Should governments be able to regulate the nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, operating within their borders?
Well, it’s complicated.
But before we dive into why, let’s define what exactly NGOs are. NGOs are a type of third sector organization concerned with country and region-specific causes that engage in comparable work both domestically and internationally. As the popularity of third sector organizations, in general, has expanded in the United States, NGOs have made similar advances throughout the world. Their financial support is received from governments, other organizations, and individuals.
When It’s Right to Regulate
While the work of NGOs is usually well-received, certain activities can come under critical scrutiny from the media and the general public. For example, Italian officials recently declared their intentions to investigate NGOs suspected of being connected to human smuggling operations in the Mediterranean Sea. In this type of allegation, the alleged problem could have a dangerous impact on the lives of vulnerable people. As such, it would seem prudent to simply restrict or ban organizations that are allegedly violating human rights.
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But what about when the accusation turns political and the government itself is the alleged “victim?”
In recent months, the Hungarian government, led by prime minister Viktor Orban, has become increasingly leery of foreign-funded NGOs operating within its borders. The ruling Fidesz political party introduced legislation that would require all “agent organizations” that seek to influence Hungarian politics to reveal sources of foreign funding. Fidesz vice president Szilard Nemeth stated that Hungary wishes to “sweep out” organizations that “serve global capitalists … over national governments.” These statements come two years after similar measures were established in Russia by the Russian Undesirable Organizations Law, signed by president Vladimir Putin.
As expected, responses have been swift and cutting, accusing the ruling regime of being “illiberal” or opposed to transparency and other traditionally “democratic ideals.” While Hungary’s actions are quite different than what many in the United States are accustomed to, it is nevertheless the work of a sovereign state’s government and the people who have been popularly elected to represent it.
When one considers the possible rationale for wanting to restrict, ban, or expel an organization from operation in the country, the situation becomes even more complicated: Should organizations that are suspected of or proven to be working to undermine the activities of governments be deemed “open game” for government regulation? Without substantial proof, such claims will be rightly criticized, and the economic harm done to the organizations in question should be a concern to everyone interested in third sector development and general business freedom.
In the case of Hungary, elected officials are genuinely concerned that these foreign entities are investing in organizations that will thwart activities by the government. In recent weeks, new legislation pushed by Fidesz through the nation’s parliament has threatened to shut down the renowned Central European University (CEU) of Budapest. The legislation is believed to be targeting NGOs that are major CEU donors and funders. In addition to massive protests throughout Budapest, the European Union (EU) has responded by issuing a formal notice of infringement, condemning the activity and putting related actions against select NGOs “on their radar.”
Third sector groups, like any other business or private organization, are expected to act in accordance with laws and regulatory statutes of any bodies that claim jurisdiction over them. Although situations can become tricky when disagreements occur over whether or not an organization has violated a particular statute (official or not), respecting established or forthcoming mandates and potentially altering existing organization policy in order to continue established missions should be a major, if not a main, priority.
However, in an increasingly digital and globalized world, grievances can be aired and broadcast to the court of public opinion. As such, governments abusing their authority will be placed in the spotlight. If legitimate abuse of power is uncovered, citizens can speak up in democratic elections or, if needed, intergovernmental organizations can engage in responsible intervention.
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