Kendra Dupuy, James Ron and Aseem Prakash in The Monkey Cage:
Scholarly understanding of the factors systematically driving public support — or lack thereof — for local NGOs is still nascent.
It may be that when governments label foreign-funded NGOs as “foreign agents,” the charge resonates because of painful colonial legacies. Yet nationalism is a potent force everywhere, and a recent history of Western imperialism is not always necessary.
In 2014, for instance, U.S. critics made much of Norwegian government support for policy research by established U.S. think tanks. The politically explosive issue of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election is another example.
Indeed, a representative for the Hungarian government notes that their NGO law was similar to the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act, “which requires those engaging in political activities on behalf of foreign principals to register and disclose their activities.” You don’t have to be a Hungarian, Russian or Egyptian to resent foreign involvement in your country’s domestic politics.
The real problem here is the financial disconnect between NGOs and the communities they say they serve. When NGOs raise funds from co-citizens, they build the local ties that will translate into political support. Here’s an example: If President Trump were to try and crack down on the American Civil Liberties Union, the group’s many thousands of individual donors would almost certainly mobilize.
When NGOs depend on outsiders for their existence, they are drawn into an “NGO scramble” for international aid that leaves them locally disconnected and politically vulnerable. To continue the ACLU example, if the organization depended on Norway for its money, it would find far fewer domestic supporters willing to spend the time and energy to come to the NGO’s defense.