To be sure, this is an improvement over the original bill, which would have required NGO representatives to wear an identification badge at the Knesset. But the law still seeks to stigmatize these organizations—and the many others that fall below the 50-percent threshold. Its underlying logic is that human rights-promoting NGOs are un-Israeli, foreign-imposed, and nefarious.
This measure should not be viewed in isolation, in Israel or beyond. Within Israel, leading politicians regularly attack rights-promoting organizations as disloyal. Young people performing “national service,” in lieu of the military draft, can no longer volunteer for B’Tselem. Numerous bills are slowly making their way through the Knesset that seek to hamstring such organizations and curtail their funding streams, such as by subjecting their foreign donations to crippling taxes.
Nor is Israel alone in targeting civil society organizations funded from abroad. From Russia to Ethiopia to India to Hungary, dozens of governments, authoritarian and democratic alike, have been cracking down on foreign support of local liberal NGOs. From 1993 to 2012, according to one study, 39 of the world’s 153 low and middle-income countries passed new restrictions on foreign funding to locally operating NGOs. More have imposed restrictions since then. Funding from private foundations, like the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Foundations, as well as sundry national aid agencies, was once welcomed warmly. No longer.
It would clearly be better—for these organizations and for the societies they serve—if they could attract sufficient funding at home. But, outside the West, progressive civil society still relies heavily on foreign funding. In Nigeria, one study estimated that over 90 percent of local human rights NGOs’ funding came from foreign sources. In Ethiopia, the number of domestic human rights NGOs plummeted after a 2010 law limited how much money they could take from abroad. It’s not that ordinary people beyond the West do not favor human rights: opinion surveys show that they do. It’s that they have little experience financially supporting civil society organizations outside of faith-based social service providers.
Reflecting the will of the masses?
Critics’ arguments against the foreign funding of local civil society are intuitive, but flawed. First, many argue that foreign funding is undemocratic because it contradicts the principle of government “of the people, by the people, for the people.” From this perspective, civil society, progressive or otherwise, is legitimate only when it can raise funds at home. NGOs relying on foreign funding, however, pervert the will of the people.
But what we know about the practice of democracy, as opposed to its idealized theory, casts doubt on the notion that either the national debate or policy outcomes in democracy truly reflect the will of the masses. After all, most people in most countries in most elections choose not to exercise their most basic political right: The vote.
Most people do not have the time, resources, or inclination to learn what they need to know about the issues or their leaders’ performance. What people want, moreover, is often subject to how elites and the media “frame” issues and policy options. As a result, the policies democracies pursue, on issues ranging from taxation to foreign policy, typically accord not with the preferences of the average citizen, but with those of the wealthy and powerful and concentrated special interests. In these all-too-common circumstances, foreign-funded NGOs can give a voice to the voiceless, to the unrepresented and powerless. In other words, foreign-funded NGOs can make democracy more meaningfully democratic.
The second argument sees accepting foreign funding as tantamount to treason. By funding local NGOs, giving their ideas unwarranted prominence, and underwriting their activities, foreign government donors seek to shift the target government’s policies and serve their own interests. No matter how sincere local activists, their heavy reliance on external aid means that they are “foreign agents” advancing the interests of other countries. These critics generally see foreign government funding of local NGOs as more pernicious than funding by foreign private individuals or foundations.
Foreign government interference in national politics is often troubling. With good reason, Westerners have railed against surreptitious Russian meddling in their elections. Many Israelis, Russians, and Indians see Western countries’ support of liberal NGOs as equally an unwarranted intrusion. But there is a crucial difference. Local human rights activists, even when funded primarily by foreign governments, are authentic products of their society and are pursuing their own principled ideals. Unlike classic “foreign agents,” they are not working as lobbyists for a foreign government, nor are they taking orders from foreign officials.
In most cases, foreign funding simply amplifies real local voices—Israeli voices—calling for political change. Foreign aid cannot create a progressive NGO sector from scratch. And these pro-human rights Israelis are often politically under-represented. Foreign money supporting organizations like the Association of Civil Rights in Israel does not undermine Israeli democracy. It makes up for Israel’s democratic deficits.
When real alternatives can’t get a hearing
Local NGOs in Israel and elsewhere must work much harder to cultivate domestic support, both financial and political. The stronger their local financial base, the better local NGOs can weather global economic storms and combat domestic scapegoating. And the relative ease of acquiring foreign funding can prompt local NGOs to invest scarce resources nurturing a network abroad, rather than at home.
Still, if domestic support is lacking, foreign funding should be welcomed by all defenders of democracy in Israel. Israeli democracy should not be reduced to free and fair elections. At the heart of democracy lies the idea that competition among meaningful alternatives generates better policy outcomes, or at least helps governments avoid the really bad ones. Choices are not meaningful if the political system, time after time, produces the same governing coalition and policies. Alternatives are not meaningful if the scope of legitimate politics is so narrow that a new party in power would produce no substantial policy change. Formal rights to free speech are merely a means to the end of free-wheeling policy competition. If real alternatives can’t get a hearing due to a lack of local funding, then the Israeli marketplace of ideas is impoverished.
Ronald R. Krebs is Beverly and Richard Fink Professor in the Liberal Arts and Professor of Political Science at the University of Minnesota. He is the author most recently of Narrative and the Making of US National Security.
James Ron is Harold E. Stassen Chair of Public Affairs and Political Science at the University of Minnesota. He is the coauthor most recently of Taking Root: Human Rights and Public Opinion in the Global South.
An earlier version of this op-ed was published in the Lawfare blog.