When governments seek to limit the influence of not-for-profits in democratic governance they are failing to separate the partisan from the political. In doing so they are not defending democracy, they are undermining it.
The recent trend of governments proposing and implementing legislation to restrict the advocacy of not-for-profits shows no sign of abating. Azerbaijan, Indonesia, Ecuador, Canada and the UK are just some of the countries who have seen legislative amendments to limit the voice of not-for-profit organisations on “political” issues.
Attempts by governments to suppress the advocacy by not-for-profit organisations are often justified by a simple, but powerful argument. Political lobbying by large ,well funded and unelected not-for-profits and advocacy networks, often operating across borders, are having too great an influence over policy.
On the face of it, this argument has some weight. Why should democratically elected politicians be held to ransom by organisations who are not themselves democratically accountable? But the above argument rests on two dangerously false assumptions. Firstly it assumes that a powerful role for civil society organisations is somehow new and inconsistent with a healthy democracy. Secondly it assumes that an increase in the role of not-for-profits in governance equates to a transfer of power from governments, and hence the electorate, to campaigners. I’ll address each of these in turn:
Is a powerful role for civil society organisations somehow new and inconsistent with a healthy democracy?
Not-for-profit advocacy is not new. Indeed, the rise of philanthropy in Victorian era Britain occurred hand-in hand with the growth of what Jürgen Habermas calls the “public sphere” – a space between government and elites and society at large where citizens can come together to develop their thoughts and influence policy from the outside. Within the public sphere grew a free and critical press as well as not-for-profit organisations. As such, it is fair to say that the advocacy of the latter is more responsible for creating what we think of as democratic government than it is for undermining it.
Furthermore, though globalisation has seen the a flourishing of transnational advocacy networks, their influence is far from new. Margaret Keck and Kathryn Sikkink point out in their book, “Advocacy Beyond Borders” that international advocacy networks have been influential since the nineteenth century. They cite successes in supporting abolitionist and anti-Chinese foot binding movements, where governments which had previously ignored calls for intervention were influenced by their advocacy. In “Democratizing Development” John Clark has chronicled strategic campaigning by not-for-profit organisations detailing successes spanning the 20th century. He highlights the adoption of a baby milk marketing code, the drafting of an international essential drugs list, trade liberalisation for clothing manufactured in the South, action on rain forest destruction, debt relief to African countries, and the imposition of sanctions to combat apartheid as examples.
Does an increase in the influence of not-for-profits mean a decrease in the power of elected officials and the electorate?
Firstly, we need to ask ourselves whether our ideal vision of democracy is one where elected officials hold all the power. For many, the tendency towards centralisation of power to national government is seen as detrimental to democracy. Secondly, electoral democracy, by its very nature the imposition of the will of the majority, does not naturally represent the rights and needs of the minority. In this way the slight preferences of the many outweigh the urgent concerns of the few. Civil society, and in particular the advocacy of not-for-profits can play a vital role in representing the marginalised and countering the tyranny of the majority.
In any case, the notion of a transfer of power taking place from governments to not-for-profits falsely assumes that the relationship between both parties is necessarily a zero sum-game. It relies on the false belief that there is a finite amount of governance and power to be shared by all parties and that, as such, an increased role in governance for one means a diminished role for another. Whilst it is plausible for the influence of one power base to be challenged by another, it is not clear that this is happening as a result of increased advocacy by not-for-profits either domestically or internationally. Rather, not-for-profits are taking advantage of a global growth in civic space that has resulted from a historic rise in democratic freedoms and advances in communication technologies.
The way forward
Politicians, officials and indeed the media, need to develop a more mature understanding of not-for-profit advocacy. It is all too easy for those who feel threatened by it to characterise it as wasteful and uncharitable, as on the face of it, there are no direct beneficiaries. Even the most effective and successful advocacy campaigns can only be seen as delivering tangible value to beneficiaries with the benefit of hindsight, once the change being sought has taken place. However, when a more holistic view is taken of the value of not-for-profit advocacy, its true worth is self evident.
Civil society is the vehicle by which citizens can represent themselves either by forming organisations, participating in campaigns, donating money or volunteering. It offers an opportunity for grass roots movements to grow and provides a constructive channel for social tensions to be turned into reasoned and targeted dialogue with government. The advocacy of not-for-profits is the pressure gauge that releases dissent in a way that is manageable for governments. It protects the state from the social unrest that results from a build up of pent-up civic tension. History shows us that without an appropriate means to voice dissent, disenfranchised citizens will, as Jimmy Carter advised a panel of Latin American ambassadors, “eventually make their grievances known, and it may be in radical and destructive ways.”
Perhaps the most important step that we all need to make is a philosophical one. We need to reclaim the word “political”. Too often, the phrase political activity is used as a pejorative term. But not-for-profits are, always have been, and should continue to be political. When donors give time and money to organisations it is an expression of individuality and is often motivated by emotion and values. The desire to change the world for the better, in line with your values is what drives citizens to the donation box as well as the voting booth.
At the same time as rescuing the term “political” we should focus the regulation of charities on the idea of the partisan. Clearly, a situation where not-for-profits openly engage in supporting political parties and candidates is inconsistent with what we see as charitable. When policy makers narrow their focus in this way, they will be truly working for the betterment of democracy.
This blog summarises content from the next Future World Giving report, “Enabling an Independent Not-for-profit Sector” which will be published in early May 2014.