More and more countries restrict how NGOs operate, often by limiting their funding. The response is frequently to argue that these restrictions flout international law or amount to crackdowns on the opposition. Annika E Poppe and Jonas Wolff argue that the objections to NGO activity need to be taken seriously. In Egypt, for example, they are rooted in concerns about sovereignty and foreign interference.
Curtailing the freedoms of assembly and association; restricting access to financial resources; openly harassing organisations and individuals – over the last 15 years, a large number of states around the world have actively limited the space in which civil society organisations act. One of their key strategies is to restrict, or outright prohibit, foreign funding. Consequently an important debate has emerged that aims to make sense of the phenomenon of globally shrinking spaces of international civil society support, and develop promising responses.
As we argue in our recent contribution in Contemporary Politics, current academic and political accounts of the growth in restrictions on foreign funding neglect an important dimension: the norms that are at stake. Most analyses explain contemporary resistance to civil society support by emphasising “material” factors like interest and power. Incumbent governments, the mainstream story goes, use constraints on civil society (support) in order to weaken opponents and consolidate their power. If the normative claims made by those restricting civil society support are considered at all, they are merely seen as “rationalisations” for repressive policies that violate “international treaties and conventions”.
We do not deny that this interpretation captures an important part of the motivation behind the trend. Yet, by entirely disregarding the normative justifications brought forward in defence of foreign funding restrictions, it misses the fact that the controversy over civil society support is characterised by an important process of norm contestation. The contemporary debate about international civil society support challenges fundamental norms that guide and legitimate external activities aimed at influencing the political development of other countries. Taking this normative dimension into account, we argue, is essential if we are to understand and explain this troubling phenomenon.
What does norm contestation in this area look like? We focussed on a general, global debate about foreign funding restrictions in the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) as well as on a very specific case – namely the controversy between the US and Egypt over the latter’s targeting of foreign (-funded) NGOs since 2011. In both cases, we find that the debate circles around one central conflict. Those that justify restrictions on civil society support identify the main problem with external interference and infringement upon sovereignty. In the HRC debate, representatives from a diverse group of countries – among them India, Gabon (speaking on behalf of the Group of African States), Egypt and Cuba – argue against an “entitlement” of foreign funding for civil society organisations; they are explicitly concerned with violations of national sovereignty and their national laws, e.g. through their own governments’ loss of oversight and control of potential external manipulation and power play via civil society support. Given that in the HRC it is governments that speak on behalf of countries, it is noteworthy that restrictions on foreign funding are not seldom in line with popular preferences. The population’s widespread scepticism and resentment of US funding in the case of Egypt is just one of the most prominent examples.
Those that criticise foreign funding restrictions, on the other hand, tend to not perceive interference as a problem at all. Mostly, the claim to sovereignty and self-determination is seen as an entirely invalid argument when it comes to justifying the restrictions at hand. In the case of the HRC, UN Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai has argued that the freedom of association, as established by international human rights law, includes a far-reaching right to foreign funding – and received unqualified support for this position by the European Union and the United States, among others. In the case of Egypt, the United States argued that its civil society support in the country is rather technical than political and that it follows international standards. On a related note, the US government justified its civil-society aid in Egypt as compatible with, if not actually supportive of, sovereignty and self-determination since it merely responded to the locals’ demands.
In more abstract terms: the basic normative conflict at stake is between references to state rights – to national sovereignty, collective self-determination and the related entitlement to non-interference – and the competing claim to individual human rights, which are seen as including the entitlement to receive external support. Norm contestation in the case of international civil society support thus touches upon and reveals significant tensions between fundamental norms that underpin the contemporary world order. As a result, international law does not offer clear-cut solutions to the problem at hand. In fact, the critique of external interference in the name of sovereignty and self-determination points to well-established, if certainly not uncontested, international principles – whereas the international norms on which civil society support rests are largely informal and implicit and, at best, indirectly based on international human rights law.
If we are to understand the widespread scepticism of international civil society support in many countries of the global South, talking about international norms is not enough. We also have to take into account the asymmetric international power relations and the post-colonial legacies in which civil society support is embedded. International civil society aid is by and large a unidirectional practice, being delivered by relatively affluent and powerful actors from the so-called developed world to relatively poor and vulnerable countries in the global South, often with a colonial past. As the case of Egypt suggests, we can only make sense of the shrinking space phenomenon, if we take this postcolonial/power dimension of resistance and contestation into account.
What are we to make of this? Our argument suggests that analysts and politicians alike should take challenges to international civil society support more seriously. The normative claims made by those justifying restrictions on foreign funding are plausibly based in actual perceptions of in/justice and often refer to long-standing international principles that cannot be dismissed lightly. Any thoughtful response has to engage with the concerns raised by many governments – including quite a few democratically-elected ones.