If you haven’t heard of SSuDEMOP, now is a good time to get acquainted. The odd-looking initials stand for South Sudan Democratic Engagement Monitoring and Observation Programme.
South Sudan, which won independence from Islamist-ruled Sudan in 2011, is the world’s newest nation and its most dysfunctional. It ranks No. 1 on ForeignPolicy.com’s Failed States Index. SSuDEMOP is part of a small army of nongovernmental organizations fighting an uphill battle there to promote democracy and human rights. The parliament has been trying for years to muzzle the do-gooders, but it hasn’t yet managed to agree on a formula.
So why should Americans be watching this particular pro-democracy group in this particular trouble spot? Because last October it became the newest major grantee of the International Republican Institute. The institute, headquartered in Washington and linked to the Republican Party, is one of several organizations that get taxpayer dollars from Congress to help NGOs working for social change in other countries.
You know, that thing that drives right-wing Israeli politicians crazy.
America is one of about a dozen Western democracies that spend significant taxpayer funds annually to support NGOs promoting democracy and human rights in nations they consider democracy-challenged. All told, they work in about 100 countries. Sometimes they have local government blessing, whether enthusiastic or grudging. Sometimes they work by stealth.
The various Western democracy programs work closely together, sharing ideas, funding each other’s work and partnering on major projects. In one respect, however, the American effort stands apart from the others. Most of our allies are active in Israel, mainly to support NGOs that work in the gap between Israel’s domestic democracy and its military rule in the territories. America doesn’t go there.
Our allies’ work has aroused enormous resentment in Israel in recent years, especially on the right. Several rounds of legislation to curb the funding have come before the Knesset since Benjamin Netanyahu’s government came to power in 2009. One such law was passed in 2011. An amendment to strengthen it, promoted by Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, is before the Knesset right now.
Activists claim that the foreign government funders are trying “to promote their own views and interests, regardless and often in opposition to the policies of the democratically elected representatives of the Israeli public,” in the words of a leading opponent, NGO Monitor, which is itself an NGO.
How does America promote its views of democracy abroad? It’s complicated. The effort works through a small network of organizations created by Congress in 1983, at President Reagan’s initiative. The organizations are nominally independent and not-for-profit, but partisan operatives dominate their boards and staff. Most of their funding comes from Congress through USAID, the federal government’s foreign-aid agency.
IRI has a board made up of GOP heavyweights, chaired by Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican. Its sister organization, the National Democratic Institute, has Democratic bigwigs on its board and is chaired by the Clinton-era secretary of state Madeleine Albright. The other two are the American Center for International Labor Solidarity and the Center for International Private Enterprise.
The four organizations have different agendas, though they sometimes overlap, since they’re all promoting American-style democracy. But their methods are similar: They mix grants to local NGOs in target countries with programs that they themselves operate on the ground.
If that’s not complicated enough, there’s a fifth organization that oversees the other four, the National Endowment for Democracy. It gets USAID funds and allocates them to the four institutes. The endowment also makes grants of its own to NGOs in close to 40 countries.
Altogether the federal budget for democracy and human rights in 2015 was $2.4 billion, out of a total nonmilitary foreign aid budget of $17.5 billion.
Local responses to the democracy institutes’ work around the world vary widely. The private enterprise center helps businesses grow and is generally well received in the 40 countries where it operates. The labor solidarity center, not surprisingly, faces hostility almost everywhere it’s active. Considering that its work promoting unions abroad is funded by a Congress that barely tolerates unions at home, the fact that it operates at all is an achievement.
On the other hand, reception of the two party-linked institutes and the democracy endowment itself varies wildly from country to country. The ups and downs are a useful barometer of various countries’ openness to democracy and human rights. In Malawi, the Gender Coordination Network funded by the National Democratic Institute to integrate women in local government has strong local support. In South Sudan, any democratic activists, even moderates like the Republican institute-funded SSuDEMOP, take their lives in their hands daily.
Most governments aren’t content to sit back and take it. USAID reports that more than 90 countries have “sought to pass” laws in recent years, “hampering the ability of civil society organizations” — another name for NGOs — “to register, operate freely, or receive foreign funding.”
Fifty countries actually have such laws on the books, according to The International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, an independent Washington watchdog. The restrictions range from arbitrary police raids and prison sentences, to limits on the types of permitted activity (usually allowing humanitarian aid but not advocacy), to bans on foreign funding and “cumbersome and time-consuming” reporting requirements.
The Israeli legislation pending before the Knesset falls between the last two categories. It doesn’t ban foreign government funding outright, but it imposes a cumbersome reporting process on the recipient NGOs.
[Specifically, the bill requires that NGOs receiving more than 50% of their funding from foreign governments or entities (like the United Nations or the European Union) must post that fact prominently on their websites, include it in every public communication, and identify themselves by having their representatives wear a special tag on their clothing every time they’re in the Knesset building, whether for lobbying or testimony.
[Supporters make two arguments in its favor: First, that it’s not meant to inhibit foreign funding, which is perfectly legitimate, but merely to enforce “transparency” so the public knows who’s doing what. The trouble with that argument is that transparency is already required. All of the affected organizations have the information readily available on their websites, as required under the initial 2011 legislation. What this bill does is require them to shout to the world that they are somehow foreign agents, as subtly distinguished from true Israelis.]
The second argument, contradicting the first, is that such foreign funding is not legitimate because it constitutes foreign interference in Israeli democracy. The NGO Monitor group, which has been working since 2001 to build opposition to foreign funding, says that when foreign governments work at “educating the Israeli public” and “changing public opinion,” they’re operating “in violation of the norms on non-interference in other democracies.”
It’s not clear what norms they’re talking about. That sort of education and opinion-changing has been at the heart of U.S. democracy assistance since the Reagan administration. Here’s how USAID describes it: “A democratic political culture requires a vibrant civil-society sector and an independent media to ensure that citizens are well informed about the actions and performance of government institutions and officials, and that citizens have the means to freely influence public policies.”
And, the agency says, “Because civic action and engagement with government can result in political reform, USAID emphasizes support for civil-society organizations whose advocacy efforts give voice to citizens and increase their influence on the political process.”
[What the Israeli supporters of the NGO bill really mean is that they don’t like it when somebody criticizes the government’s decisions or tries to change its behavior. They seem to think that of the two parts of democracy — empowering the majority and protecting minorities — the first one always trumps the second. And they don’t like to hear otherwise.]
So who exactly is violating democratic norms here?
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org
J.J. Goldberg is editor emeritus of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).