IN THE early 1990s, foundations supported by the billionaire George Soros extended grants to teachers, scientists and others set adrift by the Soviet collapse, supporting projects such as writing honest history textbooks, assuring the survival of Russia’s thick literary journals and connecting universities to the Internet. Now, in an act of supreme ingratitude, Russia under President Vladimir Putin has blacklisted the Soros foundations as “undesirable” organizations, effectively forcing them to halt grant-making.
In Uganda, legislation has just been approved giving the authorities sweeping powers to control nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) including a vague provision barring any activity “prejudicial to the dignity of the people of Uganda.” China is drafting a law on NGOs that would not allow foreign funding and impose other restrictions. Egypt has dissolved hundreds of NGOs, many connected to the Muslim Brotherhood, and those that remain are under close scrutiny and often harassed. Burundi, which has been wracked by violent political turmoil this year, has shut down a number of NGOs, accusing them of “insurrection” against the government.
This is all part of a determined war against NGOs by authoritarian regimes, and it is accelerating. The work of these organizations was never easy, saving lives and protecting rights in the most inhospitable environments, but increasingly, autocrats and their state machinery are erecting permanent barriers to funding, operations and freedoms.
NGOs enjoyed a brief, halcyon period in the 1990s, when their work was needed, and welcomed. But the popular uprisings in Georgia (2003’s “Rose Revolution”) and Ukraine (2004’s “Orange Revolution”) unsettled Mr. Putin, who tightened the screws on civil society out of a paranoid and misguided fear that NGOs were plotting an overthrow. Other autocrats followed suit. Douglas Rutzen, president and chief executive of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, has written that, by 2004, a counter-revolution was underway against NGOs; from 2004 to 2010, more than 50 countries considered or enacted measures to restrict civil society.
After the Arab Spring of 2011, a new wave of repression began, and it continues today as governments enact laws to permanently destroy NGOs. Since 2012, Mr. Rutzen says, more than 90 such laws restricting freedom of association or assembly have been proposed or enacted. About half involve crimping a group’s functioning through onerous rules and registration requirements; a third sought to dry up international funding; and the remainder have attempted to limit freedom of assembly. As Thomas Carothers and Saskia Brechenmacher pointed out in a 2014 study for the Carnegie Endowment, the new laws were enacted by dozens of countries that had previously welcomed support in democracy and human rights protection.
Tyrants big and small are showing more sophistication in bullying and bulldozing NGOs. They use state media to vilify and tarnish groups and their leaders — the smear “foreign agent” is popular — then move in with security and regulatory goons. Autocrats also are fond of “zombie democracy” — regime-friendly simulations of civil society designed to crowd out the real thing.
NGOs fill a gap left by inept governments. The real losers are billions of people who will suffer more when NGOs are silenced and shuttered.