Since 2016, eight African countries – Tunisia, Egypt, South Sudan, Tanzania, Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, and Sierra Leone – have adopted anti-NGO laws. Laws like these, which are currently being replicated around the globe, seek to pressure NGOs to accept state funding and decrease organizational transparency.
However, setting up and funding their own “GONGOs” can provide governments with an even sharper weapon to deploy against civil society. While the proliferation of GONGOs narrows the space for legitimate NGOs to make their voices heard, the sudden appearance of the new swarm of GONGOs also creates a false veneer that governments are consulting with organizations representative of their citizens. Last year, the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee rightly identified GONGOs as major threat to global democracy, but only proposed maintaining “a lifeline of support” to NGOs and increasing interstate cooperation to ameliorate the problem.
Without a tool to stop GONGOs, there will be further strangulation of global civil society and authoritarianism will fill the gap left behind. Instead of relying on US government initiatives to fight GONGOs, NGOs themselves must compile a comprehensive list of GONGOs, spread that list, and fight back.
What’s the Threat?
Dan Baer, former US Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, has characterized GONGOs as “the real-world equivalent of internet troll armies” controlled by “insecure regimes.” But, even as democracies characterize GONGOs as “thuggish,” the truth is that GONGOs provide authoritarian governments with supportive views and opinions vital to maintaining power.
The fundamental strength of civil society is the perceived necessity for governments to consult independent organizations before making decisions, a perception that GONGOs easily fake. In Ghana, which has a lively NGO sector, administrations are consistently under pressure to allow all three major Ghanaian think tanks to participate in election observation. These legitimate NGOs, which represent conflicting opinions, have an automatic seat at the political table, reinforcing democratic practices.
On the other hand, in Russia, the Kremlin has given millions to NGOs that promote Russian neo-imperialism, including “Nashi,” a far-right youth group with close ties to Putin’s inner circle. The Russian government has tried to silence the Russian Jewish Congress, a coalition of 60 legitimate Jewish organizations, by pressuring groups to join a GONGO, “The Federation of Jewish Communities.” The Federation now claims to represent over 400 organizations across the former Soviet Union and regularly publishes articles sympathetic to the Kremlin’s aims.
Authoritarian governments have also used GONGOs to distract from legitimate organizations’ expressions of concern. In October 2013, representatives from Chinese GONGOs descended on United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) meetings in Geneva, heckling and taking photos of testifying Chinese activists. According to a subsequent Reuters investigation, 34 of the 47 Chinese NGOs allowed to take part in UNHRC meetings are GONGOs. Reducing GONGOs’ power and presence is vital to healthy civil society.
In a 2009 article on GONGOs, Moises Naim, former editor-in-chief of Foreign Policy magazine, argued “the world needs an NGO rating system that does for global civil society what independent credit rating agencies do for the global financial system.” Beyond a rating system, the Free Russia Foundation has suggested that public exposure and fact-checking of GONGOs, as well as better international cooperation with real NGOs, might alleviate pressure on civil society.
However, broad rating systems and case-by-case exposure tactics, such as the Freedom in the World report and Russian dissident Alexei Navalny’s documentaries, only go so far in ending threats from GONGOs. Global civil society needs a comprehensive list of organizations as a reference tool to distinguish independent NGOs from government-organized ones. To maintain credibility, the list must include “do-good” GONGOs in the UK and US, where GONGOs such as the National Endowment for Democracy work to amplify independent voices.
No one organization can be responsible for this list, especially one funded by the US government. Instead, a coalition of 20-25 NGOs in various fields should be responsible for updating the list consistently to undercut accusations of political bias (and to mitigate risks of GONGO re-registration). This coalition must fairly represent all global regions and require more active participation than other big tent organizations, such as InterAction, ask of their members.
Sharing responsibility for the list among coalition members would also defray costs, broaden funding sources, minimize any one donor’s influence, and ensure buy-in from diverse voices. This multilingual tool could be launched with an Internationalized Domain Name and disseminated in print in countries with internet restrictions, maximizing impact.
Ultimately, what matters for civil society is not the number of registered, legitimate NGOs, but the acknowledgement of civil society’s power – whether informal or formal – by governments. GONGOs provide authoritarians a way to coopt that power and, therefore, neutralize independent opinions.
About the Author: James Reston is the 2019 Eastern Europe/Eurasia Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy (YPFP). His work focuses on international security, LGBTI+ rights, corruption, and internet freedom. He is a program associate at the Eurasia Foundation and a part-time research assistant to Dr. Alina Polyakova. James has interned for the Kennan Institute in Kyiv, Ukraine and the Russian LGBT Network in St. Petersburg, Russia. He is a member of Phi Beta Kappa and holds a BA with High Honors from Wesleyan University in the College of Social Studies and Russian & Eastern European Studies, where he was a Center for the Humanities Student Fellow. James has written for The Diplomat, the Kyiv Post, and Freedom at Issue.
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius