NGOs and the Fallacy of Civil Society

Though called "non-governmental," NGOs often receive significant government funding and may pursue political agendas.


Non-governmental organization (NGO) is often a misleading label. Over the past several decades, a new phenomenon – government-backed NGOs – has emerged. These groups are formally independent from governments, but in reality rely on government support and funding, domestic or foreign.

• In Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkan states, foreign governments – both from the West and Russia – have used NGOs to further geopolitical aims.

• The involvement of organizations like USAID and NED in funding pro-Western NGOs has created both fear and suspicion that Western governments are attempting to instigate color revolutions – popular protest movements aimed at regime change.

• NGOs across the former communist bloc are largely not financially viable without domestic government or outside support.

• While both Russia and the West use NGOs, funding these groups is not a very effective method of influencing decision-making and public opinion.


Civil society is a sphere that, by definition, is outside the scope of government. Following a trip to America in the early 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville – much impressed with American civil society – wrote in his work “Democracy in America” that “wherever at the head of some new undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.” Thinkers like Tocqueville valued and advocated for the separation of private life from the public and the ability to organize outside the framework of the state. Civil society includes everything from business associations to Girl Scouts, charities and bowling leagues. These are forms of organizing, both political and non-political, where the government plays no role.

Within civil society, there is a subgroup generally referred to as non-governmental organizations (NGOs). These groups are non-profit entities that provide services, conduct research or perform advocacy work. As their name suggests, in theory these groups are firmly grounded in civil society, have no relationship to government and are often regarded as a check on government.

Nevertheless, many NGOs are not truly non-governmental entities. Over the past decades, a new phenomenon – government-backed NGOs – has emerged. These are groups that formally are independent from governments but in reality rely on government support and funding, domestic or foreign. Governments use these groups as tools for building influence and achieving goals that they cannot undertake directly. Nowhere is this phenomenon more prominent than in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkan states, where foreign governments – both from the West and Russia – have used NGOs to further geopolitical aims.

In this region, financial and sometimes legal limitations have prevented the rise of indigenous groups truly independent from government influence.

NGO, therefore, is often a misleading label that can belie a political purpose. Government funding of NGOs creates a new class of political organizations. These groups are at the very least in an ambiguous position. At most, they have become government organizations and thus no longer part of civil society.

The West and Russia: Government-Backed NGOs

NGOs are sometimes used by governments and intelligence agencies to boost influence and further strategic goals. During the Cold War, Western and Soviet intelligence agencies actively sought to influence local groups in countries of interest. The Central Intelligence Agency covertly funded private organizations – in addition to newspapers and political parties – to help shape public opinion in Europe.

When the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), one of America’s main vehicles for supporting NGOs abroad, was created in the 1980s, it was set up as a private-public partnership largely to shield the organization from meddling or accusations of intelligence agencies’ involvement. Nevertheless, NED still relies on U.S. government funding for many of the 1,200 grants it issues to NGOs abroad each year.

This financial dependency on the U.S. government, as well as awarding grants to NGOs involved in promoting social causes and political agendas that align with U.S. interests (and at times anti-government activities in their home countries), has opened up NED and other major government-funded institutions – like the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) – to suspicions of continued CIA involvement.

Over the past 25 years, NED, USAID, NDI, IRI, their German counterparts Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, and a host of other government and private foundations have supported NGOs in Central and Eastern Europe that promote democratic governance, fair elections, training for youths and activists and anti-corruption and transparency efforts. These projects are funded partly to further the goals of strengthening pro-Western movements in the region and promoting European integration in countries like Moldova and Ukraine.

NGOs in Ukraine, which Russia considers a key strategic buffer and where Washington and the Kremlin are competing for influence, have received significant funding, directly and indirectly, from Western governments. According to USAID, the top foreign institutions funding groups in Ukraine are USAID, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (a government entity), the Mott Foundation (a private U.S.-based institution), the International Renaissance Foundation (a branch of the U.S.-based private Open Society Foundation) and the U.K.’s Department for International Development (a government entity). It is estimated that between 1992 and 2014, the U.S. spent between $3 billion and $5 billion in assistance to Ukraine. Over the past decade, a significant portion of this aid went to NGOs, especially groups that work on governance, anti-corruption and democracy issues, and groups that had been involved in the 2004 pro-Western Orange Revolution.

For example, New Citizen is a coalition of NGOs that was involved in setting up the first round of protests against the government of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in 2013 and later expanded into the Maidan movement, ultimately leading to the fall of the government. New Citizen had earlier received funding from U.S. government-funded organizations. American grants to Ukrainian NGOs were often allocated for training activists or election monitors, and in some cases totaled hundreds of thousands of dollars.

U.S. efforts have continued, however, even after the fall of the Yanukovych government. One recent example of U.S. efforts in Ukraine is NDI’s use of its Civi online contact management system. This helps Ukrainian NGOs and members of parliament with outreach to voters, allowing them to send texts and mass emails to thousands of supporters. At the same time, some NGO projects funded by the U.S. government have overtly strategic undertones. IRI, with funding from NED, is currently running a project to “develop political coalitions and produce materials that debunk Russian deception campaigns.”

The involvement of organizations like USAID and NED in funding pro-Western NGOs and democracy projects has created both fear and suspicion among some governments in the region that Western governments are attempting to instigate color revolutions – popular protest movements aimed at regime change. In countries like Belarus, Azerbaijan and Russia, strong efforts have been made to limit NGOs’ ability to operate and access foreign funding. Notably, in July 2015, NED became the first foreign organization banned in Russia under the Kremlin’s law against “undesirable” international NGOs.

Like the U.S. and some Western governments, Russia also funds NGOs and uses these groups to further its geopolitical aims. There is evidence of strong connections between Russian intelligence agencies, in particular the FSB, and Russian-backed NGOs. In fact, some of the money and goods used by Russian-backed rebels in Donbass were moved through what on paper are Orthodox charities.

Russian funding for groups in Central and Eastern Europe revolves primarily around financing for groups and projects related to Russian-speaking communities, as well as Slavic and Orthodox communities. The Russian state’s formal vehicle for extending its influence in the NGO realm abroad is Rossotrudnichestvo (the Federal Agency for the Commonwealth of Independent States, Compatriots Living Abroad and International Humanitarian Cooperation), which maintains offices abroad and acts as a grant-awarding institution.

At the same time, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the president’s office also issue a large number of grants to Russian-friendly and Russian-backed groups. Russia also uses the Orthodox church to build its influence. Moreover, state-owned companies and oligarchs close to the Kremlin have provided funding for Kremlin-backed NGOs in the region. These groups include cultural institutions, youth organizations and human rights NGOs. Their activities range from Russian language promotion to history projects, conferences, information campaigns, youth camps and trainings designed to shape public opinion and promote pro-Russian views, as well as build ties between Russia and communities across the region.

Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia have been the focus of many of these projects, while Russia also supports NGOs in the Balkans and Baltic states. A 2016 study by Chatham House found that the Russian World Foundation, funded directly by the Russian state, has made Ukraine its focus – spending about a million dollars a year primarily on projects connected to pro-Russian groups and initiatives to emphasize linguistic divisions between Ukrainian and Russian speakers within the country.

Lack of Independent Funding

While there are variations across Central and Eastern Europe, in much of the region NGOs are directly or indirectly dependent on governments. This is the case because NGOs across the former communist bloc are in large part not financially viable without domestic government or outside support. The graphic below shows the results of a 2015 study by USAID on the sustainability of “civil society organizations” in Central and Eastern Europe.

A score of 1 to 3 indicates that most groups have sound financial management systems in place, raise a significant percentage of their funding from local sources and have multiple sources of funding. A score of 3.1 to 5 indicates that while still largely dependent on foreign donors, individual groups experiment with raising revenues in other ways. However, a depressed local economy may hamper efforts to raise funds from local sources. This middle category includes a wide range of countries, from the Baltic states to the Balkans. Finally, a score of 5.1 to 7 indicates that most groups are largely inactive after failing to win foreign donor funding. In this category, governments restrict access to resources – foreign or domestic – through legislative and other means. This category includes countries like Belarus and Azerbaijan.

This data reveals two key realities about non-governmental organizations, even in parts of the region where there are relatively few legal restrictions on the activities of NGOs. First, groups in countries with weaker economies struggle to find domestic sources of funding and are thus more likely to depend on foreign governments or international donors for funding and support. Only two countries – Poland and Estonia – fall in the top category where groups are considered financially viable. The vast majority of countries fall in the second category, where poor economic conditions undermine local fundraising efforts.

This discrepancy is due to the fact that most Central and Eastern European countries still lag behind their Western counterparts economically. At the same time, European Union integration has intensified the economic disparities. According to World Bank data, Poland’s GDP per capita is over seven times that of Moldova’s. While most funding for groups in Poland comes from domestic sources, an estimated 83 percent of funding for groups in Moldova comes from foreign donors. There is a strong relationship, therefore, between a country’s wealth and the level of organizations’ reliance on foreign funding.

The second important reality behind the USAID data is that even in wealthier countries where groups enjoy high levels of financial sustainability and do not need to rely heavily on foreign funding sources, groups are often still dependent on domestic government funding. For example, in Poland, USAID found that despite the fact that 29 percent of Poles are estimated to have donated to charities in 2014, local governments are still the main source of funding. This dependency highlights that although there is more funding available overall in more developed countries in the region, private domestic funding is limited even in wealthier Central and Eastern European countries. For the most part, groups throughout the area must rely on funds either from domestic state sources or foreign entities.

Limitations of NGOs

While Russia and the West fund NGOs, there are two factors that undermine the effectiveness of NGOs as a tool of influence. First, there is a general lack of public trust in these groups. In Georgia, merely 22 percent of respondents trust “civil society organizations,” according to a 2015 Transparency International poll. In Moldova, a 2015 poll by the Institute for Public Policy found that only 24.2 percent of the public trusts these groups. In Ukraine, 45.7 percent of the population trusts civil society organizations, according to a Razumkov Center poll. This lack of trust likely emanates from the communist era, as well as from a perception that NGOs often depend financially on governments – foreign or domestic – or certain private interests.

Another factor is that the focus of NGO work often translates into these groups holding workshops or organizing projects with partners that are already likely to agree with them. For example, Western-funded democracy or capacity building projects often involve partners and participants who are already pro-Western. Similarly, the focus of Kremlin-funded NGOs on Russian speaking and Orthodox communities means that their work often involves individuals who already have exposure to pro-Russian views.

Funding NGOs, therefore, is not a highly effective method of influencing decision-making and public opinion. Nevertheless, both sides see the financing of NGOs as one tool in a diverse set of activities that together boost their position in the region. These tools include financing media outlets, like U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe and Russian state-funded Russia Today. In the case of Russia, these tools also include building relationships and sometimes even financially supporting already existing anti-establishment, Euroskeptic or pro-Russian political parties. For the West, integration through the EU’s association agreements and policy options like visa-free travel and loans to governments are important ways to influence decision-making and public opinion in the region.


NGOs are generally presented as independent entities forming one of the pillars of civil society, but in some cases these groups are not part of the private sphere that Tocqueville and others supported. The U.S. and other Western governments openly fund NGOs in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans, as well as other regions. At the same time, Russia also supports its own network of NGOs as the two sides compete for influence. Once a group relies on government funding – from its own country or from outside powers – it is no longer truly a part of civil society, but rather a government-sponsored entity that could be used as a vehicle for achieving political goals.

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