How do public regulations shape the composition and behavior of non-governmental organizations (NGOs)? Because many NGOs advocate liberal causes, such as human rights, democracy, and gender equality, they upset the political status quo. At the same time, a large number of NGOs operating in the Global South rely on international funding. This sometimes disconnects from local publics and leads to the proliferation of sham or ‘briefcase’ NGOs. Seeking to rein in the politically inconvenient NGO sector, governments exploit the role of international funding and make the case for restricting the influence of NGOs that serve as foreign agents. To pursue this objective, states worldwide are enacting laws to restrict NGOs’ access to foreign funding. We examine this regulatory offensive through an Ethiopian case study, where recent legislation prohibits foreign-funded NGOs from working on politically sensitive issues. We find that most briefcase NGOs and local human rights groups in Ethiopia have disappeared, while survivors have either ‘rebranded’ or switched their work from proscribed areas. This research note highlights how governments can and do shape the population ecology of the non-governmental sector. Because NGOs seek legitimacy via their claims of grassroots support, a reliance on external funding makes them politically vulnerable. Any study of the NGO sector must include governments as the key component of NGOs’ institutional environment.
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