Photo: Motti Kimchi
Protest against Israel's NGO law
Photo: Motti Kimchi
Photo: NGO Monitor
Prof. Gerald M. Steinberg
Photo: NGO Monitor

Foreign-funded NGOs, political power and democratic legitimacy

Op-ed: Massive external funding for a very narrow group of unaccountable and polarizing NGOs is in fact corrupting the democratic principles in whose name they claim to speak.

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.


Human rights organizations protest during Operation Protective Edge (Photo: Motti Kimchi)
Human rights organizations protest during Operation Protective Edge (Photo: Motti Kimchi)


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?


In the few instances when outside governments have funded political NGOs in the US (opposing the death penalty) and Canada (on environmental issues), the backlash was sharp, and the grants were not renewed. In Ireland, legislation gave the government authority to force the return of foreign NGO funding designed “for political purposes,” including “to promote or oppose, directly or indirectly…. a particular outcome.” This indeed occurred during the recent referendum on abortion, when donations from the Open Society Foundation (George Soros) to pro-abortion NGOs were barred.


Israeli critics also note the extent to which the European-funded NGOs travel the world marketing their private foreign policies, under the heading of human rights and international law. Groups like Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem appear before influential audiences in the UN and ICC frameworks, parliaments, churches, universities, and media platforms.


Citing these NGO allegations, faculty in European universities have banned Israelis from classrooms (including some of my former students), and ripped Israeli products off shelves, using “war criminals” and apartheid labels. The majority of Israelis who vehemently reject these narratives have no opportunity to present their case on the same foreign platforms - they lack the resources for such high-impact political tours.


Israelis protest NGO law outside Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked's home (Photo: Motti Kimchi)
Israelis protest NGO law outside Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked's home (Photo: Motti Kimchi)


This form of external manipulation reinforces pressure for Israeli political responses. The Israeli law criticized by Krebs and Ron requires NGOs getting most of their budget from foreign governments to make this transparent - hardly draconian, and consistent with the citizens’ right to know.


In American terms, this situation is similar in response of progressives to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that essentially opened the door to unlimited corporate election funding. But in the funding in the Israeli case goes to so-called progressives at the other pole of the ideological spectrum, and our playing field is much smaller.


To go beyond the rhetoric and into the details, it is useful to look at the Norwegian Refugee Council’s Information Counseling and Legal Assistance (ICLA) program, also funded by the UK government, among others. ICLA’s 2016 budget of $7.5 million was distributed to the usual NGO suspects to file hundreds of political cases in the Israeli courts. (One NGO lawyer referred to “flooding the Israeli courts” in this campaign.)


At the same time, the NRC, EU, and other funders run the West Bank Protection Consortium, which funnels additional sums to the same NGOs for more “legal advocacy.” And all of this activity, which is a small part of the overall foreign NGO funding picture, takes place without transparency. Freedom of Information requests in the UK and EU for regarding the payments to the different NGOs in these frameworks have been refused, first on technical excuses (too many documents, too long a period, etc.), and finally claiming ostensible national security concerns. If diplomatic channels have failed (or not been tried) to stop this anti-democratic practice, Israeli politicians are likely to turn to more restrictive legislation.


For all of these reasons, European empowerment of these polarizing groups at war with much of Israeli society is far from slogans such as “giving voice to the voiceless,” power to the powerless and strengthening democracy, repeated by Krebs and Ron. Massive external funding for a very narrow group of unaccountable and polarizing NGOs is in fact corrupting the democratic principles in whose name they claim to speak.


Gerald M. Steinberg is a professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University and founder of the Institute for NGO Research.


פרסום ראשון: 06.03.18, 11:33
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