A former Peace Corps volunteer manages an NGO that help orphans. Photo by: Koen van Seijen / CC BY

Many Devex members will have encountered NGO laws — the laws that govern non-governmental organizations — be it the Charities and Societies Agency of Ethiopia, the Charities Commission in the United Kingdom or recent NGO laws causing furor in Cambodia and India.

These NGO laws have become a fast-moving and complex challenge for many in the development sector.

For example, in Ethiopia, advocacy and human rights-based work is outlawed for NGOs that receive more than 10 percent of their income from abroad — i.e., just about all NGOs. Even for service-providing NGOs with no advocacy or rights-based intentions, the rules of doing business in the context of these NGO laws is becoming increasingly costly and challenging as a result of the many levels of approval, the paperwork and inevitable delays required to do business in such a context.

Penny Lawrence, international director of programs at Oxfam GB states: “NGO laws are valid in the sense there is a legitimate role for government in coordinating such activities and asserting national authority over what is done. However, where the NGO laws seem harmful is where they repress civil society development or when, in government’s eyes, they equate civil society to political opposition.”

Roy Trivedy, head of the U.K.’s Department for International Development’s Civil Society Department adds: “It is necessary and legitimate for any government to have clear laws and frameworks to oversee the work of civil society organizations working in their country. But it is also very important that governments help strengthen the capacity and space for active and vibrant civil society groups to contribute fully to development. The U.K. government recognizes the importance of creating, maintaining and developing an enabling environment for civil society organizations to operate effectively and this is one of five objectives for DFID’s work with civil society globally.”

  • On a global scale, the trend for restrictive NGO laws is illustrated by the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, or ICNL, producing an analysis of Global Trends in NGO Laws since 2009 and now focusing on sub-Saharan Africa since 2011.

  • The alliance of faith-based organizations, Act Alliance, has also produced an excellent series of case studies highlighting these laws and their impact in 12 countries including India, Brazil, Guatemala, Indonesia and Malawi.

  • Civicus’ Civil Society Watch is also doing some excellent work on this area, although the Civicus focus seems to be as much the high-profile cases and stories of individuals and persecution, as the NGO laws in all their detail, but they try to cover both.

Implications

Penny Lawrence adds: “A core role of an organization like Oxfam is to push the limits to ensure space for civil society is protected. For example, in Honduras, Nicaragua and Ethiopia, Oxfam has challenged policies that affect civil society space. At the same time, we believe the risks need to be calculated and examined in each context, as being asked to leave the country for the purpose of taking a stand while not out of the question, could be self-defeating. The key is collaborating and sharing in response to these laws, nationally and globally. Whatever the way forward, this is an area we all of us need to work on further, as the space for civil society is visibly shrinking in many of the places Oxfam works in, and these NGO laws are a major reason for this.”

Roy Trivedy of DfID adds: “In countries where the space for legitimate civil society activities is curtailed, the U.K. government is willing to raise this issue in its dialogue with government ministers and officials.”

As well as the practical challenges of NGO laws, there are ideological questions now being asked of NGOs when working in the context of such laws. Very often these laws demand NGOs adopt technical roles, focusing on hard inputs and service delivery. To what extent can NGOs put aside their more ideological work when a government forces the NGOs into a technical corner? There’s no right or wrong answer — but it’s a question coming increasingly to the fore

Ways forward

The recent coverage of Cambodia showed the international community, especially donors, is willing to intervene when NGO laws become excessively prohibitive. But not all contexts are so amenable to intervention and influence.

  1. Donors can continue to support efforts in this area (such as the Global Trends work of the ICNL) and multilaterals such as the European Union and the United Nations could have a higher profile and be more coordinated on the specific issue of restrictive NGO laws. There are U.N. special procedures that can be used to be used to defend NGOs, but more can be done.

  2. At the recent Fourth High-Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Busan, South Korea, there were substantial efforts to input messages from civil society, including the Istanbul Principles for CSO Development Effectiveness. Busan may have had some successes — bringing new donors closer to the discussion of aid effectiveness being one example — but civil society freedom of assembly and speech received no specific mention in the final outcome document, to the disappointment of many. 

  3. The post-MDG framework is another chance to focus more on questions and opportunities about the “how” and “who” of global development.

Whatever happens next, NGO laws are not going to go away and will affect most stakeholders trying to implement programs in a country where such laws are prohibitive.

To use a phrase born in socialism but as applicable to any political philosophy, one good response to this challenge is not to mourn, but to organize.

Read more international development NGO news.

About the author

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    Pierre Moon

    Pierre Moon is a program management consultant based in South Asia. During the past decade, Pierre has worked with Oxfam GB, the International Planned Parenthood Federation, EngenderHealth and PSI in more than 20 countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia.