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[Opinion] Foreign-Funded NGOs, Political Power, and Democratic Legitimacy

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Twenty years ago, when I began to research the political power of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), particularly those active in the realms of human rights and international law, there was essentially no critical analysis of these groups. In contrast to other influential political actors, the academic discussion largely accepted NGOs’ self-definition as politically neutral promoters of liberal democratic norms. This “halo effect” extended to their donors, who, in providing resources to groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Oxfam and more, were feted among the good and great of the world.

The essay by Ron Krebs and James Ron (“Why Countries Should Welcome, Not Fear, Foreign Funding of NGOs,” May 13), is consistent with the old image, but the reality of NGO political power is quite different. Increasingly, critics view these groups as powerful and polarizing players that lack accountability, other than to their donors. Notwithstanding universal altruistic pronouncements, when local political NGOs get significant funds from foreign governments, they are readily labeled by those with different views as representing the particular interests and perspectives of outsiders.

In the Israeli case, which features prominently in the Krebs and Ron essay, out of over 200 active NGOs with human rights and IHL agendas, 39 from a very narrow part of the political spectrum have received more than 500 million shekels (about $150 million) over the past five years. (Most other groups report less than one-tenth that amount.) Two-thirds of this largesse comes from the European Union and Western European governments (this information is available via the Israeli Registrar for Nonprofits). All 39 of the Israeli grantees stridently oppose the government’s policies regarding the West Bank, and a number promote allegations of “war crimes” and apartheid. Together, they form a network that includes coordinated activism and shared characteristics.

This is a huge budget, and it dwarfs the donations received by the NGOs that are not part of the network. Many also receive funds (approximately $10 million annually) from U.S.-based private donors identified with the political left, such as New Israel Fund, the Open Society Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Conservative donors channel parallel amounts to right-wing Israeli NGOs, which would produce a rough balance between the two poles, but the much larger foreign government grants, which total on average $20 million a year, disrupt this equilibrium.