Imagine an America without baseball, apple pie, or ... nonprofits

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Over the past few months nations around the world – including ChinaRussiaEgypt, and India – have been clamping down on non-governmental organizations (“NGO”s), especially those that are run by foreigners. (“NGO” is a common term for organizations working abroad that are the rough-equivalent of U.S. charitable nonprofits, but the term also includes U.S.-based nonprofits with programs on the ground in foreign countries.) Leaders of NGOs are being detained, websites crippled, and operations suspended, as a result of foreign governments’ claims that NGOs somehow threaten their nations’ security.

Consider what’s been happening: The Chinese National People’s Congress is considering proposed laws that would force all non-Chinese NGOs to have a Chinese government agency sponsor them and place additional pressure on Chinese NGOs partnering with non-Chinese NGOs. Last month, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed a bill into law that gives Russian prosecutors the power to declare foreign and international nonprofit organizations "undesirable" and sentence anyone working with the organization up to six years in prison. While styled as being designed to keep foreign groups out, an expert on the ground told CNN that the true targets "are actually Russian activists and Russian groups" to cut “them off from their international partners, further isolating them, and squeezing the very life out of Russian civil society." In Egypt, nonprofits that dare to speak out critically against the government face harassment or worse. The Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and 22 other NGOs have protested what they consider to be a “declaration of war by the government on freedom of association and the work of civil society organizations in Egypt” by attempting to control and silence them. In India, the government revoked the licenses of 9,000 nonprofits because they failed to report details of donations received from outside India. The Indian government also put the Ford Foundation on a “watch list,” allegedly for not filing its annual reports and balance sheets in time and for working against the “national interest and security.” The U.S. Ambassador to India has expressed concerns about the chilling effect on civil society.

Charitable nonprofits are the embodiment of the democratic ideal. Since de Toqueville’s observations in the 1830’s, “associations” (which is what charitable organizations were called then) have been recognized as a distinctly “American” form of civic engagement. “Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations…. Whenever at the head of some undertaking you see the government in France, or a man of rank in England, in the United States you will be sure to find an association.” 

As foreign governments are actively disrupting the work of NGOs in their countries, demonstrating how threatened they are by democratic ideals, grassroots organizing, and vocal advocates of equity and human rights, Americans will soon be celebrating our democracy’s “birth day” on July 4. While we enjoy the day’s comfort by grilling hot dogs, eating apple pie, and watching fireworks, let’s not forget the comforts we enjoy because of America’s vibrant nonprofits – where Americans come together every day to solve problems, improve lives, enhance culture, and steward the earth. This July 4, let’s celebrate not only our nation’s stars and stripes, but also our nation’s amazing nonprofits, and the committed individuals who stand behind them, lead them forward, and support their journeys. 

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