After a long decade of growth and international recognition of the role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in fostering democracy, advancing social justice and participating in public policies, just to name a few, there are signs that the times are changing. Are Brazil and Israel just the tipping point of a broader phenomena or isolated cases?
As reported in the UK newspaper The Independent, the Israeli government is analyzing a package of legislation to limit international funding to those human rights organizations that are working in the occupied territories. Representatives of those organizations have expressed their concerns framing them as ‘a serious attack against democracy’ aiming to intimidate the voice of political dissidents. The UK government joined this reaction too.
In Brazil, where the discussions around the impact of the football World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016 are heating the political spectrum due to issues of corruption, the ‘sovereignty’ of the country to make decisions vis a vis FIFA’s impositions, and the social consequences (i.e. evictions) of the infrastructure works (stadia, roads, airports), a similar attack against NGOs is taking place. As a result of suspicious transfers of money from the Ministry of Sports to NGOs for the implementation of public programs, the minister had to resign. Following his resignation, the new minister and the president Dilma Roussef announced that all governmental transfers to NGOs are suspended until further notice and investigation. According to the watchdog organization Contas Abertas the transfers from the federal government to civil society organizations amount to a total of $2 billion for 2011. Almost one billion was to be paid by the end of the year. The reaction of the largest NGO coalitions against this measure was immediate but no changes have been noticed yet in the government’s decision.
Although the measures taken by the Brazilian and Israeli governments are based upon very different circumstances, they should function as an alert to the NGO community around the world. In other Latin American countries there is also a growing trend of increasing oversight and control from governments to NGOs under allegations of corruption; and we know that corruption leads to mistrust in the public opinion, and in turn to a decrease of public and private funding. The logic of this vicious circle is perverse: just one case is enough to suspect everybody.
We have witnessed these mechanisms working very well in other sectors and circumstances too. The overall discredit of politicians around the world has led to mistrust of democracy and politics in general, thus encouraging the authoritarian resolution of conflicts and disputes (read dictatorships).
On the contrary, despite the huge amount of evidence of unethical business practices like environmental damage, child labour, corruption and the search for profits at any cost have not been enough reasons to question ‘free markets’ as the one and only way for economic growth and development that fits all sizes.
Evidently the mechanisms of self-defence in the private sector are different in size and scope from the public and the non-governmental sectors. The non-profit, non-governmental sector does not have the resources to invest in huge publicity campaigns nor to fund long term think-tanks’ activities to penetrate the market of ideas and influence public opinion. If this trend continues to grow and expand, the idea and the dream that a strong and healthy NGO/civil society sector is a fundamental factor for the balance of power in society may be over.
The time is now for social investors and philanthropists to raise their voice and get deeply involved in these debates before it is too late.
Andrés Thompson is currently the general manager of streetfootballworld in Brazil.