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Laws forcing civil society donors to adapt

A woman protests against the controversial NGO law at the Senate in Phnom Penh earlier this year as senators vote to approve the law.
A woman protests against the controversial NGO law at the Senate in Phnom Penh earlier this year as senators vote to approve the law. Heng Chivoan

Laws forcing civil society donors to adapt

Legal restrictions on funding for civil-society – like Cambodia’s much-maligned NGO Law – are on the rise globally, a report by the Carnegie International Endowment for Peace has warned, putting international donors in the position of having to adapt to a backlash against democracy promotion.

According to the study, released last week, efforts by national governments to block external sponsors of civil society groups have reached a tipping point in “ubiquity and severity” since 2014.

Large nations like China and Russia are reportedly setting the bar for smaller states like Cambodia in a trend that is forecast to shape the future international aid landscape.

“Attacks on foreign funding for civil society are often the leading edge of wider crackdowns on civil society,” the report says, citing the the Kingdom’s controversial Law on Associations and Non-governmental Organisations (LANGO), which critics have said will curtail civil society’s freedom to operate.

“The decision by the Cambodian government to go ahead in mid-2015 with restrictive legislation relating to civil society highlights the fact that even governments that receive large amounts of Western assistance are sometimes willing to defy well-organized, assertive efforts by donor governments and local civil society groups.”

In the face of such barriers, the report says donors are seeking alternative approaches to sponsoring civil society, including operating more remotely, scaling back politically sensitive projects and working directly with social movements rather than traditional NGO partners. The result has been an overall weakening and fracturing in assistance by the international community.

Civil society recipients of foreign funding have also felt the effects, local actors say.

“The LANGO provisions may hinder how NGOs can operate, creating different conditions for the donor,” said Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodia Center for Human Rights, which receives funding from USAID as well as EU agencies. “If international organisations need to get an endorsement [from the government] for the advocacy of human rights, how can they be expected to operate freely?”

Sopheap claims that funders’ frustrations extend beyond LANGO to issues like sluggish judicial reform, and is increasing Cambodian civil society’s competition for funding with neighbouring countries.

Nonetheless, she says that some partners are adapting, for example, through funding digital platforms or by relaxing reporting requirements so politically sensitive information about NGOs’ activities can’t be misused by governments.

“The LANGO affirmed the need for international donors to support civil society and look at ways to mitigate risk,” she explained. “The challenge is how to continue our work with donors without harm.”

France and the US, both key sponsors of Cambodian civil society, said they would continue to work with local partners while monitoring the implementation of the LANGO.

“Now that the law has been passed, we will continue to raise the importance of applying the law in a manner that is fair, consistent and transparent and that it does not unduly restrict civil society,” said US Embassy deputy spokesperson Courtney Wood.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Interior declined to comment on the effect of the NGO law on civil society funding.

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