Book Manuscript: Uncivil Societies: Why States Repress NGOs

Awarded Best Human Rights Dissertation, American Political Science Association, 2018

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. Shortly before that, a Chinese law adversely affected more than 7,000 non-governmental organizations (NGOs), with Beijing characterizing these groups as “black hands” working to undermine the government. Worryingly, these actions are not just limited to autocracies, but are also present in robust democratic states such as India. 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’. Despite this widespread crackdown on NGOs, as well as its appearances in headlines, systematic inquiry into this phenomenon has received little scholarly attention. Why do states perceive NGOs as costly or threatening to their interests? How do states weigh the costs and benefits of using violent and non-violent strategies of crackdown and under what conditions do they use one over the other to repress NGOs?

This 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: (1) the nature of the threat posed by these groups and (2) the international consequences of cracking down on them. Violent crackdown is more likely in the face of immediate threats, such as ongoing mobilization. However, states cannot use violence against all NGOs determined to be costly, because state agents may refuse to implement such orders, violence may increase the state’s criminal liability, reduce its legitimacy internationally, and violate human rights treaties or preferential trading agreements. It may also result in further mobilization of the population against the regime.

Given the costly nature of using violence to repress NGOs, states have sought alternate, less costly ways to control these groups. State adopt what I term ‘administrative crackdown’, which is the passage of legal restrictions to create barriers to entry, funding, and advocacy, or co-opting the NGO sector into the state apparatus. Besides overcoming the negative consequences associated with violence, administrative crackdown is a more efficient long-term strategy to deal with costly NGOs. The book shows states are more likely to undertake administrative crackdown as a longer-term strategy, especially in dealing with threats preventively. This is the case when NGOs have the potential to challenge key economic interests of the state, influence electoral participation, or threaten mobilization.


"The Assault on Civil Society: Explaining State Repression of NGOs." International Organization. 76.3 (2022): 549-590. DOI:

  • Awarded Best Paper, Human Rights Section, International Studies Association Conference 2018

Nongovernmental organizations are central to contemporary global governance, and their numbers and influence have grown dramatically since the middle of the twentieth century. However, in the last three decades more than 130 states have repressed these groups, suggesting that a broad range of states perceive them as costly. When they choose to repress NGOs, under what conditions do states use violent strategies versus administrative means? The choice depends on two main factors: the nature of the threat posed by these groups, and 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 intensify mobilization against the regime. Therefore, states are more likely to use administrative crackdown, especially in dealing with long-term threats, such as when NGOs influence electoral politics. I test this theory using an original data set of administrative crackdowns on NGOs, as well as violent crackdown on NGO activists, across all countries from 1990 to 2013. To shed light on the strategic decision between violent or administrative crackdown, and how states may perceive threats from domestic and international NGOs differently, I provide a case study from India. I conclude by discussing the implications of this crackdown for the use of civil society actors by the international community, as well as donors and citizens in the global South.

"NGO Repression as a Predictor of Worsening Human Rights Abuses" with Andrew Heiss, Journal of Human Rights, 21, no. 2 (2022): 123–140, doi: 10.1080/14754835.2022.2030205. Replication data available here.

An increasing number of countries have recently cracked down on non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Much of this crackdown is sanctioned by law and represents a bureaucratic form of repression that could indicate more severe human rights abuses in the future. This is especially the case for democracies, which unlike autocracies, may not aggressively attack civic space. We explore if crackdowns on NGOs predict broader human rights repression. Anti-NGO laws are among the most subtle means of repression and attract lesser domestic and international condemnation compared to the use of violence. Using original data on NGO repression, we test whether NGO crackdown is a predictor of political terror, and violations of physical integrity rights and civil liberties. We find that while de jure anti-NGO laws provide little information in predicting future repression, their patterns of implementation—or de facto civil society repression—predicts worsening respect for physical integrity rights and civil liberties.

"Dynamics of International Giving: How Heuristics Shape Individual Donor Preferences" with Andrew Heiss (2021). Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 50:3, 481-505. DOI: PDF

State restrictions on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have become increasingly pervasive across the globe. While this crackdown has been shown to have a negative impact on public funding flows, we know little about how it impacts private philanthropy. How does information about crackdown abroad, as well as organizational attributes of nonprofits affect individual donors’ willingness to donate internationally? Using a survey experiment, we find that learning about repressive NGO environments increases generosity in that already-likely donors are willing to donate substantially more to legally besieged nonprofits. This generosity persists when mediated by two organizational-level heuristics: NGO issue areas and main funding sources. We discuss the implications of our results on how nonprofits can use different framing appeals to increase fundraising at a time when traditional public donor funding to such organizations is decreasing.

"Who Cares About Crackdowns? Exploring the Role of Trust in Individual Philanthropy," with Marc Dotson and Andrew Heiss (2021). Global Policy 12, 45-58. PDF

The phenomenon of closing civic space has adversely impacted INGO funding. We argue that individual private donors can be important in sustaining the operations of INGOs working in repressive contexts. Individual donors do not use the same performance-based metrics as official aid donors. Rather, trust can be an important component of individual donor support for nonprofits working towards difficult goals. How does trust in charitable organizations influence individuals' preferences to donate, especially when these groups face crackdown? Using a simulated market for philanthropic donations based on data from a nationally representative sample of individuals in the United States who regularly donate to charity, we find that trust in INGOs matters substantially in shaping donor preferences. Donor profiles with high levels of social trust are likely to donate to INGOs with friendly relationships with host governments. This support holds steady if INGOs face criticism or crackdown. In contrast, donor profiles with lower levels of social trust prefer to donate to organizations that do not face criticism or crackdown abroad. The global crackdown on NGOs may thus possibly sour NGOs' least trusting individual donors. Our findings have practical implications for INGOs raising funds from individuals amid closing civic space.

"How Rebellion Shapes Military Recruitment During Civil War," with Sabrina Karim and Matt Scroggs (2021). Journal of Peace Research 58:5, 915-929. DOI: . PDF

What factors affect leaders' recruitment decisions during civil wars? While existing research emphasizes structural factors, we posit that both leaders' disposition and conflict dynamics influence recruitment decisions. We argue that leaders with prior experience in either the security sector or with combat are more risk-averse and consequently less likely to make changes to recruitment, while leaders who briefly served in the military are more risk-acceptant, and thus more likely to make changes to recruitment. At the same time, rebel recruitment strategy also matters, as state leaders take cues from rebels in violating human rights. Using the LEAD Dataset and data on recruitment from 1980-2009, we find that when leaders were previously career officers in the police or the military, they are less likely to make changes to recruitment strategies. We also find that rebels’ use of forced recruitment in ongoing civil wars makes leaders less likely to use voluntary recruitment.

Suparna Chaudhry. (2019). Bridging the Gap: The Relationship between INGO Activism and Human Rights Indicators. Journal of Human Rights, 18:1, 111-133. DOI: 10.1080/14754835.2019.1579638

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.

“Closing Space and the Restructuring of Global Activism: Causes and Consequences of the Global Crackdown on NGOs," with Andrew Heiss in Beyond the Boomerang: New Patterns in Transcalar Advocacy, edited by Elizabeth Bloodgood and Christopher Pallas. (2022). Alabama University Press.

Works in-progress

"Violence and Punishment: Framing Public Attitudes in Death Penalty Democracies" (with Kelebogile Zvobgo)

What do people think is the proper punishment for heinous crimes, including rape? Prior scholarship has examined government policy but largely neglected public opinion. In particular, previous research has not evaluated the public's sensitivity to effectiveness and human rights arguments made by human rights non-governmental organizations (HROs). To answer this question, we leverage a survey experiment on capital punishment for the crime of rape in India, Botswana, and United States. While the death penalty is conventionally regarded as an ineffective deterrent and inconsistent with international human rights standards, it is used in many countries around the world, including what we term ``death penalty democracies,'' to punish serious offenses like rape. We expect that individuals who are exposed to effectiveness and human rights arguments will be less likely to support the death penalty as a punishment for rape and more likely to support alternatives like imprisonment and complementary remedies like victim compensation. Our results are important because they indicate the extent to which HROs can sway democratic publics toward effective, human rights-compatible policies.

“Pandemic Pass: Treaty Derogations and Human Rights Practices during Covid-19" (with Audrey Comstock and Andrew Heiss)

In an effort to combat the Covid-19 pandemic, many countries declared states of emergency and derogated (temporarily suspended) from their international law obligations. However, the abuse of emergency derogations by many governments raises concerns about the long-lasting impact of these sweeping measures on human rights. Does a robust civil society mitigate the adverse effects arising from international treaty derogations? Previous literature finds that an effective civil society response can mitigate the impact of natural disasters and crises and even increase political engagement in the long-run. Using data from the Varieties of Democracy PanDem dataset, the Oxford Covid-19 Government Response Tracker and the CoronaNet Covid-19 Government Response Event, we first assess the variation in human rights responses among governments during the pandemic. We then assess the role of civil society in keeping governments accountable and mitigating the effects of policies that violate human rights and international law. Our results hold important implications for understanding government compliance with international treaties and shedding light on how states of emergency may directly and indirectly lead to democratic backsliding.

"Are Donors Really Responding? Analyzing the Impact of Global Restrictions on NGOs" (with Andrew Heiss). PDF.

Foreign donors—both state and private—routinely use nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to deliver foreign aid. However, states are increasingly relying on repressive legislation to repress NGOs within their borders. How have foreign aid donors responded to this legal crackdown on NGOs? Using original data from all countries that received aid from 1981–2012, we assess the impact of anti-NGO laws on total flows of official foreign aid, the nature of projects funded by this aid, and the channels used for distributing this aid. Overall, we find that donors scale back their operations in repressive countries. However, rather than completely withdraw, we find that donors redirect funds within restrictive countries by decreasing funds for politically sensitive issues and channel more aid through domestic rather than foreign NGOs. While our findings challenge existing notions of foreign aid running on “autopilot,” they also have worrying implications for Western donors and domestic NGOs working on contentious issues.

"Political Scientists Experiences During Fieldwork" (with Sabrina Karim)

"Why Donors Donate: Disentangling Organizational and Structural Heuristics for International Philanthropy" (with Marc Dotson and Andrew Heiss)