Why Do Some Foreign Countries Hate American NGOs So Much?

The United Arab Emirates is latest country to shut down a U.S.-funded democracy organization.

cairo april2 p.jpg

U.S. citizen Robert Becker of the National Democratic Institute leaves the defendants' cage during the opening of his trial in Cairo. Reuters

The Times reports that the United Arab Emirates has shut down the offices of the National Democratic Institute, a nonprofit U.S. agency whose mission is to promote democracy around the globe. The NDI is often called an NGO, short for nongovernmental organization, which might leave some people a bit quizzical given that this particular NGO is funded to a significant extent by the U.S. government. But Wikipedia helpfully explains: "In cases in which NGOs are funded totally or partially by governments, the NGO maintains its non-governmental status by excluding governmental representatives from membership in the organization."

Given the language of the Times story on the matter, by reporter Steven Lee Myers, one could get the impression that most people consider it the most natural thing imaginable for the U.S. government to fund organizations that send people into the world to spread democracy, even to the point of helping to foster revolutions in countries deemed insufficiently Jeffersonian. Myers calls the UAE decision "a surprising act of diplomatic defiance." He also labels it "especially provocative," given that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was scheduled to arrive in the region shortly for talks with the UAE and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

And Clinton herself followed suit by declaring that "we very much regret" the UAE action and adding that NDI plays "a key role in supporting NGOs and civil society across the region, and I expect our discussion on this issue to continue."

But perhaps there's merit in stepping back just a bit and seeking to look at it from the perspective of the receiving country. Egypt recently arrested members of a number of democracy-promoting NGOs operating in that country and threatened to prosecute them amid concerns expressed by many Egyptians that they were meddling in Egypt's internal affairs. Egyptian officials were responding in part to reports that three U.S. NGOs--NDI, Freedom House and the International Republican Institute--had received some $65 million to press their views in Egypt on how that country should conduct its government. They said this was "illegal foreign funding" to influence their elections.

The case got particular attention in the United States because the son of Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood was charged in criminal court there along with a number of others. They were released only after the U.S. government threatened to halt $1.3 million in projected arms sales to Egypt. But the NGO activities were not allowed to resume.

Russia also has expressed outrage at the activities of U.S. NGOs in that country. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin complained, during his race for the Russian presidency, that hundreds of millions of dollars, mostly from the United States, were being funneled into his country to influence those elections. China has expressed similar concerns.

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Robert W. Merry is editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy.

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