Increasing the Legitimacy of Advocative NGOs Through Representation
NGOs and protest movements are both vital elements of a robust civil society. Strong advocative NGOs in particular check state and corporate power through a wide range of efforts. Depending on their specific target issues, advocative NGOs may use a wide range of methods to pursue their goals. NGOs may fill gaps in state service provision, such as providing legal aid, or educating the public about social issues, while others organize protest movements or advocate directly for specific policy changes. Some are highly political and actively try to influence public opinion on issues in their domain, while also avoiding overly partisan ties. In many cases, they form powerful global networks and address issues that cross borders. At the local level, advocative NGOs in developing democracies give voice to marginalized groups, such as homeless persons and youth, often providing an organized counter-narrative to state propaganda.
These NGOs are engaged in a form of continuous “narrative” protest, but advocative NGOs also support and actively participate in physical protests as well. This activism comes with a price, as many illiberal governments increasingly seek to close civil society space. The rise of illiberalism in Russia, Turkey, and Hungary for example involves strong nationalistic sentiments and rejecting foreign influence, both in fact and in appearance. In Hungary, the Orbán government requires all NGOs who receive financial support from overseas sources to display a sign on all publications that they are ‘foreign-funded.’ The government also claimed that the Fridays for Future climate strikes organized by the NGO’s local Hungarian branch were funded by George Soros. Since the government’s intent is clearly to discredit those promoting opposing political views, these attacks force us to explore how NGOs can strengthen their claim to legitimacy in hostile environments.
Many NGOs are self-governing and are required by law to ensure financial transparency to the public, which they are typically eager to do as an exercise in transparency and accountability. At the same time, NGOs typically do not allow public monitoring of their internal hiring decisions, and it is not always evident that the internal work environments align with the ethics of the organizational goals., Recent headlines about workplace abuse at Amnesty International, the world’s leading watchdog NGO, highlight that the organizational goal is not yet reflected in its internal work structures without proper oversight by stakeholders. While Hungary’s “foreign-funded” requirement is designed to undermine their legitimacy, it is important that NGO activities funded by foreign actors actually serve the best interests of the local population, which is not always the case. In Hungary for example, the USA-based Operation Mobilization is a religious NGO that funds an elective ‘sex-education’ campaign that tours schools and displays graphic images of abortions to children.
These key shortcomings can undermine advocative NGO’s claims to legitimacy. Illiberal governments are able to take advantage of and exacerbate doubts about their legitimacy by branding them as foreign agents. By introducing an electoral system and representative elements for their membership that involves locals in decision-making processes, NGOs can strengthen their claims to legitimacy and protect themselves against illiberal attacks. The case of the former Hungarian Independent Student Parliament (Hungarian acronym FDP) perfectly illustrates the advantages of a hybrid electoral-activist structure.
The FDP was established in 2014 for two purposes: to provide a non-partisan voice for youth who are traditionally marginalized in Hungarian society; and to establish an effective and legitimate national representative body capable of proposing policies to the government. FDP’s main innovation was its electoral system where students voted online in annual elections for representatives from each of the seven Hungarian regions to participate in a national-level assembly., In 2018, over 3000 students voted9. The FDP hybridized an NGO’s project-based operations with an activist organization’s quick-reaction and mass mobilizing qualities, both organizing direct action and drafting policy recommendations, and effectively functioning as a shadow parliament to the official but government-controlled National Student Parliament. This structure allowed for practical advantages, such as a strong media presence through elected spokespersons, and collaboration with other organizations and protests of which its members were part of. The FDP also contained activist groups that organized art installations, protests, and flash mobs, creating an effective youth advocacy network. Between 2016 and 2018, the FDP lead and participated in demonstrations to restore the mandatory schooling age to 18; to save the Central European University from expulsion; and to promoting dialogue between students and the government.
While a hybrid structure is not a one-size-fits-all model, it is a useful example for NGOs whose primary goals concern democracy and rule of law, direct action through local protest movements, and policy recommendations to support marginalized groups. Thanks to the FDP’s hybrid structure, the government could not contest its legitimacy despite its partial foreign funding because all policy decisions were made openly by an elected assembly of a hundred students. Ultimately, the government’s strongest narrative against the FDP was to question its relevance based on its number of voting members. Facing only this weak challenge, the FDP could control its narrative and set the agenda for reforming education policy.
What can we learn from the FDP’s hybrid example?
Elected representation in advocative NGOs either through direct citizen participation or membership voting guarantees strengthened legitimacy, as decisions are transparently made through a democratic voting process by many individuals, instead of a small board or steering committee. Representation increases resilience against government narratives that pitch their own electoral legitimacy against citizen initiatives. A representative system also resists external efforts to label it a foreign agency. Internally, elected representatives of NGOs or protest movements are incentivized to reflect the wishes of their voters as well, thus their agenda is seen to be less centralized and more inclusive. Furthermore, its activist base increases over time as new representatives are elected and new members join each year. This model can be scaled up for NGOs operating at local, national, or even international levels, with national representatives electing international ones. Advocative NGOs can employ novel e-democracy tools to verify voters, establish a sectoral voting system reflecting the distribution of its constituents, and enable this to be the primary selection process for membership, or at least allowing the entire membership to vote on as many issues as possible.
Overall, the FDP’s unique hybrid structure provides various advantages for organizations that aim to engage in and critically monitor government actions, as it has both the capacity and the legitimacy to do so. It is time for democratic advocative NGOs to rise.
BBC. 2017. “Hungary Passes Strict Anti-Foreign NGO Law.” BBC News, June 13, 2017, sec. Europe. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-40258922.
Collingwood, Vivien. 2006. “Non-Governmental Organisations, Power and Legitimacy in International Society.” Review of International Studies 32 (3): 439–54.
Csákó, Mihály, and Annamária Sebestyén. 2017. “Egy Autentikus Diákmozgalom.” EDUCATIO 26 (1): 26–37.
Csendes-Erdei Emese. 2019. “Agymosás az iskolák előtt: abortuszellenes busz járta az országot.” Magyar Narancs, November. https://magyarnarancs.hu/belpol/agymosas-az-iskolak-elott-abortuszellenes-busz-jarta-az-orszagot-124357.
FDP. 2017. Képviselők. http://diakparlament.hu/kepviselok/
McVeigh, Karen. 2019. “Amnesty International Has Toxic Working Culture, Report Finds.” The Guardian, February 6, 2019, sec. World news. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/feb/06/amnesty-international-has-toxic-working-culture-report-finds.
MTVA. 2019. “Dollármilliókkal támogatja Soros György a klímatüntetéseket.” hirado.hu (blog). 2019. https://hirado.hu/kulfold/cikk/2019/10/11/dollarmilliokkal-tamogatja-soros-gyorgy-a-klimatunteteseket/.
Niggli, Peter, and André Rothenbühler. 2003. “Do the NGOs Have a Problem of Legitimacy?” Global Policy Forum (blog). 2003. https://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/176/31406.html.
Operation Mobilization. 2020. “Site | OM.Org.” 2020. https://www.om.org/en/search/site/bus4life.
 Gessler, Theresa. 2015. “NGOs and the Public Sphere as Targets of Illberal Democracy in Contemprary Hungary.” Central European University.
 BBC. 2017. “Hungary Passes Strict Anti-Foreign NGO Law.” BBC News, June 13, 2017, sec. Europe. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-40258922.
 MTVA. 2019. “Dollármilliókkal támogatja Soros György a klímatüntetéseket.” hirado.hu. 2019. https://hirado.hu/kulfold/cikk/2019/10/11/dollarmilliokkal-tamogatja-soros-gyorgy-a-klimatunteteseket/.
 Niggli, Peter, and André Rothenbühler. 2003. “Do the NGOs Have a Problem of Legitimacy?” Global Policy Forum. 2003. https://www.globalpolicy.org/component/content/article/176/31406.html.
 Collingwood, Vivien. 2006. “Non-Governmental Organisations, Power and Legitimacy in International Society.” Review of International Studies 32 (3): 439–54.
 McVeigh, Karen. 2019. “Amnesty International Has Toxic Working Culture, Report Finds.” The Guardian, February 6, 2019, sec. World news. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/feb/06/amnesty-international-has-toxic-working-culture-report-finds.
 Operation Mobilization. 2020. “Site | OM.Org.” 2020. https://www.om.org/en/search/site/bus4life.
 FDP. 2017. Képviselők. http://diakparlament.hu/kepviselok/
 Csákó, Mihály, and Annamária Sebestyén. 2017. “Egy Autentikus Diákmozgalom.” EDUCATIO 26 (1): 26–37.
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