Probe International in the News

The worldwide crackdown on NGOs

Democracies and dictatorships alike are cracking down on NGOs, but for different reasons.

This article, by Lawrence Solomon, first appeared in the National Post on May 18, 2015

In Canada, China, India, Israel, Russia and in other countries around the world, governments are cracking down on foreign-funded NGOs operating in their countries. These crackdowns are inevitable and understandable, and in all cases come down to one factor: Governments, whether democratic or dictatorial, don’t like foreign forces interfering in their domestic politics.

Guo Yushan, a staff member at Transition Institute. Credit: Zeng Jinyan.

Guo Yushan, a staff member at Transition Institute. Credit: Zeng Jinyan.

The crackdowns typically take the form of beefing up laws and regulations, or creating new ones, to require more disclosure on the activities of NGOs. An exception is China’s proposed Foreign NGO Management Law, now in Second Reading in its legislature, where the Public Security Department of China’s State Council — its cabinet — would assume responsibility for approving the funding and the activities of all NGOs in receipt of foreign funds, to guard against purposes ranging from the political to the religious to the economic. Unlike other countries, China’s NGO law isn’t about disclosure but about censorship and control.

In one country — the United States — there is no talk of crackdowns, not because the U.S. is blasé about foreign-funded NGOs but because it has long had strict laws on the books. In the 1930s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) after he realized that the American Nazis — then a potent force in U.S. politics — were being funded by Hitler’s Germany. FARA’s original pre-World War II purpose — to expose “German propaganda agents” – has since morphed to become a fixture of U.S. policy, used to require public disclosure in everything from Communist propaganda during the Cold War to three Canadian films dealing with acid rain and nuclear war, including the Academy Award winning documentary, “If you love this planet.”

When the government’s use of FARA was challenged as censorship and a limitation of free speech, the U.S. Supreme Court disagreed, ruling in 1987 that it saw value in public disclosure that spotlighted material from those who might have an alien agenda, “so that the government and the people of the United States may be informed of the identity of such persons and may appraise their statements and actions in the light of their associations and activities.”

Canadians do not realize when Canadian NGOs who lobby against Canadian projects are being paid by U.S. organizations.

He Zhengjung, a staff member at Transition Institute. Credit: Zeng Jinyan.

He Zhengjung, a staff member at Transition Institute. Credit: Zeng Jinyan.

FARA’s disclosure requirement applies to any foreign monies employed “to influence U.S. public opinion, policy, and laws.” Russia’s 2012 law on “foreign agents,” based on FARA, similarly demands disclosure when foreign money is used in the “shaping of public opinion” and in “influencing decision-making by state bodies in order to change state policy.”

While many foreign-funded NGOs are apolitical, many others — including the highest profile foreign-funded NGOs — tend to be highly political. They are often funded by foreign governments to further the foreign governments’ foreign policy interests; they often coordinate their activities with foreign governments in applying political pressure. Perhaps the most egregious example of such foreign interference involves Israel, where NGOs receive an estimated $75 million to $100 million per year in foreign dollars. Most of this money comes from European governments and European-government-funded NGOs, and most of it is designed to tilt the country leftward, particularly as regards the Palestinian issue.

Much larger sums, however, are being spent by Western governments and Western foundations in a worldwide effort to influence environmental agendas, chief among them energy policies that affect climate change. Canada’s federal government is concerned about the success of U.S. foundations, working with the Obama administration, in thwarting Keystone and other energy projects. Because Canada does not apply strong FARA-style disclosure laws to foreign funded activities, Canadians do not realize when the Canadian NGOs who lobby against Canadian projects are receiving money from U.S. organizations to do so.

Energy thwarts are also a major source of upset in India: While the Indian government’s priority is economic growth, much of it driven by coal-fired industry, many foreign-funded NGOs stymy coal developments to protect the planet from global warming. Because the Indian government does not want foreign money to side-track its policies, it has increased scrutiny on the movement of monies into India by organizations such as the U.S. based Climate Works Foundation and the Ford Foundation, the latter being of special interest because of its history — the $500-plus million it has spent in India over the decades has often been linked with U.S. policy, with the CIA and with efforts to destabilize the rule of Indira Gandhi. In India, some 9,000 NGOs lost their licenses last month for repeatedly failing to report their foreign funding sources in their annual returns, as required under Indian law.

In democracies, the foreign NGO laws are designed to enhance disclosure, the better to maintain the electoral process as the ultimate determinant of policy by protecting the integrity of domestic debates from being skewed by big money from foreign sources. As a bonus, the increased disclosure requirements would strengthen the grass roots NGOs that don’t depend on foreign funding, whose message has often been submerged under a slick tide of competing, foreign-funded campaigns.
In dictatorships such as China, the foreign NGO laws are entirely different, the disclosure requirements being designed to protect the Communist Party’s rule. Unlike in the developed world, where the goal is a better-informed debate, in China the goal is no debate. The foreign NGO laws are merely an extension of controls that have long been placed on every person and every organization in the country.In a current example of activities considered unlawful by the Chinese authorities, Guo Yushan and He Zhengjun, two staff members at Transition Institute, a think tank, were last month recommended for indictment by the Beijing Municipal Public Security Bureau because Transition Institute “carried out surveys and investigations on China’s tax reform, education rights, legal reform, people’s livelihoods and other aspects of society, writing research reports and articles, offering lectures at universities and other social venues, and producing anthologies of speeches” using funds from “domestic and foreign” sources. Writing reports and offering lectures can be crimes in China, whether an NGO is foreign funded or not. In China, foreign NGO laws aren’t being brought in by the popular will, to better inform the populace; they’re being brought in by the Communist Party, the better to jail dissenters.Lawrence Solomon is a policy analyst with Toronto-based Probe International. Email: LawrenceSolomon@nextcity.com. Probe International was named by the Beijing Public Municipal Security Bureau as a funder of Transition Institute.

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