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Dealing with dissenting voices

Why NGOs are coming under pressure around the world.

Magazine > Feature > Dealing with dissenting voices

NGOs are coming under pressure around the world. How do Austrian NGOs and insiders see this development, especially under the new government? Christine Tragler describes the mood.

A statement by then-minister for foreign affairs, now Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (People’s Party) illustrated the mood at the time regarding NGOs from the perspective of many volunteers: “The NGO madness needs to stop.” During a visit to the European Border and Coast Guard Agency Frontex in Malta in March 2017, Kurz was referring to the work of refugee organisations in the Mediterranean. But they were not the only initiatives who felt they were the target of his remark. Kurz seemed to be arguing that those who save people from drowning motivate more refugees to make their way to Europe.

During a broadcast shortly after that, Mario Thaler, director of Doctors without Borders (MSF) Austria, asked Kurz what alternatives there are: “Should we pull back, leave refugees to their own devices, and put them in even more danger, just to make people smuggling more difficult? Should we let them drown?” Werner Kerschbaum, secretary general of the Austrian Red Cross, joined the discussion of Kurz’s statement too, asserting that, “Organisations like the Red Cross are meeting their humanitarian obligation, which is simply to save human lives.”

Annelies Vilim, director of the NGO umbrella organisation Global Responsibility [Austrian Platform for Development and Humanitarian Aid] told Südwind Magazine that NGOs are not crazy, defaming the services that NGOs and civil society provide is crazy. It’s a global trend: NGOs are coming under increasing pressure, even in Europe. Amnesty International has noticed a dangerous development. In a broadcast in late 2017, it said that “NGO staff in Turkey are being held on absurd charges, Hungary passed a law that stigmatises NGOs, and Austria is restricting the right of free assembly.”

In the Austrian NGO scene, people fear that this pressure on critical civil society will continue to rise under the new government of the People’s Party and the Freedom Party. The Freedom Party has made NGOs out to be a problem for years. It has also announced that its government will significantly cut public grants. On top of that, Carla Weinzierl from Attac warns that, “The new government is planning a surveillance package that will include automatic facial recognition. “They want to collect even more data about citizens and interlink that data better. This is a threat not only to our privacy but to our political freedoms.”

Attack on democracy

What’s at stake when governments work against NGOs? “Civil society, with its conservative and progressive parts, embodies the liberal pluralism of our society. I think it’s dangerous to discredit NGOs, which have achieved great things in recent years,” says Andreas Novy, a professor in the Department of Socioeconomics at the Vienna University of Economics and Business and chair of the Green Party’s Grüne Bildungswerkstatt association. Governments that cut grants for NGOs because they don’t always have positive things to say about them endanger this community, says Novy. It has long been standard practice for the world’s governments to provide financial support to NGOs, or so-called QUANGOs (see glossary at right). But these organisations need to be more than executive “service providers,” says Novy: “Dissent and diverse opinions fuel democracy.” NGOs also carry out work that is important for society in the social, environmental and cultural realm, says Novy.

Glossary

NGOs, or non-governmental organisations, are citizen-founded organisations that assume social responsibility in specific subject areas without aiming to make a profit. Most NGOs take the legal form of an association.

NPOs, or non-profit organisations, pursue social, cultural or scientific objectives without seeking economic gain. They can be founded privately, i.e. as associations, or by the state, as social economy organisations. There is no standard definition for the term.

QUANGOs, or quasi non-governmental organisations, are a hybrid form straddling the public sector and NGO sector. They include organisations that largely work independently, perform state tasks and are mostly supported by public funds.

The term NGOs covers a variety of different organisations ranging from Caritas and Diakonie to Volkshilfe and environmental organisations like Global 2000, as well as development policy initiatives, women’s shelters and anti-racism efforts like those of ZARA. There are also organisations – especially international ones with country offices, like Greenpeace and Amnesty – that primarily live off donations and fundraising and so are less directly dependent on national governments. But they are all interested in dialogue and cooperation with national political representatives. That is the only way to make things happen.

“Environmental protection, human rights, workers’ rights, social justice, social equality and much more in Austria would not be doing well without a strong, dynamic civil society,” says Carla Weinzierl of Attac Austria. Uncovering social ills and keeping tabs on power relations gives NGOs sort of a watchdog role, says Gertrude Klaffenböck of the association Verein Südwind. Now coordinating the Change your Shoes campaign, Klaffenböck has worked at other NGOs such as FIAN. “Freedom of speech and freedom of the press are at the heart of modern democracy, and a dynamic civil society is too,” she says.

Upper Austria – setting the stage?

Governments are getting serious about slashing funding, and Südwind Magazine is proof of it. EU law was the official reason given for doing away with their public funding in early 2017 after some 37 years, but the European Commission itself has invalidated that claim. It is more reasonable to presume that someone wanted to weaken a critical voice in civil society. Former Minister of Foreign Affairs Kurz, who was overseeing development cooperation in 2016, was the person responsible for this policy.

Initiatives in Upper Austria have also lost funding. Three women’s counselling centres were unexpectedly denied funding shortly before Christmas. The government of Upper Austria completely withdrew funding for Maiz, which assists migrant women; FIFTITU%, a network for women in arts and culture; and Arge Sie, which assists homeless women. A campaign called Frauenlandretten is demanding that the government reverse its decision to cut funding. Some political insiders see the Upper Austrian government – which is now ruled by a coalition of the same two parties that have control of the federal government – as a blueprint for federal government policy.

Solidarity

In a statement addressed to Südwind Magazine, Maiz warns that NGOs’ “financial dependence on government funding is taking away their voice.” Alexander Pollak, spokesman for SOS Mitmensch, has a similar view: “The attempts to kill off organisations by cutting their funding need to be met with solidarity. We must not be intimidated or bend to their will.” SOS Mitmensch has been the subject of multiple verbal attacks in recent years. Not long ago, a Freedom Party politician in Vienna announced they would “cut off the money supply” to the human rights organisation, says Pollak. Yet all of SOS Mitmensch’s funding comes from private donations.

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Given the threatening mood in the country, NGOs want to stand together in solidarity if things get serious. Last year they entered into a joint solidarity pact to protect social stability and democracy. “Governments have been taking more and more steps to restrict civil society initiatives, including in Austria,” says Erich Fenninger, head of Volkshilfe, in Südwind Magazine (see November 2017 issue), to explain this move. Signatories to the pact include Volkshilfe, SOS Mitmensch, Verein Südwind, Attac, Greenpeace, epicenter.works, GLOBAL 2000, Katholische Arbeitnehmer-Bewegung (Catholic Employees Movement), Plattform 20,000 Frauen (20,000 Women Platform), Österreichische Berg- und KleinbäuerInnenbewegung (La Via Campesina Austria/Austrian Peasants Movement), Verband Freier Radios (Austrian Community Radio Alliance) and Gewerkschaft vida (Vida Union). “We need to defend NGOs’ democratic freedom to take action, which is representative of the freedom of everyone in our democracy to take action,” says SOS Mitmensch’s Pollak. Adding that: “We need to be very alert – the solidarity pact is an important step.”

Subtle methods

You don’t need to cut funding to an NGO that lives from public money to have a negative impact on it. When budgets are left to stagnate over the years and are not adjusted to inflation, it is essentially equivalent to a cut, says Gertrude Klaffenböck. By the same token, policy is currently geared toward more wealthy people, at the cost of everyone else, she adds. In a democracy, it needs to be possible and normal to fund critics of that democracy, says Margit Scherb. She has worked in Austria’s development cooperation scene for years, and she knows the government side that commissions, evaluates and pays for development-policy NGOs. The attitude that you should not bite the hand that feeds you plays an integral role in Austria, says Scherb.

What should NGOs do when their public funding is in danger? For some of them, EU programmes offer a way out of dependency on national funding. “EU projects are our anchor,” says Stefan Grasgruber-Kerl, Südwind’s campaign director. When it comes to development cooperation, the EU is the biggest donor when the activities of the European Commission and the EU member states are taken together. But this can be a difficult path: The complex applications for EU funding require a great deal of resources and expertise. In addition, the EU generally only funds a portion of project costs (see also the article “Erst die Bürokratie, dann das Weltverbessern” (“Bureaucracy first, improving the world second”) in Südwind Magazine 6/2017).

Hungary as an example

Putting pressure on NGOs can soon become a problem for democracy as a whole, and Eastern European countries are giving an example of this right now. “We cannot view attacks on individual NGOs in isolation,” says Lukas Hammer of Greenpeace Austria. He says that if you take a look at countries like Hungary and Poland, you can see how increasingly authoritarian governments discredit, threaten and criminalise actors in civil society. “In Hungary, defamation of NGOs was primarily aimed at human rights organisations at the beginning, but ultimately all representatives of organised civil society have been affected,” says Hammer.

Stefan Grasgruber-Kerl of Südwind adds that, “If Austria wants to orient itself more and more towards the Visegrád countries, it will follow in a similar, unpleasant path.” According to Professor Novy, “We need to do battle at the outset, because the case of Hungary shows how an illiberal democracy can be openly set up in the heart of Europe – civil society and free media are the victims there.”

Original in German. First published at the Südwind Magazin 2/2018 and on suedwind-magazin.at.
Translated into English by Douglas Fox and Barbara Maya (Glossary and Info Box).

This text is protected by copyright: © Christina Tragler. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team.
Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: Illustration: © Thomas Kussin.