NGOs and Authoritarianism

It’s complicated.
Dictators love NGOs,
but also they don’t.
Civil society

Andrew Heiss, “NGOs and Authoritarianism,” chap. 38 in Routledge Handbook of NGOs and International Relations, ed. Thomas Davies (London: Routledge, 2019).


Romney Institute of Public Service and Ethics, Brigham Young University


April 2019


Authoritarian restrictions on domestic and international civil society have increased over the past decade, but authoritarian states continue to allow—and even invite—NGOs to work in their countries. Though the services and advocacy provided by NGOs can challenge the legitimacy and power of authoritarian regimes, the majority of autocratic states allow NGO activities, and NGOs in turn continue to work in these countries in spite of the heavy legal restrictions and attempts to limit their activities. This chapter examines the theories about and the experiences of domestic and international NGOs working in authoritarian countries. The review is premised on the theory of authoritarian institutions: dictators delegate political authority to democratic-appearing institutions in order to remain in power and maintain stability. After providing a brief overview of authoritarian institutionalism and balancing, I discuss how domestic and international NGOs fit into authoritarian stability-seeking calculus. I then look at three forms of state–NGO relationships in the context of authoritarianism and explore how autocrats have addressed and regulated international NGOs in particular. Finally, I conclude with suggestions for future research on NGOs and their relationship with and role in authoritarian regimes.


Figure 2: Civil society repression and regulations

Figure 2: Civil society repression and regulations


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    Address = {London},
    Author = {Andrew Heiss},
    Booktitle = {Routledge Handbook of {NGOs} and International Relations},
    Editor = {Thomas Davies},
    Publisher = {Routledge},
    Title = {{NGOs} and Authoritarianism},
    Chapter = {38},
    Year = {2019}}