Flash Points

Themed journeys through our archive.

How NGOs Bolster Democracy

Nongovernmental organizations have the potential to undermine authoritarian governance, which must be why they face widespread crackdowns around the world.

A person stands amid colorful piles on red-brown earth.
A person stands amid colorful piles on red-brown earth.
A person organizes piles of items for distribution from an international nongovernmental organization to internally displaced people fleeing violence in western Ethiopia in Chagni, Ethiopia, on Jan. 28, 2021. Eduardo Soteras/AFP via Getty Images

“Why do Middle Eastern leaders loathe NGOs?” asked FP’s Steven A. Cook in 2018. “The answer,” he wrote, “is more complicated than Westerners tend to think.” According to Cook, it’s not just that NGOs have the potential to undermine authoritarian governance; they also threaten a nation’s sovereignty and, sometimes, are seen as a form of neocolonialism.

Over the years, there have been many critiques of NGOs. Journalist Michael Hobbes has written about how NGOs, among other entities, have “turned the language of human rights into meaningless babble.” But, as Ronald R. Krebs and James Ron have argued, NGOs can also be a powerful force for democracy.

This collection of essays from the FP archives explores the promise of NGOs, the problems they can create, and the issues they face amid widespread crackdowns around the world.—Chloe Hadavas

“Why do Middle Eastern leaders loathe NGOs?” asked FP’s Steven A. Cook in 2018. “The answer,” he wrote, “is more complicated than Westerners tend to think.” According to Cook, it’s not just that NGOs have the potential to undermine authoritarian governance; they also threaten a nation’s sovereignty and, sometimes, are seen as a form of neocolonialism.

Over the years, there have been many critiques of NGOs. Journalist Michael Hobbes has written about how NGOs, among other entities, have “turned the language of human rights into meaningless babble.” But, as Ronald R. Krebs and James Ron have argued, NGOs can also be a powerful force for democracy.

This collection of essays from the FP archives explores the promise of NGOs, the problems they can create, and the issues they face amid widespread crackdowns around the world.—Chloe Hadavas


Illustration by Adam Simpson

Saving the World, One Meaningless Buzzword at a Time

How corporations, activists, and politicians turned the language of human rights into meaningless babble, according to Michael Hobbes.


Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz welcomes Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at Riyadh international airport on November 10, 2015.
Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz welcomes Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at Riyadh international airport on November 10, 2015.

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz welcomes Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi at Riyadh international airport on November 10, 2015. FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images

The Real Reason the Middle East Hates NGOs

Western promoters of democracy aren’t seen as a threat to individual rulers but as a reminder of colonial history, FP’s Steven A. Cook writes.


Indian police clash with protestors on the beach at Idinathakarai village near the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in southern Tamil Nadu on September 10, 2012.
Indian police clash with protestors on the beach at Idinathakarai village near the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in southern Tamil Nadu on September 10, 2012.

Indian police clash with protestors on the beach at Idinathakarai village near the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant in southern Tamil Nadu on September 10, 2012. STR/AFP/GettyImages

Democracies Need a Little Help From Their Friends

The war against foreign-funded NGOs—from India to Israel—is harming democratic governance, not enhancing it, Ronald R. Krebs and James Ron write.


Chinese President Xi Jinping poses after delivering his speech.
Chinese President Xi Jinping poses after delivering his speech.

Chinese President Xi Jinping poses after delivering his speech at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris on March 27, 2014.CHRISTIAN HARTMANN/AFP via Getty Images

China Is Choking Civil Society at the United Nations

The Chinese government is using every means at its disposal to do battle with NGOs, Rana Siu Inboden writes.


Women are seen making food and holding food containers in a kitchen.
Women are seen making food and holding food containers in a kitchen.

Women serve food in a community kitchen in Caracas on April 15, 2019. Nongovernmental organization Alimenta La Solidaridad runs community kitchens throughout the country.Eva Marie Uzcategui/Getty Images

Chavismo’s Latest Target

NGOs are essential to Venezuelan society. A new law may lead to their collapse, Tony Frangie-Mawad writes.

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