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Are Democracy Quangos Doomed?

Secretary Clinton got some unpleasant news as she was working to round up support for US regional diplomacy in the United Arab Emirates this week: the UAE announced that it was closing down the offices of a prominent American quango linked to the Democratic Party. Though the incident lacked the drama of the arrests of quango employees in Egypt earlier this year, it was a slap in the face and a sign of just how tired many world governments are growing of this new cross between government and the private philanthropic sector.

A quango is a quasi NGO and in the United States many of them are focused on promoting democracy overseas. Although organizations like the National Democratic Institute and its counterpart the International Republican Institute are largely funded by the federal government, they operate under more or less independent boards of directors. They are modeled in some ways on the German political party foundations, again funded largely by taxpayers but operated under the authority of political parties rather than the government itself.

Some of what quangos do is pretty good, other activities look like the usual patronage, hackery and ineffectually mediocre do-gooderism that dog the aid and development community. The performance varies greatly, but they aren’t being attacked around the world as party patronage machines or mediocre development institutions. They are coming under fire because they seem to be an attempt by rich western countries to make an end run around normal diplomatic procedures and rules.

The democracy quangos are set up to interfere with the politics of other countries. They don’t necessarily take partisan positions in their elections, but they train democracy activists, provide them with support, and generally work to open up political space in target countries as a way of promoting the kind of political change Americans like to see.

That is all very well, but there are problems when these entities are closely linked to the Washington political establishment. Many countries are extremely nervous about contacts between foreign agents and their internal opposition. Of course the US government would never in a million years think of doing any intelligence gathering through democracy quangos but unfortunately many foreigners remain trapped in cynical Old World mindsets and they are quick to believe the worst. And in any case foreign governments don’t see why the US or others should be able to interfere directly in their internal affairs by promoting movements and organizations they happen to like.

Via Meadia confesses to qualms about these organizations as well. A little stricter separation of church and state makes sense here; perhaps if an organization is to be considered a bona fide civil society organization there should be an upper limit on the percentage of its funding that can come directly or indirectly from the government.

Having the paid employees of government A running around country B trying to promote political change is riskier business than it sometimes looks. It can also backfire; politicians in Russia and elsewhere have made hay by attacking domestic political reform organizations because of their links to foreign funding. (In the UAE the problem may have been that the Saudis and others were unhappy about UAE-based US backed quangos active among their citizens and put pressure on the UAE to close the agency down.)

The US and some other countries have enjoyed a free ride for a while. These organizations have been able to operate pretty freely in a large number of countries; we have in effect found a way of getting government-funded activities and organizations on foreign soil without having to observe all the tiresome, tedious formalities of diplomatic custom and usage.

When countries like the UAE start slamming the doors (and on the German foundations as well as the American ones) this is a sign that the free ride may be coming to an end. In the future, foreign countries may well demand that entities directly or indirectly funded by foreign governments operate only on the basis of a negotiated and mutually acceptable agreement. To many in the west, this will feel like a crackdown on free speech; to many in other countries it will feel like an anti-colonial assertion of national sovereignty.

Unfortunately, genuine NGOs are getting smeared with the quango label. It is easy for demagogic or anti-democratic politicians to attack authentic civil society movements and institutions by fuzzing the line between quangos and the rest. The west has colluded in fuzzing the difference as well, and that may have been a mistake.  Quasi-NGOs have had a good run, but the combination of budgetary stringency at home and resistance abroad puts a question mark over their future.

It’s too soon to tell whether more countries will join the UAE, Egypt, Russia and others in restricting the operations of foreign quangos. If they do, the Golden Age of the Quango may be coming to an end.


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  • C. P.

    Regardless of what foreign governments or residents of foreign countries think, it isn’t legitimate for the US government to be giving our money to organizations run primarily by, and on behalf of, US political parties. In this case maybe expedient and perhaps even useful, but still wrong.

  • John Burke

    It would be interesting to compare the pittances in government dough spent on these quangoes to the billions in subsidies to radical mosques, madrasas and other institutions of political Islamism from Morocco to Indonesia, Munich to Los Angeles, forked over by the governments of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Gulf states, not to mention the billions in “private” contributions from wealthy Saudis encouraged and channeled by the Saudi intelligence service.

  • David Smith

    “Having the paid employees of government A running around country B trying to promote political change is riskier business than it sometimes looks.”

    Maybe I lack imagination, but I really can’t imagine that being riskier than it looks at face value (i.e., as war by other means).

  • vanderleun

    This is the, ah, April Fools post. Right?

  • Bryan

    I’m with David Smith. I could not possibly imagine a way in which “pay people A to [get involved] with politics in country B” could not be incredibly risky.

    Also, it’s worth pointing out that it’s not just authoritarian governments that resent the quangos. Railing against (predominantly European-funded) quangos is a staple of Israeli politics. Those organizations aren’t seen by a significant portion of the Israeli electorate as genuine charity for Palestinians, but as a way of subverting Israeli democracy. Israelis in general are Western-looking and consider themselves part of the West, but interminable meddling by European governments is not loved in that country.

  • Alex Scipio

    Are quangos really attempting to foster democracy overseas…. Or Progressivism ?

    They aren’t the same, you know, and with the rise of the Obama/Pelosi/Reid axis, one certainly can observe Progressivism to be the antithesis of democracy, much as the EU has become.

  • Brett

    Honestly, the whole idea of US-funded NGOs that do nothing except fund and prep grass-roots efforts for democracy in foreign countries strikes me as a bit suspicious. Think about it – if China were financing and building a grass-roots movement in the US to effect changes in US politics, wouldn’t you be suspicious? I know I would.

    That said, everybody does something like that when they have the money. John Burke pointed out up-thread that the Gulf countries give a pretty huge amount of money to political Islam, madrassahs, and all manner of Islamic-themed charity groups worldwide.

  • Kris

    My immediate reaction was the same as John Burke’s @2. What a wise chap he is! 🙂

  • Jim.

    The Game is going, an other governments are looking for ways to take our pieces off the board.

    This is bad news for us, and we should not just knuckle under. Tit for tat expulsion of UAE lobbyists is one possibility; finding other form to operate under is another.

    Although, to be honest, there could be cultural reasons these organizations are being targeted; there was a curious specificity to which party this seemed to be affecting.

  • Daniel

    This is why Israel recently passed a law inhibiting foreign government funding of NGOs. The number of quangos operating on the ground in Israel that are openly working towards Israel’s downfall and are funded almost entirely by European governments is staggering.

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