Tuesday, February 7, 2012

NGOs and Foreign Influences - A Warning from Egypt

The last few weeks we've been hearing about Egypt's crackdown on NGOs associated with the U.S., particularly those supported by "democracy promotion" NGOs like the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and Freedom House.  Now, according to an article in the New York Times, the Egyptian government intends to try a number of Americans and Egyptians on charges that include "operating without licenses, 'conducting research to send to the United States' and supporting Egyptian candidates and parties 'to serve foreign interests'.”

This case should serve as a cautionary tale about the ambiguous nature of nonprofits.  First of all, no matter how "nonpolitical" NGOs may say they are, there is often a political dimension to nonprofits.  This is especially evident in countries like Egypt and China whose political systems are closed, and which have a history of foreign interference.  In these countries, foreign NGOs are often perceived as having ulterior motives ranging from "regime change" to proselytizing, and in some cases, NGOs are quite open about importing goals and values that are at odds with the regime's.

Secondly, foreign NGOs are perceived as having closer ties to their home governments than we normally assume.  NGOs are in theory supposed to be non-governmental, but many in fact do get substantial government funding.  For example, NGOs like the IRI and NDI are closely associated with the Republican and Democratic Parties respectively, so it comes as no surprise that no matter how "independent" they appear, their interests are seen as closely aligned with the U.S. government.

During the "color revolutions" that brought regime change to some of the former Soviet republics in 2005, the Russians and Chinese saw a clear link between the work of foreign NGOs and regime change.  Since then, the Chinese government has been keeping a closer eye on NGOs, particularly those receiving support and funding from its main competitors, e.g. the U.S.

The Egyptian case will give the Chinese one more reason to hold tight to their suspicions.