The Trouble with Quangos

U.S. pro-democracy workers board a flight in Egypt before departing the country on March 1, 2012. The charges against the Americans have not been dropped.

The recent detention of staff members from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Egypt is only the latest example of a wider pattern of harassment and resentment against Western-backed NGOs in the Middle East, Asia, and elsewhere.  Unlike intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), whose members are states, NGOs are private actors which operate–at least theoretically–independently from governments.  But increasingly the independent status of many NGOs has been called into question, with serious consequences for their mission, the safety of their workers, and relations among governments.  A blog post by foreign policy expert Walter Russell Mead discusses the thorny dilemma of these “quangos“:

“‘Quangos’, as the Brits call them — quasi non-governmental organizations — operate partly as non-affiliated promoters of democracy and freedom abroad. But they receive US government funding and are closely linked to political leaders in both parties. The ‘wall of separation’ between the quangos and actual government policy is somewhat fictional, and the whole relationship is deeply suspect in countries with morbidly suspicious political cultures. The latest crisis in Egypt is a sign of just how very careless the US political establishment has grown as it makes use of these groups to achieve political ends in foreign countries…More and more countries (with, frankly, more and more reason) regard quangos not as innocent civil society actors but as direct tools of US foreign policy operating outside the traditional restraints of diplomatic institutions. They and their employees will increasingly be seen as fair game for retaliation.”

Mead calls for a stricter separation between NGOs and supporting governments, warning that “the existence of the quangos muddies the water for genuine civil society groups; it is easy for foreigners to denounce all western civil society groups as government agencies when some ‘NGOs’ receive most or all of their funding from foreign governments.”

Interestingly, Mead compares the plight of secular western quangos today to the problems faced by Christian missionaries in the 19th century.  He notes that these missionaries “had their greatest success when the missionaries were not backed up by gunboats, and when there was a clear separation between missionary groups and imperial power. Democracy activists need to spend more time studying mission history. There are some rich lessons there that need to be learned.”

What do you think?  Should western governments interested in promoting democracy sever or hide their ties to pro-democracy NGOs abroad?  Or will this weaken organizations that need state backing to achieve their goals?  Will autocratic governments threatened by pro-democracy NGOs really stop the harassment simply because these groups are certifiably independent of foreign governments?

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