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Restrictive NGO laws – The Trend Continues

By: Joe Gleason, Director of International Risk


Host government restrictions and pressure on NGOs are hardly new occurrences – in 2016, I wrote about it, as China implemented a restrictive NGO law and the challenges have been increasing in recent years. In a high-profile example of this trend, Amnesty International has ceased operations in India after their bank accounts were frozen and senior staff interrogated by authorities.

The broad strokes of the Amnesty story are all too familiar: The government accuses the NGO of receiving funds from abroad in contravention of a new(ish), restrictive NGO law in India.  However, Amnesty asserts that they are in compliance with all laws and say they had not been informed of any issues prior to the seizure of the bank account. Similar tactics in Pakistan, Egypt, Russia, Cambodia and elsewhere have resulted in NGOs shutting down programs or severely reducing operations. In most cases, governments rely on NGO laws crafted specifically to limit operating space for these groups. Not surprisingly, NGOs, such as Amnesty, implementing human rights, political party or civil society work are often targeted by authorities.

As with many risks, it’s impossible to fully eliminate exposure – especially where a government is determined to disrupt an NGO’s activities. But, there are steps organizations should consider to mitigate the risks:

  • Understand local NGO law and comply: Register/establish a legal presence report, as required (programmatic & financial), obtain required audits, pay taxes and required social benefits, etc.
  • Ensure appropriate visas and work permits are secured for international travelers and long-term assignees.
  • Report low-level harassment or questions from authorities, financial institutions, etc.; these may be signs of wider scrutiny of the organization. Monitor actions against other NGOs and local partners to track trends.
  • Limit how much information is retained in country and keep back-up data through cloud storage and other means. Of course, retain information locally that is required by law.
  • Establish triggers or trip wires that would prompt organizational review of operations.
  • Include government harassment, raids and similar action in incident and crisis management plans and training.

Unfortunately, the trend of onerous NGO laws and host government pressure is only likely to increase – in fact, while writing this blog I saw a summary of newly proposed legislation in Nicaragua designed to stifle NGOs and media freedoms. In the currently global environment, it’s essential that organizations evaluate these risks and monitor events closely for changes, as well as plan for mitigation and response.

Learn More about AHT’s International Aid & Development Practice