Book Manuscript

        Uncivil Societies: Why States Repress NGOs

In April 2017, the Hungarian Parliament passed a law reminiscent of Russia’s draconian 2012 ‘Foreign Agent’ law that sought to shut down foreign-funded organizations, including the Central European University. A year ago, a Chinese law adversely affected more than 7,000 organizations, characterizing many NGOs as “black hands” working to undermine the government. Worryingly, these actions are not just limited to autocracies. In 2014, the Indian government cancelled the licenses of over 9,000 NGOs, including the Ford Foundation and Greenpeace, designating the latter as ‘anti-nationals’. Given this widespread crackdown on NGOs, as well as its appearances in headlines, systematic inquiry into this phenomenon has received little scholarly attention. Why do state perceive NGOs as costly or threatening to their interests? Under what conditions do states choose to crack down on NGOs using violent or non-violent strategies? 

This book offers the first comprehensive theory of state repression of NGOs. The book helps us understand why, when, and how states crack down on NGOs. It demonstrates that NGOs have the ability to influence electoral politics, aid mobilization, and threaten a state's economic and security interests. It shows that choice of crackdown against costly NGOs is dependent on two main factors: the nature of threat posed by these groups (immediate or long-term) and the consequences of cracking down on them. Violent crackdown is more likely in the face of immediate threats, such as ongoing mobilization and when NGOs pose a threat to a state’s security interests. However, states cannot use violence against all NGOs that they deem threatening, as this strategy may backfire and reduce the state’s legitimacy, violate human rights treaties, and further mobilize the population against the regime.

Given the costly nature of using violence as a tool to control NGOs, states have sought alternate, less costly ways to control NGOs. State adopt what I term “administrative crackdown’ (or non-violent crackdown), which entails enacting legal restrictions to create barriers to entry, funding, and advocacy, or attempts to co-opt the NGO sector into the state apparatus. Administrative crackdown overcomes the negative consequences of violence. The book shows that states are more likely to adopt administrative crackdown as a long-term strategy, especially in dealing with pre-emptive threats. This is the case when NGOs challenge key economic interests of a state, influence electoral participation, or threaten mobilization.

Evidence in support of my argument includes two original large-N datasets on state repression of NGOs using violence and administrative crackdown, along with a series of in-depth case studies of India and Nepal, based on my fieldwork in these countries between 2012 and 2015. I also interview officials at several influential INGOs such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, The Carter Center, National Democratic Institute, The Ford Foundation, among others.


Working Papers

Papers available upon request

"Bridging the Gap: The Relationship between INGO Activism and Human Rights Indicators" (under review)

This article explores the tension between the production of ‘naming and shaming’ reports as tools of activism by international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) and the usage of these reports as cross-national indicators of human rights violations. Since INGOs are strategic actors, their reports are not a reflection of the “true” levels of abuse. While existing scholarship has raised this issue in relation to bias in cross-national indicators, it has yet to explain the process by which NGO produce reports. This article exploits subnational variation across domestic and international NGOs within India, showing how the divergence in their reports can be explained by these groups’ organizational structure, probability of success in their chosen issue areas, and their target audience. By explaining how human rights NGOs produce reports, this article concludes with suggestions to ensure that the biases prevalent in a single source of data do not drive the results of future scholarship.

"Are Donors Really Responding? Analyzing the Impact of Global Restrictions on NGOs", with Andrew Heiss (under review)

The previous three decades have seen a proliferation of anti-NGO legislation throughout the world, resulting in increasingly restricted space for civil society organizations to provide services or engage in advocacy. This is worrisome for Western donors because they channel a large amount of foreign aid and democracy assistance funds through NGOs. How do donors respond to this legal crackdown on NGOs? We use original data on civil society restrictions across 148 countries from 1981–2013 to assess the impact of these restrictions on total flows of foreign aid, how aid is distributed, and which issues are funded. We find that additional anti-NGO legal barriers—in particular, barriers to advocacy—decrease the amount of foreign channeled to the restrictive country. Besides reducing the amount of aid, donors also redirect funds within restrictive countries, decreasing funds for politically sensitive causes in favor of tamer issues that are more compatible with the governments of those countries. Finally, donors—USAID in particular—channel more aid to domestic over foreign NGOs in order to assuage target country concerns about external interference in domestic politics. Our findings have worrying implications for donors in the foreign aid and democracy promotion community, whose projects may be unsustainable in the face of this legal crackdown.

"State Crackdown on Civil Society: A Look at Election Monitoring Groups"

State repression of civil society groups, particularly non-governmental organizations (NGOs), has been ubiquitous across the world over the last few decades. However, little systematic data exists on this topic due to the difficulties involved in measuring this phenomenon. To get traction on this issue, this article proposes looking at specific issue areas in which NGOs function, which offers scholars two advantages. First, it allows comparison of state reactions to international and domestic civil society groups working in the same context. Second, it enables an understanding of the various strategies of crackdown used by states and the payoffs involved in using them. The dataset introduced in this article systematically looks at data on state strategies of violent and non-violent repression, as well as cooptation of NGOs working in one particular issue area - election monitoring. In doing so, it looks at both international and domestic election monitors that have observed elections all legislative and executive elections across all developing countries from 1990 to 2013. In combination with other datasets, this dataset allows for further empirical study of the patterns and causes of state crackdown on NGOs and its consequences for credibility of elections, democratization, and foreign aid. The data can also be used to study authoritarian regime resilience, including autocratic attempts to weaken civil society, authoritarian learning, and diffusion of state strategies of crackdown

"When Regulations turn into Repression: Analyzing Legal Restrictions Against NGOs"

Under what conditions do governments repress non-governmental organizations (NGOs) using legal restrictions? While the use of laws to regulate NGO activity is not uncommon, the last three decades have witnessed a dramatic increase in the growth of repressive legislations that seek to narrow the space in which NGOs operate. I posit that is due to NGOs’ ability to challenge a state’s economic and security interests, aid domestic mobilization, and influence electoral politics. The decision to adopt repressive laws against these costly NGOs is dependent on two main factors: (1) the nature of threat posed by these groups and (2) the consequences of cracking down on them. Violent crackdown is useful in the face of immediate domestic threats, such as protests. However, violence may increase the state’s criminal liability, reduce its legitimacy, violate human rights treaties, and further mobilize the population against the regime. Therefore, states prefer non-violent crackdown in the form of legal restrictions, especially in dealing with pre-emptive threats. This is the case when NGOs challenge key economic interests of a state, influence electoral participation, or threaten mobilization. Non-violent crackdown is also especially useful in dealing with costly international NGOs (INGOs). I test my theory using an original large-N dataset of legal restrictions adopted against NGOs to create barriers to entry, funding, and political activities, across all developing countries from 1990-2013, data from the Ill-Treatment and Torture Dataset (2012), and a case study of India across the last four decades, based on fieldwork, primary, and secondary sources. I conclude by discussing the implications of this crackdown on donors, domestic NGOs, and citizens in developing countries.

Works in Progress

"Charity During Crackdown: Analyzing the Impact of State Repression of NGOs on Philanthropy" (with Andrew Heiss)

"From Deportable to Documented: Exploring the Civic and Political Life of the Undocumented" (with Consuelo Amat and Vesla Weaver)

"How Rebellion Shapes Military Recruitment During Civil War" (with Sabrina Karim and Matt Scroggs)