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Abstract

Laws that restrict foreign funding to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) can depress voting through two mechanisms. First, they can signal a democracy recession. Consequently, citizens might fear rigged elections where their vote will not influence who forms the next government. Second, by denying funding to NGOs, these laws can undermine NGOs’ ability to generate social capital, which is crucial to mitigate collective action problems associated with voting. Since 1990, 13 of Africa’s 54 states have enacted laws restricting foreign funding for NGOs. Drawing on the 2016 Afrobarometer survey (36 countries, 53,936 respondents), we find support for the argument that restrictive NGO laws reduce citizens’ electoral participation in national elections probably by signaling democracy recession, and not by undermining social capital that foreign-funded NGOs are supposed to generate. In fully democratic countries, respondents are around 94% more likely to report having voted in a recent national election even after controlling for restrictive NGO laws
https://doi.org/10.1177/0899764019897848
Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly
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DOI: 10.1177/0899764019897848
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Symposium Issue
Why Restrictive NGO
Foreign Funding Laws
Reduce Voter Turnout in
Africa’s National Elections
Kendra Dupuy1 and Aseem Prakash2
Abstract
Laws that restrict foreign funding to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)
can depress voting through two mechanisms. First, they can signal a democracy
recession. Consequently, citizens might fear rigged elections where their vote
will not influence who forms the next government. Second, by denying funding
to NGOs, these laws can undermine NGOs’ ability to generate social capital,
which is crucial to mitigate collective action problems associated with voting.
Since 1990, 13 of Africa’s 54 states have enacted laws restricting foreign funding
for NGOs. Drawing on the 2016 Afrobarometer survey (36 countries, 53,936
respondents), we find support for the argument that restrictive NGO laws
reduce citizens’ electoral participation in national elections probably by signaling
democracy recession, and not by undermining social capital that foreign-funded
NGOs are supposed to generate. In fully democratic countries, respondents are
around 94% more likely to report having voted in a recent national election even
after controlling for restrictive NGO laws.
Keywords
NGOs, voting, social capital, Africa, foreign funding
1Chr. Michelsen Institute, Bergen, Norway
2University of Washington, Seattle, USA
Corresponding Author:
Aseem Prakash, Professor of Political Science, Walker Family Professor for the College of Arts and
Sciences, Founding Director of the Center for Environmental Politics, University of Washington, 101
Gowen Hall, Box 353530, Seattle, WA 98195-3530, USA.
Email: aseem@u.washington.edu
897848NVSXXX10.1177/0899764019897848Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector QuarterlyDupuy and Prakash
research-article2020
2 Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 00(0)
Introduction
Democracy is the government of, for, and by the people. Free, fair, and contested
elections are a core pillar of democracy because they allow citizens to choose their
government. Because representatives often want to get reelected, citizens can hold
them accountable even in off-election years (Ashworth, 2012). But citizens’
engagement in the democratic process extends beyond their electoral participa-
tion. They express their views on policy issues by participating in meetings, ral-
lies, and demonstrations, and through their communication in social and traditional
media. In such expressions of participatory democracy (Pateman, 2012), citizens
often work with other like-minded individuals, through collective organizations
such as political parties, trade unions, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)
that include activist organizations, nonprofits, and other types of civil society
organizations.
NGOs play an important role in any democracy by providing a platform for citizens
to collectively convey their political preferences to the state. In doing so, they some-
times mobilize publics for political causes (Andrews & Edwards, 2004), oftentimes in
collaboration with political parties. In addition to advocacy, NGOs provide local pub-
lic goods and enhance social capital (Putnam, 1995; Tocqueville, 1835–1840/1969;
but see Banks et al., 2015; Edwards & Hulme, 1996). In addition to facilitating politi-
cal advocacy, NGOs motivate citizens to participate in the electoral process through
what we label as the “social capital” route.
Scholars debate whether it is rational for an individual to even cast a vote because
the costs of voting often exceed the individual benefits the voter might derive from it.
Thus, the “paradox of voting” (Downs, 1957) reflects collective action problems such
as free-riding as well as the belief in individual inconsequentiality for collective out-
comes (Bandura, 1986) might discourage individuals from voting in elections
(Ferejohn & Fiorina, 1974). NGOs can help mitigate these dilemmas by providing the
assurance that other individuals hold similar political preferences as well. They can
also create a social norm that voting is a civic duty. It is therefore plausible that a
strong and vibrant NGO sector can improve electoral participation by mitigating col-
lective action dilemmas (Boulding, 2010). For instance, in Tanzania, NGOs mobilized
citizens to participate in that country’s recent polls, even though the country has had
the same party in power since independence and the government has been actively
clamping down on NGOs in the past year. Local NGOs also played a strong role in
mobilizing voters in Uganda’s 2016 national elections, despite the government’s adop-
tion of a restrictive NGO finance law in 2015.
In the above narrative, NGOs are an important pillar of electoral democracy. We
call this the Tocqueville–Putnam model of civil society, which assumes that NGOs
generate social capital because they are locally rooted, are accountable to the local
community, and therefore have their confidence. In the Tocqueville–Putnam model,
local rootedness is the key driver of citizens’ trust in the NGO sector. It requires that
NGOs generate resources locally. When local people invest resources in NGOs, they
feel ownership and demand accountability from them. And NGOs have incentives to
Dupuy and Prakash 3
be accountable because of their resource dependence on the local community.
Accountability to the local community leads to community trust in NGOs. This
allows locally rooted NGOs to emerge as focal points for aggregating and articulat-
ing political preferences. And they should be able to mobilize people to vote irre-
spective of regime type. Take the case of Solidarity in Poland. In the 1989 elections
taking place in the shadow of the military dictatorship, there was a huge voter turn-
out of about 65%, and voters overwhelmingly backed candidates endorsed by
Solidarity, as opposed to the Communist Party.
But what if NGOs are not locally rooted because they rely predominantly on for-
eign funds? If they are as a result upwardly accountable to their international donors,
rather than downwardly accountable to the communities they serve (Ebrahim, 2005),
would such foreign-funded NGOs still create social capital and enjoy credibility
among the local community? Would they be able to motivate citizens to ignore collec-
tive action issues and go out to cast their votes?
Understanding the mechanisms through which restrictive NGO laws influence vot-
ing has important theoretical and policy implications. Since the end of the Cold War,
foreign funding for NGOs has increased substantially, particularly in low-income
countries, including those in Africa. While much of this aid is channeled toward
humanitarian relief and service provision, donors have also favored spending on proj-
ects related to democracy and good governance promotion. In most African countries,
the most visible NGOs tend to rely on foreign funding.
Yet, since 1990, 13 of Africa’s 54 states have also adopted new legislation that
restricts the inflow of foreign funds to domestically operating NGOs.1 As the lit-
erature on this subject notes, governments enact such restrictions to ensure their
political survival (Dupuy et al., 2015, 2016). They view foreign-funded NGOs as
working with their political opponents and seek to weaken the political opposition
through legal restrictions on resource inflows to NGOs. Governments succeed in
doing so because foreign-funded NGOs tend to be poorly connected with the local
community. Hence, when these restrictions are enacted, the local community typi-
cally has not risen in outrage and protest, certainly not outside the capital city and
outside media glare. Governments do receive pushback from the international
community both in terms of reputational damage and reductions in aid flows. But
it seems the law-adopting governments are willing to absorb these costs for their
political survival.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that these restrictions have had a major impact on the
NGO sector. Dupuy et al. (2015) report that such restrictions have changed the popula-
tion ecology of the NGO sector in law-adopting countries, leading to a significant
decline in the number of NGOs, most notably in the numbers of groups promoting
good governance, democracy, and human rights. These laws have also resulted in
reduced foreign aid flows to law-adopting countries (Dupuy & Prakash, 2018). But we
know little else about their domestic political effects in African states, including on
citizens’ political behavior.
Two mechanisms link restrictive NGO laws to African citizens’ voting behaviors.
First, citizens might view these regulations as a part of the democracy recession. With
4 Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 00(0)
democracy recession, citizens might believe that voting is futile. Second, assuming
foreign funding can create a vibrant NGO sector that enhances social capital and
reduces collective action dilemmas associated with voting. Hence, restrictive NGO
laws should depress voting because it enfeebles NGOs, and degrades social capital
they help produce, irrespective of regime type. And the longer are such restrictions, the
more severe will be the erosion of social capital and hence more pronounced will be
the effect on depressing electoral turnout.
In contrast, if foreign-funded NGOs had little connection with the local communi-
ties, they would not generate social capital. If so, restrictive NGO finance laws would
not have a statistically significant effect on voting, once we have controlled for the
regime type. Drawing on the latest round of Afrobarometer data (Round 6, conducted
in 2016, 36 countries; 53,936 respondents), we investigate the mechanism through
which restrictions on foreign funding to NGOs might dampen citizens’ participation in
Africa’s national elections. To identify the specific mechanism(s) through which this
works, we examine models (a) with and without controlling for levels of democracy
and (b) with and without controlling for NGO laws. This is because to isolate the effect
of the “social capital” mechanism, our results should hold even after we control for
levels of democracy, the mechanism behind the “democracy recession” hypothesis.
Similarly, to isolate the effect of the “democracy recession” mechanism, our results
should hold even after we control for NGO laws, the mechanism behind the “social
capital” hypothesis.
Using a multilevel mixed-effects model to account for the survey design as well as
country-level differences, we find that while restrictive laws reduce the probability of
citizens’ voting in national elections by 68%, these results do not hold when we control
for levels of democracy. Instead, the level of democracy remains significant with and
without NGO laws. Indeed, we find that in fully democratic countries, respondents are
around 94% more likely to report having voted in a recent national election even after
controlling for restrictive NGO laws. While we do not advance a causal claim, the data
suggest that restrictive NGO laws depress voting by signaling democracy recession, as
opposed to undermining social capital that can mitigate collective action problems
associated with voting.
NGO Laws and the Policy Context
NGOs grew rapidly in the Global South and former communist countries after the
Cold War as part of Western countries’ push for democratization, economic develop-
ment, and improved effectiveness of foreign aid. By some estimates, the share of for-
eign aid to Africa channeled through NGOs rose from just 1% in 1990 to about 20%
in the late 2000s (Englebert & Tull, 2008). In part, this growth in NGO funding
reflected the “aid fatigue” among Western donors that led them to devise new mecha-
nisms to deliver foreign aid, as opposed to simply distributing it through government
bureaucracies (Bauhr et al., 2013; D. Smith, 2012; but see Zaidi, 1999). This cohered
with the Washington Consensus that sought to dismantle governmental control over
the economy, a process that had begun in the 1980s as developing countries sought
Dupuy and Prakash 5
structural adjustment aid from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund
(Levine, 2002; Nelson, 1995).
Aid ineffectiveness found an obvious culprit: domestic governments of aid recipi-
ent countries. These governments were deemed corrupt, incompetent, and captured by
local power structures. In contrast, donors believed that NGOs had the expertise,
grassroots knowledge, and incentives to identify appropriate aid projects and benefi-
ciaries, as well as the human infrastructure to deliver aid (Dietrich, 2013; Edwards &
Hulme, 1996). By some estimates, about one fifth of all bilateral aid is now routed
through NGOs: The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development
(OECD; 2015) puts the number at 19% for the United Kingdom and 23% for the
United States, 25% for Norway, and 40% for Ireland.
Due to the massive infusion of foreign funds, the NGO sector in Africa has grown
exponentially. For example, in Kenya, the number of secular foreign NGOs grew from
37 to 134 between 1978 and 1987, and the number of local NGOs grew from 57 to 133
during the same time period (Fowler, 1991). Today, the number of foreign and local
NGOs active in Kenya is estimated to number more than 7,200, in addition to more
than 300,000 community-based organizations (U.S. Agency for International
Development, 2015). Other countries echo a similar pattern, with foreign aid influxes
partially fueling the NGO boom (Chahim & Prakash, 2014).
But in the mid- to late-1990s, a curious counter trend emerged: Several developing
countries began enacting laws that restricted the ability of NGOs (both foreign and
domestic) to operate in their territories (Dupuy et al., 2015, 2016). Of particular inter-
est, many laws restricted NGOs’ access to foreign funding. The Carnegie Endowment
termed this as “Closing Space: Democracy and Human Rights Support Under Fire.”2
In its annual “State of the Civil Society Review,” CIVICUS, a prominent global civil
society group, notes, “The CIVICUS Monitor, our new online platform that tracks the
space for civil society in every country of the world, reveals that civil society faces
serious threats in 106 countries, over half of all UN member states.”3
The restrictions these laws impose are of different types (Dupuy et al., 2016). In
Equatorial Guinea and Angola, government authorization is required for locally oper-
ating NGOs to receive funding from international sources, while Azerbaijan and
Belarus require organizations to notify the government regarding receipt of interna-
tionally sourced funds. Vietnam forbids the receipt of international funds that will
negatively affect political order. Some governments set specific limits on the amounts
of international financing organizations can receive; for instance, the Algerian govern-
ment has discretionary power to set a cap on how much foreign money NGOs can
legally receive, while Ethiopia has determined that human rights organizations cannot
receive more than 10% foreign funding. In terms of restrictions on the use of foreign
funding, Zimbabwe prohibits such funding from being used on voter education, while
Rwanda allows only 20% of funds to be used on administrative expenses. Several
governments require regular and extensive reporting on the receipt and use of foreign
funds, such as Indonesia, Burundi, and India.
These legal restrictions certainly reflect states’ attempt to restrict the domestic
political and economic space available to NGOs to function effectively, thereby
6 Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 00(0)
denying resources to domestic political opponents. Scholars view them as reflecting
democracy recession (Diamond, 2015; Plattner, 2015; but see Levitsky & Way, 2015).
As the literature suggests, this crackdown reflects the confluence of Western donors’
funneling of increased levels of foreign aid through NGOs as opposed to recipient
governments, the rise of rights-based approaches in advocacy that invariably pit devel-
opment NGOs against local governments, the lack of domestic support for NGOs, and
regimes’ political vulnerability as reflected in closeness of previous elections (Dupuy
et al., 2015, 2016; but see Nelson & Dorsey, 2018).
What motivates governments to place restrictions on NGOs? After all, NGOs are
supposed to promote development, bridge deficits in public goods provision, and help
the underprivileged. The literature offers a political explanation (Dupuy et al., 2016).
Advocacy NGOs that work to promote democratization or human rights are often criti-
cal of the domestic government. But with the rise in the rights-based approach to
development that promotes equal provision of public goods and services (Cornwall &
Nyamu-Musembi, 2004; Hamm, 2001), even non-advocacy NGOs (nonprofits)
focused on providing merit goods and services are directly drawn into local politics. A
key reason is that most developing country governments are unable to provide the
requisite quality and quantity of public services. Although NGOs have historically
provided public goods, the rights-based approaches they have adopted have trans-
formed them from suppliers of public services to critics of government. For example,
several NGOs hitherto devoted to supplying health services to the underserved suggest
that health care is a right and therefore demand that governments supply health care to
all people. Of course, governments probably cannot do so; this is an important reason
why NGOs were supplying it in the first place.
As actors seeking regime survival, we expect governments to act against their
opposition. And because much of NGOs’ foreign funding is routed through the formal
banking sector, governments have a low-cost and reliable administrative means to
deny NGOs’ access to foreign resources. Governments’ threat perception about the
foreign-funded NGO sector is increased further because they recognize that govern-
ments gain legitimacy, in part, by providing public goods. When an NGO sector that
is bolstered by foreign aid replaces government as the key supplier of public goods,
governments feel politically insecure, especially when the NGOs are critical of the
government. Not surprisingly, they have compelling political incentives to crack down
on the NGO sector.
Governments would probably be wary of cracking down on a locally rooted
NGO sector. Its actions could spark citizen outrage and lead to popular mobiliza-
tion against the government. Evidence of this can be seen in recent violent clashes
between state security forces and protestors from student groups and unions in
South Africa, and in citizen protests against the Nigerian government’s approach
to dealing with the insurgent group Boko Haram. Yet very few such sustained pro-
tests against legal restrictions on NGOs have so far taken place. Perhaps this is
where the corrosive effects of foreign aid on the health of a civil society can best
be discerned. Governments believe that internationally funded NGOs are not well-
rooted in the local community and may even undermine indigenous civil society
Dupuy and Prakash 7
(Banks et al., 2015). Hence, they are emboldened to crack down because they
anticipate little domestic backlash.
Why this disconnect between NGOs and the local community? A common criticism
is that NGOs dependent on foreign funds are more responsive to donors’ concerns as
opposed to the needs of the communities they serve. This means that local community
views NGOs as advocating for issues that are important to Western audiences, not to
local people. Second, even the public goods that NGOs supply may not be of the
appropriate type, a common criticism of foreign aid.
NGOs and Voting
NGOs are voluntary associations of individuals that lie outside the direct control of
both the state and market actors, and that are geared toward pursuing a common goal.
NGOs can be considered as pillars of democracy especially when they provide a plat-
form for citizens to collectively articulate their preferences. They help public mobili-
zation for political causes. While collective action problems discourage individuals
from voting in elections (Downs, 1957; Ferejohn & Fiorina, 1974), NGOs can miti-
gate free-riding and improve electoral participation. Per social cognition theory, the
personal efficacy hypothesis suggests that individuals might not contribute to collec-
tive endeavors such as elections if they believe that their efforts will not affect the
collective outcome (Bandura, 1986). Existing evidence suggests that when individuals
are provided with assurances that others are contemplating similar action, they are
motivated to contribute to public goods provision. The role of collective action orga-
nizations such as NGOs becomes important because they serve as assurance mecha-
nisms that the individual is a part of a collective that is working toward common goals
and hence individual actions could change the collective outcomes.
The crucial mechanism that links NGOs to voting is via the generation of social
capital. Capital implies an asset that can create benefits in the future. It requires an
upfront investment, with short-term sacrifices for long-term gain. The “social” aspect
of social capital suggests that such assets are generated via social interactions (Dolšak,
2013; Putnam, 1995). These interactions create inter-personal trust and provide the
social glue that holds communities together. According to Ostrom (1990), the concept
of social capital has important implications for understanding collective action and
social dilemmas. Olson (1965) saw collective action problems rooted in atomistic
individuals seeking to free-ride on the efforts of others. In contrast, Ostrom views
individuals involved in collective endeavors to be rooted in communities. These indi-
viduals are glued together by social capital, which changes their cost-benefit calculus
for contributing to collective endeavors. For her, social ties can generate trust which
allows individuals to rein in their incentives to free-ride and contribute to collective
action in the expectation that others will do the same. Furthermore, social capital
allows individuals to acquire a sense of agency and believe that their individual effort
could shape collective endeavors.
NGOs are expected to generate social capital and allow individuals to overcome the
collective action problems inherent in voting, irrespective of the political regime in
8 Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 00(0)
which individuals function. Even in the most challenging political contexts, such as a
repressive and one-party rule, African civil society groups have successfully mobilized
citizens to call for and participate in elections. For instance, local civil society organiza-
tions have been actively challenging the government of the Democratic Republic of
Congo to hold overdue national elections.
Broadly, if the NGO sector has deep connections with the local population,
democracy recession might not depress voting. Thus, social capital effects of NGOs
on electoral participation should be visible irrespective of the level of democracy.
In fact, with a vibrant NGO sector, the social capital effects of the NGO sector
might even boost voter participation if the electorate faces an authoritarian govern-
ment. In the absence of such a vibrant and locally rooted NGO sector, voters would
perceive NGO laws as signaling democracy recession and hence decide not to cast
their vote.
Two implications emerge from the above discussion. If foreign funding supports
the creation of social capital, a crackdown on foreign funding will depress voter turn-
out. And the longer such restrictions have been in place, the greater would be degrada-
tion in social capital and the more pronounced effect in depressing electoral turnout.
But if foreign-funded NGOs do a poor job in creating social capital, then a crackdown
on foreign funding will not depress voter turnout, even after controlling for democracy
recession. Based on the above discussion, we propose the following:
Hypothesis 1: A regulatory crackdown on foreign funding to domestically operat-
ing NGOs will be associated with decreased electoral participation, all else equal.
The second mechanism through which NGO laws could influence voting is via sig-
naling democracy recession. Voters may believe that new, restrictive NGO laws
reflect democracy recession and the onset of authoritarianism. It might also imply
that the voting will not be free and fair and that their voting efforts will not be effec-
tive in influencing who forms the next government (the “personal efficacy” hypoth-
esis). In fact, by voting in rigged elections, citizens may even provide legitimacy to
the authoritarian system. Thus, voters may decide not to vote, not because a crack-
down on foreign funding has enfeebled the NGO sector and eroded their social capi-
tal, but simply because they view new NGO laws as signals of the onset of
authoritarianism and possibly rigged elections (Birch, 2010). Based on the above,
we hypothesize the following:
Hypothesis 2: Levels of democracy will be associated with electoral participation
irrespective of laws governing foreign funding to domestically operating NGOs.
Variables, Data, and Method
We employ survey data to test the impact of the adoption of restrictive NGO fund-
ing laws on citizens’ reported participation in the most recent national elections.
Africa is an interesting region to study given the region’s variation in the adoption
Dupuy and Prakash 9
of these laws and the large number of national and local elections being held on the
continent. There is well-established literature examining how specific rules or reg-
ulations influence voter turnout by looking at national-level polling data (Blais &
Carty, 1990). Although this approach has merits, it does not capture voting deci-
sions at the level of individual citizens. If individuals are the ones who vote, under-
standing whether restrictive NGO laws influence their individual electoral
participation requires examining individual voting behavior rather than inferring it
from aggregate voting data (Kramer, 1983).
To accomplish this objective, we draw on Round 6 of the Afrobarometer survey, a
representative public attitude survey about democracy, governance, and society con-
ducted in 2016 with 53,936 adults in 36 countries in Africa.4 The sample included in
the survey is roughly split between females and males and includes slightly greater
numbers of rural respondents.
Dependent Variable
Our dependent variable is respondents’ answers to the following question:
“Understanding that some people were unable to vote in the most recent national elec-
tion in [20xx], which of the following statements is true for you?” Answers to this
question are “0 = you were not registered to vote; 1 = you voted in the elections; 2 =
you decided not to vote; 3 =you could not find the polling station; 4 =you were pre-
vented from voting; 5 = you did not have time to vote; 6 = you did not vote because
you could not find your name in the voters’ register; 7 = did not vote for some other
reason; 8 = you were too young to vote; and 9 = don’t know/can’t remember.”
As we are interested only in whether or not respondents voted, we first dropped
response Categories 0, 8, and 9, as well as missing responses, leaving 45,343 remain-
ing responses. From this, we created a binary variable to indicate whether respondents
reported voting or not. Sub-Response Categories 3 through 7 were combined to indi-
cate non-voting, while Sub-Response Category 1 indicates having voted. Further
dropping missing and non-informative categories from the independent and control
variables left 43,517 observations remaining.
We note two limitations in using this measure of voting.5 First, it is a self-reported
measure. Because we cannot assess the levels of over- or under-reporting, our model
includes several control variables to account for individual and country-level varia-
tions in voting behavior. If there are factors such as gender or level of economic
development that lead to systematic over- or under-reporting about voting, our con-
trol variables should be able to account for them. Second, our measure captures vot-
ing in the most recent national elections only: It does not capture voting in local
elections or elections in previous years. It is possible that the impact of restrictive
NGO laws on electoral participation varies between local and national elections.
However, we believe that national elections are the most appropriate way to examine
the impact of NGO laws because local elections tend to be driven by local issues
(Berry & Howell, 2007) rather than by national issues such as national-level NGO
laws. We recognize that the effect of NGO strength and the social capital NGOs
10 Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 00(0)
generate might be more visible at the local level. Hence, our results should be inter-
preted in the context of national elections only.
Key Explanatory Variables
While our dependent variable pertains to 2016, both the key explanatory variables
are lagged by 1 year and pertain to 2015. Our first explanatory variable is the adop-
tion of a law that, in some way, hampers NGOs’ ability to access and use foreign
funding. By foreign funding, we mean financial resources that are sourced from
actors who are geographically located outside the borders of the country or coun-
tries of operation. This type of funding can be provided by private individuals (usu-
ally in the form of donations), governments of the host country or traditional donor
states, other NGOs, and/or philanthropic foundations. We are concerned with legal
restrictions placed on the flow of resources that originate from outside a given
country’s borders but that are used within that country’s borders. These laws typi-
cally require government notification and approval for NGOs to receive foreign-
sourced funds, restrict the countries from which foreign monies can be sourced,
require organizations to report on the receipt and use of such funding, require that
organizations channel foreign funds through government banks, cap the amount of
funding that can be received, and restrict the issue areas on which organizations can
operate using foreign funding.
To identify countries with these legal restrictions, we draw on the cross-national
data collected by Dupuy et al. (2016) on the global adoption of restrictive NGO finance
laws between 1993 and 2012. We have updated it to 2015, the year prior to the
Afrobarometer survey. From 1990 to 2015, 13 of the continent’s 54 states adopted new
legislation restricting the inflow of foreign funds to domestically operating NGOs. Ten
of these 13 are included in the latest (2016) round of the Afrobarometer survey: Algeria
(law adopted in 2012; two elections), Benin (law adopted in 2003; three elections),
Burundi (law adopted in 1999; two elections), Cameroon (law adopted in 1999; five
elections), Egypt (law adopted in 2014; one election), Sierra Leone (law adopted in
2009; two elections), Sudan (law adopted in 2006; two elections), Tunisia (law adopted
in 2011; one election), Uganda (law adopted in 2009; two elections), and Zimbabwe
(law adopted in 2004; three elections).
We estimate the effect of NGO restrictive laws on electoral participation through a
binary variable to indicate whether a state adopted a restrictive NGO finance law by
2015.6 Our challenge is to apportion variance in voter turnout between two mecha-
nisms: social capital mechanism and the democracy recession mechanism. We also
control for the number of years that have passed since a restrictive law was adopted.
The reason is that the longer the restrictions are in effect, the greater should be the ero-
sion in social capital.
Our second key explanatory variable is the level of democracy (lagged), which
we measure using the Polity IV measure of regime type. This variable is measured
on a 20-point scale and classifies regimes into autocracies, anocracies, and democ-
racies (i.e., a lower score means lower levels of democracy). The intuition is that
Dupuy and Prakash 11
the effect of restrictive NGO laws on voting can take place by signaling a democ-
racy recession and the onset of authoritarianism. Potential voters might infer that
voting will not be free and fair and their voting efforts will therefore not be of any
use.
If foreign funding supports NGOs’ ability to generate social capital, then a crack-
down on foreign funding will depress voter turnout, even after controlling for the level
of democracy. The introduction of the democracy variable allows us to ensure that the
democracy recession mechanism is not confounding the social capital mechanisms.
But suppose the NGO crackdown variable is significant in a reduced model but loses
significance once the “democracy” variable is introduced. This suggests that the social
capital mechanism is not influencing voter turnout. Thus, by testing models with and
without the democracy variable, we can get a sense of which of the mechanisms might
be driving individual decisions to vote.
Control Variables
Our models control for several individual-level socioeconomic and demographic vari-
ables that scholars report as affecting citizens’ participation in national elections
(Kuenzi & Lambright, 2010). First, we control for individual perceptions of elections
and democracy as well as their support for the current regime, all of which are likely
to influence decisions to actually turn out at the polls. These variables include respon-
dent views on whether voters are usually threatened with violence at the polls, whether
people should be careful in what they say about politics (self-censorship), and whether
people trust key government institutions (the relevant legislative body, Parliament, or
National Assembly).
We also include the following measures of socioeconomic status and well-being
that have been used in other studies of poverty and well-being (cf. Johnston & Abreu,
2016; Østby, 2008; Sahn & Stifel, 2000), taken from the Afrobarometer survey: the
respondent’s education level, whether the respondent has a job that pays cash income,
radio ownership, and how the respondent views their own present living conditions.
We anticipate that voters who are better educated and economically better-off will be
more willing to participate in elections, as they have a greater awareness of their
democratic rights and may have more to gain economically from election-related
government shifts. We further control for respondents’ age and gender. We also
include a measure of access to electricity to proxy for ethnicity and location. Rural
voters and marginalized ethnic groups are less likely to support the government, and
they are also less likely to have access to electricity given that power supply is often
used in poorer countries for political patronage during elections (Brown & Mobarak,
2009). Finally, we control for country-level indicators, using data from the World
Bank’s World Development Indicators dataset: logged population size, as of year
2015; logged foreign aid per capita, as of year 2015; and logged gross domestic prod-
uct per capita, in constant 2010 U.S. dollars.
Table 1 provides descriptive statistics. Notably, a very large number of respondents
(79%) say they voted in the most recent elections, and there are relatively low levels
12
Table 1. Descriptive Statistics.
Variables M/average response SD Minimum Maximum
Time since law adoption 9 years 6.5 years 1 17
Democracy score 14 4 1 20
Gross domestic product (GDP) per capita US$2,412 US$2,692 US$226 US$9,598
Net official development assistance and
official aid received
US$964 million US$768 million US$20 US$2.58 billion
Country’s population 27,700,000 37,200,000 532,913 181,000,000
Respondent’s age 39 14 18 105
Categorical variables—Frequencies
Education level 30% primary only; 33% secondary only; 13% higher education
Voted in most recent national election 21% no; 79% yes
Trust in parliament 22% not at all; 26% a little; 25% somewhat; 23% a lot
Threat of poll violence 46% never; 26% sometimes; 12% often; 8% always
Self-censorship 16% never; 19% rarely; 24% often; 38% always
Cash income job 57% no; 41% yes
Radio ownership 27% no; 73% yes
View of present living conditions 20% much worse; 28% worse; 21% same; 28% better; 5% much better
Access to electricity 48% no; 52% yes
Gender 50% male; 49% female
Dupuy and Prakash 13
of reported electoral violence. Thus, we should expect survey respondents to not be
turned away from voting.
Results
In Table 2, we present the results of three models of the relationship between the adop-
tion of restrictive NGO finance laws, levels of democracy, and election participation.
We use a multilevel mixed-effects logistic regression model. Such a model is appropri-
ate to use with complex survey data such as the Afrobarometer survey, which is mul-
tilevel (hierarchical) in its structure, with households nested within primary sampling
units, and then nested within countries. Specifically, we estimate a three-level model
with random intercepts for the countries and the primary sampling units. The likeli-
hood-ratio test comparing the model with an ordinary logistic model is highly signifi-
cant for our data, supporting the use of this modeling approach.
Model 1 tests the effect of NGO restrictive laws while controlling for respondents’
characteristics. We do not include the “democracy” variable in this model.
Consequently, the NGO variable confounds both the social capital and the regime type
explanation. We also control for the number of years that have passed since the law
was passed. Model 2 tests the effect of the levels of democracy (but does not include
the variable capturing crackdown on NGO funding) on reported participation in recent
national elections. This tests the democracy recession explanation. However, it does
not control for the social capital explanation that the NGO law variable captures.
Model 3 is a fully specified model because it includes both the restrictive NGO law
measure (and the numbers of since it passed) and the democracy measures. In doing
so, it allows us to evaluate the social capital hypothesis (NGO variable) separately
from the democracy recession hypothesis (democracy variable).
In Model 1, we see that the coefficient for the NGO finance law variable is both
negative and statistically significant at the .05 level. Because we employ a non-linear,
logistic regression to model our binary dependent variable, we cannot directly inter-
pret the coefficients as they are odds ratios and must be exponentiated to understand
the size of their effects. The odds ratio for the law adoption variable in Model 1 is 0.52,
and its exponentiated value 1.68, and thus adopting a restrictive NGO finance law
reduces the probability of voting in the most recent elections by 68%.
In Model 2, we replace the NGO law measure with the Polity measure of democ-
racy. Here we see that the coefficient for the democracy variable is positive and statis-
tically significant at the .001 level. The more democratic a country, the more likely it
is for respondents to report having voted in the most recent election. Exponentiating
the odds ratio of 1.08 tells us that respondents in democratic states are 94% more likely
to report having voted in the most recent election.
In Model 3, we include both the restrictive NGO law and democracy measures.
Importantly, whereas the NGO variable loses significance, the democracy measure
retains statistical significance at the .001 level, and its coefficient remains positive. We
thus find support for the alternative hypothesis that restrictive NGO finance laws
reduce citizens’ reported electoral participation by signaling democracy recession, and
14 Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 00(0)
Table 2. Results: Effect of Restrictive NGO Finance Law on Electoral Participation (Multi-
Level Mixed Effects Logistic Regression Model).
Variable
Model 1:
NGO law only
Model 2:
Democracy only
Model 3: NGO law
and democracy
Main explanatory variables
Law adoption −0.641*
(0.323)
−0.350
(0.238)
Democracy 0.077***
(0.015)
0.094***
(0.016)
Time since law adoption 0.035
(0.028)
0.058
(0.021)
Respondent views of politics
Trust in parliament 0.314***
(0.007)
0.030
(0.007)***
0.030***
(0.007)
Threat of poll violence −0.067***
(0.005)
−0.066***
(0.005)
−0.066***
(0.005)
Self-censorship −0.065***
(0.008)
−0.065***
(0.008)
−0.066***
(0.008)
Respondent background characteristics
Education level 0.001
(0.007)
−0.0006
(0.007)
−0.0007
(0.007)
Cash income job 0.085***
(0.011)
0.081***
(0.011)
0.081***
(0.011)
Radio ownership 0.124***
(0.027)
0.115***
(0.027)
0.114***
(0.027)
View of present living
conditions
0.011
(0.241)
0.010
(0.009)
0.010
(0.009)
Age 0.026***
(0.001)
0.025***
(0.001)
0.025***
(0.001)
Gender (female) −0.052*
(0.025)
−0.063*
(0.026)
−0.063*
(0.026)
Electricity access −0.019*
(0.009)
−0.024**
(0.009)
−0.024**
(0.009)
Country-level characteristics
Logged GDP −0.089
(0.093)
−0.142
(0.073)
−0.113
(0.067)
Logged foreign aid −0.019
(0.034)
−0.005
(0.027)
−0.002
(0.024)
Logged population −0.033
(0.078)
−0.058
(0.063)
−0.030
(0.057)
n42,630 40,462 40,462
Note. Coefficients are reported, with robust standard errors in parentheses. NGO = nongovernmental
organization; GDP = gross domestic product.
*p < .05. **p < .01. ***p < .001.
Dupuy and Prakash 15
do not find support for the degradation of social capital hypothesis. Indeed, the num-
ber of years since the law has passed is not significant either in Model 1 or Model 3.
Across the three models, the respondent characteristics are highly significant, with
the exception of respondent’s views of their present living conditions as well as edu-
cational background. None of the country-level controls are significant in any of the
models. Unsurprisingly, prior poll violence and the need to self-censor one’s political
views lead to less electoral participation—which provides additional support to the
argument that NGO laws are viewed as signals of onset of authoritarianism and hence
depress voting. Male and older respondents, those who have higher trust in the national
legislative body, and those with a cash income job, who own a radio, and who report
having access to electricity in their homes are more likely to report having voted in the
most recent national election. This coheres with broader research that suggests that the
opportunity cost to vote is much more prohibitive for poorer individuals than for richer
individuals. Recall that in Africa, individuals normally have to physically line up in
polling booths to vote, unlike some other countries where the transaction costs of vot-
ing have been reduced by measures such as postal ballots. Given that the exercise of
franchise might entail that the individual cannot go to work, it is not surprising that
urban residents and those with cash incomes are more likely to vote.
Conclusion
This article has sought to investigate two explanations about how restrictive NGO
laws might influence voting. The “democracy recession” hypothesis suggests that citi-
zens view a crackdown on NGOs, not in terms of their substantive implications on the
NGO sector. Rather for them, these laws reflect the attempts of the governments to tell
Western donors that they are asserting their internal sovereignty and are not willing to
countenance Western norms such as democracy promotion. Thus, citizens feel that
these laws signal the onset of authoritarianism and therefore are discouraged to vote.
In contrast, the “social capital” hypothesis suggests that NGO funding crackdown
weakens the NGO sector and degrades the social capital NGOs are supposed to gener-
ate across regime types. Consequently, NGO crackdown depresses voting, irrespective
of regime type. Yet, if the social capital argument does not hold, the restrictive law
variable will lose statistical significance once the regime type is controlled for. Based
on a large Afrobarometer survey covering 53,936 adults in 36 countries, we find sup-
port for the democracy recession hypothesis but not for the social capital hypothesis.
We recognize that this article has not provided a direct measure of social capital and
viewed it as a latent variable. Future research could work with a direct measure of
social capital to validate these findings. Our findings, although correlational, raise
important policy questions. Why do we find evidence that the foreign-funded NGO
sector does not appear to influence electoral participation by generating social capital?
One answer might be that it is not locally rooted. As the literature on the resource curse
suggests (Ross, 1999), if governments do not depend on citizens for funding, they are
not accountable to their citizens (Brass, 2008; Morrison, 2010). Arguably, the NGO
sector might also suffer from a type of resource curse, induced by disconnections with
16 Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 00(0)
the local communities. The reality is that the NGO sector grew in the Global South and
former communist countries largely due to economic and political support from
Western donors and institutions. This involved a massive infusion of foreign funds for
NGO promotion by Western powers and the multilateral institutions they dominate
(Reimann, 2006). The policy expectation was that the NGO sector would become the
vehicle to spread liberal norms, encourage democratization, and foster market-based
development. Furthermore, Western donors probably assumed that this sector would
find it difficult to raise resources internally within resource-poor countries, and there-
fore viewed Western financial support as an appropriate way to establish and strengthen
the NGO sector.
The NGO sector (specifically, the nonprofits) also grew because it emerged as a
subcontractor for the delivery of public services that were previously supplied by
governmental agencies. This subcontracting trend was ideologically rooted in the
domestically oriented “reinventing government” agenda (Osborne, 1993) and the
internationally oriented “Washington consensus” (Williamson, 1993). During the
1980s, Western governments began relying more heavily on NGOs to deliver pub-
lic services, instead of their own agencies. This reflected the Reagan–Thatcher phi-
losophy of reducing the government’s footprint across policy spheres. In the 1990s,
the “reinventing government” approach also encouraged governments to outsource
service provision to NGOs. This led to the emergence of NGOs as governmental
contractors, an approach that has been replicated abroad in the context of aid
delivery.
Ensuring the steady flow of foreign resources requires NGOs to follow the donors’
agenda. This includes governmental and inter-governmental organizational donors as
well as private foundations. Scholars note the role of the big three American founda-
tions, Carnegie, Ford, and Rockefeller, in promoting U.S. norms during the Cold War
through their foreign aid programs (Parmar, 2012). In the current epoch, there is a
concern about the “Gates Effect” in public health due to the vast resources at the com-
mand of the Gates Foundation (Roberts & Enserink, 2007). Resource dependency
leads NGOs to reproduce norms rooted in donor-inspired development discourse
(Chandhoke, 2002). NGOs may well become an integral part of the world society
(Meyer et al., 1997) but sometimes with little connection with the local society in
which they are supposed to function. Not surprisingly, when governments decide to
crackdown on NGOs and justify it by branding NGOs as foreign agents, there is little
groundswell opposition to governmental actions. In sum, the inability of foreign-
funded NGO sector to generate social capital raises the question about the wisdom of
Western funding to create a vibrant NGO sector abroad. It seems that only the NGO
sector that is homegrown and rooted in the local community can serve as agents of
democratic consolidation.
Our article should encourage future work on electoral participation and how the
institutional environment, restrictive NGO laws in our case, might affect it. For the
purpose of this article, we have focused on whether the respondents voted. However,
future work could examine specific factors (personal, professional, financial, or insti-
tutional) that might encourage or impede voting. After all, high levels of electoral
Dupuy and Prakash 17
participation are critical for the working of a democratic system, and there is policy
merit in understanding how the NGO sector fits into this picture.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article.
Funding
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship,
and/or publication of this article: Kendra Dupuy acknowledges the support received from the
Research Council of Norway, which supported her work on this article as part of the project
“Breaking the Backlash Against Democracy in Africa” (https://www.democraticbacklash.com/)
(RCN Project 262862)
ORCID iD
Aseem Prakash https://orcid.org/0000-0002-7364-0135
Notes
1. The average length of time since a law was passed in countries that have adopted a restric-
tive nongovernmental organization (NGO) law is 9 years; the standard deviation is 6.5
years.
2. http://carnegieendowment.org/2014/02/20/closing-space-democracy-and-human-rights-
support-under-fire-pub-54503
3. https://www.civicus.org/documents/reports-and-publications/SOCS/2017/year-in-review/
new-democratic-crisis.pdf
4. The list of countries included in Round 6 can be found at www.afrobarometer.org
5. We recognize that we do not have a direct measure of social capital which is a latent vari-
able. As the vast literature suggests, increasing social capital is an important rationale for
encouraging the NGO sector. Many believe that if NGO sector were allowed to secure
resources from abroad and function freely, it would increase social capital. One observ-
able implication of increased social capital boosts electoral participation. Similarly, if the
NGO sector were denied resources, it would impede its functioning and this will lead to
lower social capital, irrespective of regime type. Here, one observable implication will be
depressed electoral participation, across regime type. And the longer such laws have been
in place, stronger will be the erosion of social capital, and greater the effect in depressing
the electoral participation.
6. Each of the 10 countries with restrictive foreign funding laws in place adopted
these laws prior to the last national election. The year of law adoption is included in
parentheses.
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Author Biographies
Kendra Dupuy’s research focuses on the causes and consequences of the global backlash
against democracy. She also researches natural resource and environmental management in
developing countries.
Aseem Prakash is a professor of political science at University of Washington, working on
environmental policy, nongovernmental organizations and nonprofits, and voluntary regulation.
He serves on the National Academies of Sciences’ Board on Environmental Change and Society
and is an International Research Fellow at the Center for Corporate Reputation, University of
Oxford.
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