Stephen M. Walt

Civil society and human rights in Israel (and elsewhere)

The following is a guest post by Professor James Ron of Carleton University. I should say that I’m not fully persuaded by Ron’s suggestion that foreign funders of NGOs in Israel and elsewhere should spend less money in order to encourage a more robust and indigenously-funded civil society, although I agree that helping such organizations ...

David Silverman/Getty Images
David Silverman/Getty Images

The following is a guest post by Professor James Ron of Carleton University. I should say that I’m not fully persuaded by Ron’s suggestion that foreign funders of NGOs in Israel and elsewhere should spend less money in order to encourage a more robust and indigenously-funded civil society, although I agree that helping such organizations develop more robust funding strategies makes eminently good sense. As long as the settlement enterprise continues, and especially as long as tax-exempt monies of various sorts keep flowing into the settlement enterprise-then foreign governments, foundations, and individuals have a legitimate interest in supporting various civil society groups in Israel (and elsewhere) — including human rights groups and other law-abiding organizations that seek to document or oppose these policies. One could make similar arguments about other countries whose behavior is contrary to accepted human rights principles. That said, Ron’s argument does raise some interesting issues and I thought FP readers might find it intriguing and useful.

Guest Post by James Ron

In the 1990s, American experts heralded the global spread of liberal civil society, arguing that political power had fundamentally shifted in favor of an organized citizenry. States were no longer in charge, and NGOs such as Amnesty International and Greenpeace, coupled with thousands of smaller NGOs worldwide, were spreading liberal ideas such as democracy, human rights, and environmentalism.

Boosted by scholarly evidence and policymaker enthusiasm, Western donors began pouring money into NGOs across Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.

At first, the results seemed promising. Small NGOS popped up everywhere, and in many places, developed a powerful voice. Transparency, progressive advocacy, and human rights seemed destined to carry the day.

That tide has now turned, and the wave of Western-funded, liberal NGOs has produced a backlash from conservatives everywhere, from Canada to Russia. Increasingly, legislators, backlash activists and government officials are attacking NGOs where it hurts most: their foreign-funded wallets.

The problem, it turns out, is that most NGOs draw a very slender geographic base for their funding: Europe and North America. Locally generated NGO revenue in the developing world, by contrast, is minuscule.

The problem is not developing-world poverty; there are plenty of charitable donors in countries like India, Brazil, Indonesia, Egypt, and Russia, and virtually every society has some form of charitable accumulation. In much of the non-Western world, however, most such funds go to traditional charitable activities, such as local religious institutions or orphanages. Liberal, human rights-oriented advocacy groups have limited capacity to tap into these monies, and thus spend most of their fund-raising efforts learning how best to apply to the European Union, U.S. AID, Ford Foundation, and other major Western donors.

External funding for NGOs has thus been both a boon and a liability. On the one hand, foreign funding has given local NGOs the wherewithal to grow and make a difference, propelling them to the centre of many local debates. Those same funds, however, present a tempting target to conservatives in times of crisis.

As a result, liberal NGOs in non-Western lands are exposed, vulnerable, and potentially broke.

The latest chapter in this global struggle is now unfolding in Israel, until now viewed by many as a major NGO hub.

In recent weeks, conservative parliamentarians have begun pushing a new anti-NGO law through the Knesset, Israel’s legislature. Goaded by Western condemnation of Israel’s Gaza war, the lawmakers are accusing Israeli NGOs of serving foreign masters.

The Jewish-Israeli nationalists are explicitly targeting well known Jewish groups such as B’Tselem, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, and the New Israel Fund, all led by respected, mainstream, liberal-Zionist figures.

The campaign was initially spearheaded by conservative student groups such as Im Tirtzu (If You Want, a fragment of a famous Zionist slogan), coupled with support from the backlash group "NGO Monitor." The campaign has turned ugly, with liberal figures such as Naomi Chazan — an historian and former legislator — depicted as a horned animal on public billboards.

The last time something like this happened, an Israeli prime minister — war hero and liberal politician Yitzhak Rabin — was gunned down by a right wing gunman.

To be sure, the Israeli campaign is surprising only because the country has, until now, been tolerant of internal dissent, even when directed at the military, Israel’s most revered institution.

Although Israel’s democracy has always been challenged by its relations with Palestinians, officials have, until now, tacitly recognized local NGOs’ right to receive Western funds and speak out.

The rules of the game are now changing, and the gloves are coming off. If successful, the new law will force Israeli NGOs to pay taxes on foreign donations, effectively driving them out of business. Israeli NGO workers, moreover, will also have to begin all statements by acknowledging that they are funded by "foreign political entities."

Without swift protests by the Obama administration and its European allies, Israel may soon go the way of Russia, Egypt, and Ethiopia, where recent campaigns against foreign funded NGOs have undermined civil society.  

The long term solution, however, is quite different. In the years to come, Western donors will have to spend their money more sparingly and wisely when it comes to civil society. Foreign funding has created a prominent but vulnerable network of NGOS with little internal credibility in the non-Western world, and few local resources.

To build a locally sustainable and legitimate NGO sector, Western donors will have to provide smaller grants, and will have to condition their funds, whenever possible, on matching local monies. They will also have to spend money on boosting NGOs’ capacity to raise funds locally, connect with local stakeholders, and adjust their message accordingly.

If donors don’t smarten up, they’ll do little more than make things worse.

Happily, there are excellent examples of self-sufficient, non-Western NGOs out there. In Bangladesh, for example, BRAC, an NGO powerhouse, has become one of the world’s largest and most self-sufficient civil society organizations, combining income-generating activities with advocacy work for rights, gender equity, and democracy.

Christian Churches in Africa are another example. Until Western funds stopped flowing after independence, many local churches were poorly staffed and struggling. Once foreign funding ended, however, many began to thrive, learning how best to compete in the local marketplace of resources, converts, and spirituality.

A two-track strategy is thus necessary. In the short term, Western governments should stand up to conservative lawmakers in Israel and elsewhere, arguing that restrictive laws on foreign funds should be rescinded.

In the long term, Western donors should temper their generosity by spending less money more wisely. Otherwise, non-Western NGOs will never learn how to unlock the charitable potential embedded in all societies.

If donors and NGOs don’t break their unhealthy co-dependence, civil society outside of the West will never be sustainable.

James Ron is an Associate Professor at the Norman Paterson School for International Affairs, Canada’s oldest graduate program for international public policy. He is an Israeli, Canadian and American citizen. He is currently studying global rights-based NGOs with Canadian and National Science Foundation funding. For more details, visit


Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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