NGOs aren’t just mute. They’re being gagged

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A number of changes in contracts and conditions mean that it is increasingly hard for NGOs to criticise the government

A recent Guardian editorial wondered why NGOs were giving the government a free ride over its latest regressive step in international development policy. “The positive case for aid is not being made,” it said and ended by urging international NGOs to “get their act together”.

On this point, I wholeheartedly agree. But tragically, it’s not quite that simple. What the writer seems to be unaware of is the fact that the rights of civil society, including the right of our NGOs to challenge government policy, are slowly being eroded. And this is what gives our government, and Priti Patel, the secretary of state for international development, the free ride they so desperately want. Democracy and a healthy civil society demand free and open debate. Both legally and practically, this is what we may no longer have.

It has happened relatively quietly. In 2014 the government passed the Lobbying Act which imposed restrictions on how much charities and NGOs were able to spend on campaigning in the run up to national elections.

Then, earlier this year the “anti-advocacy clause” was brought in by the government. Added into the contracts of NGOs who receive government funding, the clause imposes restrictions on how that money can be spent. Specifically: “the following costs are not Eligible Expenditure: Payments that support activity intended to influence or attempt to influence Parliament, Government or political parties, or attempting to influence the awarding or renewal of contracts and grants, or attempting to influence legislative or regulatory action.” There was a chorus of protest from NGOs and the government said they would “pause” the policy – although no timeframe has been set for this “pause”. But the clause is already in a large number of NGO contracts and no one is particularly clear about what a “pause” means in legal terms.

On its own, this hasn’t necessarily gagged civil society voices. Several individuals from NGOs have argued to me that they still campaign, they just do so with different pots of funds. Others have stated that instead of jumping on the critical bandwagon, and enabling the likes of the Daily Mail to further trash aid, they are instead awaiting the outcome of the DfID civil society review (due out today), something that will determine their relationship with the department in the years to come.

It’s when you take these two together, alongside other measures taken by the government and the fact that many NGOs receive government funding to deliver services, that alarm bells should ring. Whether by force or by fear, NGOs have started to self-censor, cautiously awaiting the government’s next political move before speaking out. They fear being relegated to the likes of simple service deliverers, their years of insider influence now redundant.

It is the beginning of a downward slope. Civicus, which tracks civic space worldwide, has found that the reduction of rights for civil society voices is a growing and worrying trend worldwide, moving from the usual suspects like China and Russia to liberal democracies, including the UK. In the UK, they point out that the space for civil society has narrowed, citing anti-terrorism laws and some restrictions on the right to assemble.

But it’s the less obvious tactics, such as contractual obligations that are passing virtually unnoticed, that are now sending the most chilling effects through civil society, according to research by the Charities Aid Foundation [pdf]. “Most worrying are the restrictions being placed on advocacy and campaigning, with a climate of uncertainty … that prevents organisations from speaking up on behalf of beneficiaries,” they argue.

International development NGOs are both a victim and a cause of the position we’ve found ourselves in. Fifteen years ago, British NGOs were shouting from the rooftops to bring forward a progressive sea change in international development. Some of that campaigning has resulted in positive global shifts in policies on aid and debt. Yet in spite of political commitments to 0.7%, the so-called “golden years” of development now seems to have given way to a darker, meaner era, one in which our politicians demand reciprocal benefits, for our own ends. Patel is leading the charge to see our aid budget provide benefits to the UK – straying very close to forms of “tied” aid that were dismissed, both legally and ethically, over 20 years ago. Like the Brexit campaign, she’s riding the wave of Daily Mail aid haters, with glee.

Advocacy is a challenging thing. It threatens those in power. But that’s what it should do. British NGOs started their journey by holding those in power to account for letting poverty in the developing world go unnoticed. Regardless of what we think about the current rhetorical direction of aid policy, more important is that we fight to uphold our rights to dissent and campaign, and that we do so openly without fear. The government is trying to curb those rights and it has almost succeeded. Let’s not wait until it is too late. The last thing we should be doing in response is meekly going about our business, cautiously awaiting their next move.

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