NGOs: Not So Nongovernmental After All

April 27, 2012 Topic: DemocracyHuman RightsInternational Institutions Region: Egypt Blog Brand: The Buzz

NGOs: Not So Nongovernmental After All

February’s dramatic arrest of fifteen nongovernmental workers accused by Egyptian authorities of “illegally operating pro-democracy programs and stirring unrest” aroused ire from several vocal advocates. One such advocate, Thomas Friedman, took to his New York Times column this week to lament the ongoing tension over the flap.

Friedman expresses outrage and moral indignation over the U.S. decision to provide aid to Egypt despite the NGO controversy and the country’s failure to meet the West’s human-rights standards. He sums up his argument in a series of rhetorical questions:

If we don’t stand up firmly for our own values, then what will happen to those Egyptians who do? We must respect Egypt’s sovereignty and dignity, but we have no reason to respect a contrived witch hunt against democracy workers trying to hold their own government accountable. We bit our tongue with Hosni Mubarak, and how did that end?

But it’s the questions Friedman neglects to ask that hinder his piece. For example: Why do we assume Egypt should be remade in a Western image? Is it so wrong that policy makers in Washington “just care about strategic stability”? And is it unreasonable, all things considered, that Egyptians are upset with American NGOs—many of which are funded at least in part by the U.S. government—meddling in internal Egyptian affairs, attempting to impart their values and fundamentally change a country half a world away?

These and other pertinent questions have been raised before, by Robert W. Merry on this site and Patrick Buchanan, among others. The debate deserves more attention than it gets. American not-so-nongovernmental organizations operate under the assumption that their values are universal ones, necessarily welcomed with open arms by good and decent people everywhere. As Merry notes: “The arrogance of many of these people is almost guaranteed to be incendiary in target countries.”

Friedman and others tirelessly championing the cause of spreading democracy and Western freedoms would do well to remember that “crusades on behalf of presumed ‘universal values’ have a way of going awry.” This piece—along with the arguments that undergird it—is deeply flawed.