human rights, democracy, and gender equality, they upset the political status quo. At the same time, a large number of NGOs operating in the Global South rely on international funding. This sometimes disconnects from local publics and leads to the proliferation of sham or ‘briefcase’ NGOs. Seeking to rein in the politically inconvenient NGO sector, governments exploit the role of international funding and make the case for restricting the influence of NGOs that serve as foreign agents. To pursue this objective, states worldwide are enacting laws to restrict NGOs’ access to foreign funding. We examine this regulatory offensive through an Ethiopian case study, where recent legislation prohibits foreign-funded NGOs from working on politically sensitive issues. We find that most briefcase NGOs and local human rights groups in Ethiopia have disappeared, while survivors have either ‘rebranded’ or switched their work from proscribed areas. This research note highlights how governments can and do shape the population ecology of the non-governmental sector. Because NGOs seek legitimacy via their claims of grassroots support, a reliance on external funding makes them politically vulnerable. Any study of the NGO sector must include governments as the key component of NGOs’ institutional environment.
Bibliographical noteFunding Information:
Research on this project was supported by funds from the Harold E. Stassen Chair at the University of Minnesota. The authors would like to thank the women and men who agreed to be interviewed for this project in Ethiopia, as well as the human rights activists and experts we interviewed elsewhere in the world. We also thank those who commented on the paper at annual meetings of the International Studies Association and the American Political Science Association, as well as several anonymous reviewers for the Review of International Political Economy.
23. The CSO Taskforce is housed at the CCRDA and is partially funded by the Donor Assistance Group for Ethiopia (DAG). This survey was designed to assess the implementation of the Proclamation and its impact on the work of civil society organizations in Ethiopia. Questionnaires were distributed to 70 organizations, which included a broad range of NGOs as well as government organizations, media, donors, and UN agencies. Thirty-two of the 70 solicited organizations responded to the survey.
24. See Dagne and Hailegebriel (2011). Not all NGOs have been forced to completely abandon their rights-based work, as there are two exceptions in the Proclamation for foreign funding of rights-based work. First, the bilateral clause in Article 3 of the Proclamation allows international and foreign organizations to enter into bilateral agreements with the government in order to continue activities that NGOs are otherwise not permitted to engage in with foreign funding. Prison Fellowship International (a pro-government NGO that works in prisons to promote human rights) and the National Coali-tion of Women Against HIV/AIDS (a local NGO that the former First Lady, Azeb Mesfin, chairs) are two of the very few organizations that have received a bilateral exemption. Second, there are some exceptions for rights-based work within the structure of donor funding, in that money allocated to the multi-donor Democratic Institutions Program (DIP) as well as funding from the European Commission’s Civil Society Fund can be used for rights work. Under the DIP program, donor funding has been channeled to the gov-ernment’s Ethiopian Human Rights Commission, which then provides funds to local NGOs. The European Commission Civil Society Fund (CSF) is a joint initiative with the Government of Ethiopia, and money from the CSF is con-sidered to be local funding by the government. (Information based on the
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- foreign funding
- human rights