Civil society: not always what it’s cracked up to be

The international press has been reporting that the Hungarian government is ‘coming down on Hungary’s civil society’, and once again they don’t have their story right.

The issue at hand is an initiative by the government to address a problem that many countries are confronting: the transparency and credibility of NGOs.

Civil society is a touchy topic in every democracy. NGOs are perceived as good because they are considered a civic initiative, the activism of citizens coming together – with goals that are not for profit – to advance some public good. The common notion is that NGOs grow from the will of the citizens because they care for it.

Hungary’s ruling party, Fidesz, began as a civic organization in 1988 before eventually becoming a political party. In its early days, the group fit that definition of an authentic NGO, as did many of the groups that emerged in the 1980s to oppose communism. Most of the 56 thousand civic, non-governmental organizations in Hungary today also fit that definition. They contribute in important ways to public life and the country’s progress.

However, not all organizations that are technically registered as NGOs can claim to have that civic authenticity.

In not a few countries around the globe, the privileged status of NGOs is exploited by special interests, financiers, lobbyists or foreign governments under the cover of democracy and philanthropy. They provide considerable funding for certain NGOs (sometimes groups that they have created), and in return, the NGO works for a special interest defined by the funder. By doing so, the one that’s funding the activity enjoys the stamp of legitimacy of the so-called civil society organization. In most cases, they avoid basic requirements of transparency and do not have to register as lobbyists. They avoid many taxes because of the privileged non-profit status of the NGOs, and if a government steps in to try to regulate activity, the government is condemned as undemocratic, cracking down on civic activists.

These NGOs are sometimes referred to as “astroturf” groups because they have no real roots. Many of them are “fake” NGOs that are propped up to agitate on behalf of some special (often foreign) interest without any real, civic support behind them.

In fact, the phenomenon is nothing new. In the days of the Tsar, Russia was a great, European power with more than a thousand years of history. Its destabilization in the early 20th Century was not without foreign influence. Modern-day Israel has been fighting for survival against hostile interest since its inception, so they have good reason to be serious about international interests intervening in their affairs under the guise of NGOs.

Closer to home, back in September 2015, so-called civic groups led a large group of illegal migrants that eventually attacked the Hungarian border with Serbia, demanding to be let through without proper background checks in violation of international law. Outnumbering the border control authorities, they threw stones and attempted to break through. They appeared organized, led by people with megaphones coordinating the so-called demonstration. One of the leaders was recently sentenced by the Hungarian court. He was a native Syrian who had been living in the European Union for many years – not a refugee – and he clearly had no place there agitating violently for an illegal border incursion.

Then there were the so-called humanitarian groups that distributed leaflets in groups of migrants advising them not to cooperate with authorities in the process of crossing the border legally and requesting refugee status. I could go on, but the point is clear.

The citizens of Hungary have a right to transparency and to expect a reasonable degree of democratic accountability. Where are these groups receiving their funding, how much and for what purpose? And does the activity reflect a civic cause? The government of Hungary is currently looking at best practices in the way that other democratic governments, like Israel, confront this challenge.

Having come from a genuinely civic movement, we understand the important role that civic groups play. But there’s a difference between groups that have real civic support, roots in the society and a desire to contribute positively to public life in a transparent way, and those groups that have no real popular backing but survive merely from the support of a special interest.

(Photo credit: MTI)