Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs) are exercising vital roles in promoting and encouraging democracy. They act as a third party between the people and the government, encouraging political participation. In most developing countries that are in the transition to democracy, NGOs and CSOs are effective actors of development in democracies where government is not too effective. For example, the International Republican Institute (IRI) has been promoting democracy worldwide in areas such as Asia-Pacific, Europe, Africa, Eurasia, and so on. IRI works with people to link with their governments, guide politicians to be responsive to citizens, and encourage people to engage in the political process.
Many NGOs and CSOs pay attention to government activities, ensuring that political activities such as elections and decision-making processes are transparent and that their actions are accountable and responsive to citizens. The flow of information from the government should be accessible to the public upon request. Regarding this, NGOs and CSOs should be able to freely ask their politicians questions and bring transparency to the public. They also often conduct research, collecting data and analyzing it to detect corruption, human rights abuses, power abuses, and so on, which are against the principles of democracy. Moreover, they are service providers in terms of healthcare, education, and conflict-affected areas or remote areas where public services are not accessible. This situation mostly happens in Myanmar due to armed conflicts within the state, resulting in internally displaced persons, immigrants, and refugees. In consequence, NGOs and CSOs have to work to protect human rights both inside and outside the country.
In non-democratic countries, governments have limitations in reaching citizens in terms of advocacy on some issues, such as gender equality, climate change, and so on. This makes NGOs and CSOs promote advocacy in terms of those issues by providing training programs or workshops. This helps understand social issues and contributes to the betterment of societies. In addition, in the democratic transition, they encourage citizens to take part actively in democratic processes, such as voting and speaking up for their rights and responsibilities. Democracy cannot be stable if only the government and political parties participate in the political process. When people of different indigenous groups, identities, or religions participate in political processes based on their common interests, the system will truly work for democracy and will be more inclusive.
According to the principles of democracy, the state should not be controlled by a single party; instead, a multi-party system must exist. In this case, the role of NGOs and CSOs is essential to restrain the power of political leaders. And they have to watch whether the transfer of power exists or not and how the political leaders exercise their powers to prevent any abuse of power. Especially in countries where dictatorships influence, it is vital to discover ways to monitor and check the power to develop democratic norms. When authoritarian governments take control of NGOs and CSOs, it becomes too easy to abuse power and commit corruption, and on the other hand, it makes it harder for the public to believe the government.
Human rights like freedom of expression, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech are the key elements of democracy. In a democracy, citizens must have a free voice to express their perspectives and wills. However, in most dictatorship countries, freedom of expression or freedom of speech is prohibited by the authoritarian governments. For example, in Myanmar, Justin Min Hein, the leader of the LGBTQ union of Mandalay, was arrested in September 2022 for speaking up for LGBIQ rights against the military coup and sentenced to ten years in prison for so-called violations of the ‘Anti-Terrorism Act.’ Therefore, the role of NGOs and CSOs in dictatorship countries is to help develop the values of democracy and to protect and promote human rights in terms of international human rights standards.
What is most challenging for NGOs and CSOs is that it is very hard for them to survive without funding. They receive funding from the general public, from governments, and from international organizations. If the politicians or the authoritarian government control the flow of funding for them, it is very difficult for them to deliver public services to the people.
In conclusion, it becomes clear that NGOs and CSOs play important roles in promoting democracy. They also fill the gap between citizens and government, ensuring that all public services are well-delivered, the voices of the people are heard by the government, and democratic values are upheld. In my opinion, they can also act as peace negotiators, facilitating peace dialogue and reconciliation processes, and contributing to peace and stability. They can also be mediators to exchange information or dialogue among oppositions to create peace. However, anti-democratic governments do not like them, as they cannot misuse their powers. Most importantly, NGOs and CSOs provide people with education about how the government can affect them and what they are doing by contributing information.
Butler, I. (2017, April 11). Here’s why ngos are vital to democracy. Liberties.eu. https://www.liberties.eu/en/stories/ngo-why-they-are-needed-accountability-democracy-civil-organisation/11727
Challenges faced by the LGBTQIA+ community in Myanmar. Burma News International. (2023, July 13). https://www.bnionline.net/en/news/challenges-faced-lgbtqia-community-myanmar
Day, J. (2022, April 12). 14 principles of democracy. Liberties.eu. https://www.liberties.eu/en/stories/principles-of-democracy/44151
Stanford Larry Diamond. (2004, February 10). What civil society can do to develop democracy. diamonddemocracyD8. https://diamond-democracy.stanford.edu/speaking/speeches/what-civil-society-can-do-develop-democracy