What Is a GONGO?
How government-sponsored groups masquerade as civil society.
The Myanmar Women’s Affairs Federation is a GONGO. So is Nashi, a Russian youth group, and the Sudanese Human Rights Organization. Saudi Arabia’s International Islamic Relief Organization is also a GONGO, as is Chongryon, the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan. GONGOs are everywhere, in China, Cuba, France, Tunisia, and even the United States.
GONGOs are government-sponsored non-governmental organizations. Behind this contradictory and almost laughable tongue twister lies an important and growing global trend that deserves more scrutiny: governments funding and controlling nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), often stealthily. Some GONGOs are benign, others irrelevant. But many, including those mentioned above, are dangerous. Some act as the thuggish arm of repressive governments. Others use the practices of democracy to subtly undermine democracy at home. Abroad, the GONGOs of repressive regimes lobby the United Nations and other international institutions, often posing as representatives of citizen groups with lofty aims when, in fact, they are nothing but agents of the governments that fund them. Some governments embed their GONGOs deep in the societies of other countries and use them to advance their interests abroad.
That is the case, for example, of Chongryon, a vast group of pro-North Korean, "civil society" organizations active in Japan. It is the de facto representative of the North Korean regime. Japanese authorities have accused several of its member organizations of smuggling weapons technology, trafficking pharmaceutical products, and funneling hundreds of millions of dollars, as well as orchestrating a massive propaganda operation on Pyongyang’s behalf. For decades, "civil society" groups based in a variety of countries have stridently defended Cuba’s human rights record at U.N. conferences and regularly succeed in watering down resolutions concerning Cuba’s well-documented violations. Bolivarian Circles, citizen groups that support Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, are sprouting throughout Latin America, the United States, and Canada. Their funding? Take a guess. Iran, Saudi Arabia, and other wealthy governments in the Middle East are also known to be generous — and often sole — benefactors of NGOs that advance their religious agenda worldwide.
But the most dangerous GONGOs grow at home, not abroad. They have become the tool of choice for undemocratic governments to manage their domestic politics while looking democratic. In many countries of the former Soviet Union, government-backed NGOs are crowding out and muddling the voices of the country’s legitimate civil society. In Kyrgyzstan, for example, the Association of Non-commercial and Non-governmental Organizations was an enthusiastic fan of former President Askar Akayev. It ran a national petition drive in 2004 asking the president, who had been in power since 1991, to run for reelection. Likewise, the Myanmar Women’s Affairs Federation is a harsh critic of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prizewinner and opposition leader who has spent much of the past 18 years under house arrest. The federation is run by the wives of the military junta’s top generals.
Democratic governments have their own GONGOs, too. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED) is a private, nonprofit organization created in 1983 to strengthen democratic institutions around the world through nongovernmental efforts. It is a GONGO funded by the U.S. government. In several countries, receiving money from the NED is considered a crime. President Vladimir Putin’s government has denounced foreign-funded support for political reform by groups such as NED as subversive and anti-Russian. A Chinese newspaper called U.S.-backed democracy promotion "self-serving, coercive, and immoral."
For the sake of full disclosure, it’s important to note that I serve on NED’s board of directors. I, therefore, disagree that its activities are criminal, immoral, or a tool of the White House. Its programs, decisions, and sources of revenues and expenditures are perfectly transparent, and its directors, who serve without pay, are completely independent. But why should you believe me?
Ideally, there should be an independent and credible source that helps you decide if the NED or other GONGOs backed by, say, the Canadian or Dutch governments belong in the same category as Chongryon or Nashi. The world needs an NGO rating system that does for global civil society what independent credit rating agencies do for the global financial system. The credit rating agencies play an indispensable role in facilitating the massive borrowing and lending that takes place every day by providing investors with reliable information about the financial conditions of corporations, government agencies, and individuals. These independent and professional assessments of the creditworthiness of borrowers allow major transactions to take place faster and cheaper. Ultimately, lenders make the decision. But they do so within a more transparent market where a company that has a history of always meeting its obligations is less likely to be confused with one that only pays its debtors after a court orders it to do so.
A similar set of institutions can provide accurate information about the backers, independence, goals, and track records of different NGOs. The globalization and effectiveness of non-governmental organizations will suffer if we don’t find reliable ways of distinguishing organizations that truly represent democratic civil society from those that are tools of uncivil, undemocratic governments. Such bodies will help donors and citizens decide whom and what to believe. It will also make life harder for GONGOs with the worst intentions.