Funding for NGOs and electoral integrity: a debate that transcends Ireland

January 18, 2019
A letter signed by several NGOs in Ireland addresses an important question that could be an issue in other countries too. The threat of external interference in elections is perhaps in the mind of many people when considering the issue of funding from abroad for NGOs, but the letter makes clear that there is an important distinction. Small local NGOs simply do no have the means that the wealthy and big corporations already enjoy and deploy. Moreover, it is the lack of transparency that matters most.
Here the full text of the letter, signed by Irish Council for Civil Liberties; The Wheel; Amnesty International Ireland;  Uplift; Front Line Defenders.

Sir, – We write with reference to your editorial of January 16th, regarding electoral law and international funding for NGOs, which misses a large part of the problem.

Crucially, the suggestion that the sole issue for reform is international funding for NGOs is incorrect. The Electoral Act not only prohibits international funding but also severely restricts domestic funding.

You assert that local fundraising in a difficult environment is a small price to pay to ensure there is no external interference in our political system. This is a misunderstanding of what is at stake for people and organisations that wish to engage in public life.

First, if small local groups are unable to receive funding then their capacity to lobby for change, in line with their right to freedom of association, is threatened. This right is at the heart of any functioning democracy because it ensures participation by everyone in our political system.

Second, the suggestion that we currently have a delicate balance of influence that could be jeopardised by transparent philanthropic support is at odds with our political reality. The balance of our democracy is currently tipped towards the wealthy, towards multinationals that can engage in high-level lobbying, towards those with vested interests who have the ear of our politicians.

Our current laws apply no limits to wealthy interests who have no need of donations. Reforming the Electoral Act in order to allow NGOs working in the public interest to receive both domestic and international funding tips the balance back in favour of the ordinary person.

There is a clear difference between international interference in elections and philanthropic funding for civil society organisations. The interference in political processes that we have seen across the globe in recent years was carried out in the shadows, often emanating from states or far-right interest groups. This is not the same as national and international philanthropy which is transparent and without which many small organisations simply could not survive.

Ireland is a world leader on the international stage in advocating for the right of civil society groups to access funding. Our diplomats led on a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council which calls for, among other things, the right to funding for civil society as a means of making the right to freedom of association meaningful. Countries opposed to the resolution include Russia and China, where civil society and human rights activists are choked by legislation designed to stifle any opposition to government. One of the main pillars of Ireland’s campaign for the UN Security Council is our championing of human rights activism on the global stage.

We simply cannot stand over this if we continue to place unreasonable limits on international funding to our own civil society.

The change to the Electoral Act which our coalition, and over 60 local and national organisations, are calling for would actually provide greater protection for elections. It achieves this through rewording the Act to keep all protection against undue interference during election or referendum times whilst ensuring the free operation of civil society at all other times.

Human rights advocacy work not only gives the ordinary person a voice alongside powerful lobbyists but has resulted and continues to result in positive reforms across society. We believe that the public does in fact understand the crucial difference between electioneering and the work carried out by activists outside of election and referendum periods. Hopefully our legislation will soon change to reflect that. – Yours, etc,

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