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Foreign-funded NGOs, political power and democratic legitimacy

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In 2001, after the infamous NGO Forum of the UN Durban Conference that launched the BDS and demonization campaigns, I began to research the political power of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), particularly those active in the realms of human rights and international law.

As an academic, I was surprised that there was essentially no critical research or analysis on this issue. Discussion of these groups largely accepted their own self-definitions, as politically neutral promoters of liberal democratic norms, doing good things. This “halo effect” extended to their donors, who, in providing resources to Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, among others, were feted among the good and great of the world.

While the recent article by Ron Krebs and James Ron (“Why Israelis Should Welcome Funding of Their NGOs”) fits the “halo effect” myth, reality does not.

Increasingly, these groups are recognized as powerful political players without accountability. In Israel, as NGO Monitor research has shown, 30 NGOs, all from the left extreme of the political spectrum, have received NIS 500 million (about $150 million) over the past five years. Two-thirds of this total of foreign NGO funding, which has no parallel in any other democratic society, comes from the EU and Western European governments. And many of these NGO recipients use the money to promote demonization of Israel, including BDS and the allegations of “war crimes” and apartheid that fuel anti-Semitic attacks around the world.

A budget of NIS 500 million is particularly huge, especially in the absence of accountability, checks and balances, and transparency. Provided in the name of democracy, the recipient NGOs suffer from a basic democratic deficit, including lack of transparency and accountability. In addition, with their European government funds, B’Tselem, Breaking the Silence, Yesh Din, and the other NGOs in this closely interconnected network lobby politicians, pay PR companies to get extensive media coverage, and flood the courts with political cases, thus generating more media attention for their agendas.

While the principles of sovereignty and non-interference in the democratic processes of other countries are central in relations between states, these are violated when European governments become the primary funders of Israeli political NGOs. A number of Israeli political leaders have suggested funding polarizing NGOs involved in various European separatist movements. How would they react, they ask, if the NGO funding shoe was on the other foot?