NGO clampdown: They also serve who oppose the state

The government’s renewed clampdown on foreign funding of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is misguided. NGOs play a useful role in society, carrying out research, service delivery, advocacy and, at times, mobilisation on a diverse range of issues that affect national life. The government can and must monitor their activities and finances, just as it monitors the functioning of companies, to guard against money-laundering and other criminality. But it should rescind its current move to force them to undertake not to use foreign aid for activities “detrimental to national interest, likely to affect public interest, or likely to prejudicially affect the security, scientific, strategic or economic interest of the state”, leaving the government of the day as the sole arbiter of these interests.


The fundamental rights to free speech and to work together through associations are key building blocks of democracy. An opinion voiced about the day’s lead story over a cup of tea does not quite amount to free speech. Nor do voluble cheers for the leader’s thunderous declamation. For the Constitution’s protection to kick in, speech will need to have a political effect or context, with the potential to impinge on the state’s actions. While there is good reason to restrict foreign funding of political parties that seek to capture state power, it is neither desirable nor possible to restrict foreign funding of activity that has a political dimension, without violating democracy’s basic premises.

NGOs help churn society’s collective experience to throw up previously undiscovered problems, as also offer solutions. This is a good thing for sustainable social cohesion. Rather than as a nuisance, they should be seen as agents of broadening the base of engagement and nation-building.

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