NGOs Vital to Global Stability and Security

April 10, 2012 By Jane Kaminski

In what could be the beginning of a disturbing trend, American and foreign NGO workers in the Middle East have once again been detained by their host government.  Just this week, the American-led National Democratic Institute (NDI) and a German NGO focused on building up civil society around the world had their licenses to operate cancelled in the United Arab Emirates, which served as a regional hub for their work in the Middle East.  As in Egypt last December, NGO workers were detained while trying to leave the country.  The American and Serbian national who were detained have been released, but only the American has been allowed to leave the country.

While the immediate impact of detained Americans and foreign NGO workers is worrisome, the longer term implications on the growth of civil society and expansion of human rights throughout the world could be serious.  Organizations like NDI and its counterpart, the International Republican Institute (IRI), work with the local governments and NGOs in the developing world to build up civil society, monitor elections, and foster better governance.  They operate within the bounds of host governments and often at their request, even working directly with them.

The situation also highlights the threats of an absence of U.S. diplomatic and development presence in places with the greatest risks and the most opportunity to global stability and security.  Across much of the Middle East and North Africa, governments are working to rebuild and reform in the lead up to, during, and after elections.  Organizations like NDI and IRI offer technical advice and support to all groups engaging in the political process with the aim of helping countries seeking to build governments more inclusive of civil society and where rule of law can flourish.  Ideally, these organizations also build up partners and allies in this strategically important region of the world.

The response on the Hill has focused on whether the United States should cut assistance when governments fall away from democratic principles.  Senator Casey explained the frustration when he told the Cable in March, “We’ve got to have a measure of accountability. But I think the idea of cutting off aid doesn’t make sense.  We just have to figure out a better way to make the aid conditional based on those measures of accountability, and I think we can achieve that. I think, in this case, it’s a mistake to take an either/or approach.”  Rand Paul and Michelle Bachmann offered a differing view on the situation, writing, “A decision to waive the conditions on military aid would send the wrong message to the Egyptian government that U.S. taxpayers will subsidize the Egyptian military while it continues to oversee the crackdown on civil society and to commit human rights abuses.”

In recent instances of government coups or internal political strife in countries that receive U.S. development assistance, the response has been nuanced.  When Egypt’s government was overthrown, the U.S. supported groups working to form the new government in the aim of fostering a more democratic institution there.  In the case of Mali, U.S. funding for projects like the MCC Compacts that are designed to build up governance were pulled when the country experienced a coup that ousted the standing democratically elected president just ahead of what promised to be free and fair elections.  Nonetheless, communicating American values for human rights, engaged civil society, and democracy play an important role in building the United States’ ability to lead.