Russia and the Newly Independent States

Why NGOs? How American Donors Embraced Civil Society After the Cold War

The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 8, Issue 3, May 2006

By Sada Aksartova1

Throughout the 1990s, the most ambitious American efforts to promote democracy and civil society were directed at Russia and other post-Soviet states. Civil society assistance provided by both the U.S. government and private American foundations has centered on creating and supporting nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in recipient countries. Largely as a result of this assistance, there are now tens of thousands of post-Soviet NGOs, and the well-being of these NGOs is taken to be a principal measure by which the United States assesses the state of post-Soviet democracy.

American assistance to civil society rests on two taken-for-granted assumptions: (i) civil society is primarily embodied in NGOs, and (ii) because civil society is a prerequisite of democracy, NGOs are indispensable for democratization. Because these assumptions are considered self-evident, both in donor circles and in much of the academic literature, there are few analyses of their origins. Democracy may date back millennia, but these two assumptions do not: they gained the status of self-evident truths only after the Cold War.

This article considers how these assumptions came into being in the early 1990s. Stated briefly, my argument is that embracing the idea of civil society enabled foreign aid institutions to make themselves relevant to the world after the Cold War and without the Soviet Union. I also address the question of why donors operationalized civil society in terms of professional NGOs. I conclude by discussing some of my argument’s implications for analyzing U.S. assistance to civil society in the post-Soviet region.

The Rise of the Idea of Civil Society

The end of the Cold War made civil society the central idea of the 1990s. Its rise was prompted by the events in Eastern Europe, whose intellectuals, such as Václav Havel in Czechoslovakia and Adam Michnik in Poland, were the first to describe the decline of socialism in their countries as the triumph of civil society over the totalitarian state. This interpretation resonated with Westerners and Western institutions, caught unawares by the sudden and unexpected demise of the Soviet Union, and nowhere more than in the United States, the Soviet Union’s principal Cold War opponent and the self-professed champion of anti-communism and anti-totalitarianism.

In American discourse, the idea of civil society remains very general — essentially, it means citizens empowered vis-à-vis the state — and contains multiple normative assumptions regarding the economic and social organization of society. The central theme is the triumph of market over the state and, by extension, of capitalism/democracy over socialism/totalitarianism. Two well-known statements from the 1990s — by Lester Salamon and Jessica Mathews— summarized the thesis in these terms:

A striking upsurge is under way around the globe in organized voluntary activity and the creation of private, nonprofit or nongovernmental organizations.… The scope and scale of this phenomenon are immense. Indeed, we are in the midst of a global “associational revolution” that may prove to be as significant to the latter twentieth century as the creation of the nation-state was to the latter nineteenth.… The rise of the third sector … reflects a long-simmering crisis of confidence in the capability of the state.2

The end of the Cold War brought no mere adjustment among states, but a novel redistribution of power among states, markets, and civil society. National governments are not simply losing autonomy in a globalizing economy. They are sharing powers — including political, social, and security roles at the core of sovereignty — with businesses, with international organizations, and with a multitude of citizens groups, known as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The steady concentration of power in the hands of states that began in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia is over, at least for a while.3

Significantly, the idea of civil society fit into intellectual trends in the United States itself. In the early 1990s, the work of political scientist Robert Putnam generated an active debate on the relationship between social capital — defined as “social networks and the associated norms of reciprocity”4 — and the state of American democracy. In addition, in his 1993 book Making Democracy Work, on civic traditions in Italy, Putnam made a broader claim about the relationship between social capital and long-term development: more social capital leads to better economic outcomes and a more democratic polity. Even a casual glance at the World Bank’s website and promotional literature demonstrates how prominent the notion of social capital, used interchangeably with civil society, has become in the rhetoric of international development.

The idea of civil society also brought to the forefront the theme of democratization that had always been present in American foreign policy and development discourse. In the words of a senior American policy maker, the United States’ foreign policy throughout the 20th century concentrated on “the adversary visions of the relationship between the individual citizen and the government …[or] freedom versus tyranny.”5 Accordingly, the Soviet Union’s disintegration was interpreted as the victory of the American vision.6

As a result of the confluence of these multiple currents of ideas, civil society came to be seen “as the force par excellence symbolizing freedom, antistatism, and the defense of democracy.”7 As anthropologist Katherine Verdery noted in her seminal 1996 book What Was Socialism, and What Comes Next?, the symbolic force of civil society derived from the fact that it, along with “democracy,” “markets,” “privatization,” and other symbols, signified the end of socialism. At the same time, the idea of limiting the state’s reach in the political realm complemented economic aid policies aiming to reduce the state’s hold on the economy.

The idea of civil society helped to redefine what set the West apart from the rest of the world: during the Cold War, the main division was among the developed, socialist, and underdeveloped countries; now, it is between democracies with strong markets and civil societies, on the one hand, and undemocratic countries of the former Second and Third Worlds deficient in both, on the other. Along with everyone else, donors (private foundations and bilateral and multilateral organizations) embraced this interpretation. By the end of the 1990s, they had come to view civil society as a means for bringing about vast social, political, and economic improvements.

Adopting the narrative of civil society enabled foreign aid organizations to do two things: update the development paradigm that had expired alongside the Cold War, and incorporate postsocialist countries into the realm of development. Foreign aid no longer needed to contain the Soviet Union’s international influence, and postsocialist countries did not need development per se — after all, they were not lacking in modernity as measured by industrialization, urbanization, female emancipation, or literacy. Framing Western assistance in terms of promoting democracy and civil society justified donors’ involvement in the former socialist countries. Donors, again like many others, equated civil society with the nongovernmental organizations already ubiquitous in Western societies and in international development. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), in its programmatic Guidelines for Strategic Plans, stated that a “vibrant civil society is an essential component of a democratic polity” and “that the Agency will concentrate its support for civil society on … nongovernmental organizations.”8

Once the abstract concept of civil society was linked to a concrete and familiar organizational form, foreign aid donors set about disseminating professional NGOs on a large scale, beginning with Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Donors, by reorienting the delivery of development assistance to nongovernmental actors at home9 and initiating civil society assistance aimed at creating NGOs abroad, fueled a rapid growth of the number of NGOs in recipient countries, thereby further boosting the legitimization of NGOs as the embodiment of civil society. American donors, including private ones, such as George Soros’s Open Society Institute, played the most prominent role in this process, as the earliest and largest sources of civil society assistance in postsocialist countries.

Why NGOs?

As the above quotations from Jessica Mathews and Lester Salamon demonstrate, the terms civil society, NGOs, and the nonprofit sector have been treated as synonymous since the early 1990s. What made NGOs so attractive to donors? I suggested earlier that the ubiquity of NGOs in the United States predisposed donors toward these organizations, but this outcome was not inevitable. In fact, by enthusiastically incorporating NGOs as partners in development and recipients of aid, donors have vastly contributed toward the worldwide legitimation of the professional NGO as an organizational and associational form. For a donor agency such as USAID to incorporate NGOs into development practice, there had to be an organizational fit between the way donors go about their business and what NGOs have to offer.

First, it is necessary to define NGOs.10 Professional NGOs promoted by Western donors in the former Soviet Union are distinguished by the following: (i) they are nonprofit organizations and are legally recognized as such; (ii) they are staffed by salaried employees11; (iii) fundraising is an integral part of their operations; and (iv) they define their purpose in terms of representing public interest. In short, the professional NGO is a formal bureaucratic structure.

As we know from a long line of sociological research going back to Max Weber, formal bureaucratic organizations enjoy the greatest legitimacy in Western societies. Therefore, it is widely assumed that developing societies need more of them too. The trope of “capacity building,” so common in international development, is precisely about that: replacing local knowledge and practices with Western-style formal organizations. Even development economists now state explicitly that development “is no longer seen primarily as a process of capital accumulation, but rather as a process of organizational change.”12 This is one reason why NGOs came to be seen by donors, as well as many others outside the donor circles, as the primary incarnation of civil society at home and abroad.

Donor organizations’ main activity, giving out money, predisposes them toward bureaucratic structures capable of processing funds and accounting for them. Professional NGOs are perceived as both legitimate and organizationally suitable recipients. Indeed, research on American social-movement philanthropy shows that professional NGOs attract the lion’s share of foundation grants compared to informal grassroots groups.13 A government aid agency is even more strongly drawn to professionalized organizations with the ability to meet its cumbersome reporting and accounting requirements and, often, with a good command of English. Hence, both private and public American donors favor professional NGOs over less formal types of associations as grant recipients.

In short, once American donors embraced the idea of civil society, they operationalized it in terms of professional NGOs for two principal reasons: NGOs were bureaucratically suitable vehicles for donors’ funds; and by the early 1990s, NGOs had become the dominant form of associational activities in the United States itself.14

To be sure, additional factors made NGOs more attractive for donors. In the early 1990s, the U.S. Congress decided to cut the foreign aid budget, because there was no Soviet threat to contain and because corruption among recipient governments was rampant. So, with two dozen East European and post-Soviet countries clamoring for assistance, USAID had to do much more with much less. Under those circumstances, NGOs looked attractive as both partners and recipients, because they cost far less than traditional government-oriented development. An added benefit in the eyes of Congress, USAID’s most important political audience, was that less money now ended up in the pockets of foreign government officials and more in the realm of democratically inclined civil society. Besides, it is easier for USAID to cut off an unaccountable NGO than a corrupt and unaccountable government.

Another important factor was U.S. donors’ unfamiliarity with former socialist countries. When donors first set foot in Moscow, the organization of post-Soviet society was all but inscrutable. Most existing institutions were either unrecognizable or ideologically inimical because of their association with the Soviet state. By spreading familiar organizational forms, donors could simultaneously make the terrain more comprehensible and create organizations capable of receiving donors’ funds. Donors were further drawn to fostering professional NGOs, common in the West but conspicuously absent under the Soviet regime, because host societies targeted by aid are always deemed to need new institutions and “capacities,” and because donors prefer to give their aid to formal organizations. Thus, NGOs became the key to building civil society in postsocialist countries.


U.S. donors embraced civil society in the early 1990s not because they suddenly recognized NGOs’ self-evident virtues, but rather because civil society provided a symbolic means for interpreting the radical changes caused by the Soviet Union’s disintegration and for attempting to adapt to them. American donors prescribed NGOs as the remedy for the ills afflicting post-Soviet countries because of the donors’ own institutional environment.

Although, as noted earlier, these beliefs are not specific to donor institutions but reflect a far wider Western consensus, foreign aid donors have played a crucial role in the legitimation and world-wide proliferation of NGOs. Foreign aid is the biggest thing to happen to NGOs in the past fifteen years, and we would better understand the spread of NGOs in the former Soviet Union and elsewhere by paying a great deal more attention to the influence of donors. Because civil society assistance on a large scale began in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, donors’ encounters with postsocialist societies hold great significance.

Focusing on donors would benefit analyses of U.S. assistance to post-Soviet countries in another way. Now, such analyses exist largely apart from the scholarship on development and foreign aid. Yet U.S. assistance to the former Soviet Union, including civil society assistance, was not and is not sui generis, but embedded in and shaped by the larger institutional landscape of foreign aid. Therefore, incorporating insights of the development scholarship, which has long examined the patterns, institutions, and effectiveness of foreign aid, would enable researchers to raise new questions about the workings of this assistance and improve our understanding of it.

For instance, in recent years development scholars have concluded that foreign aid has been largely ineffective because it is unresponsive to the needs and characteristics of the recipient societies. My argument here comports with this line of thinking, namely that donors initiated programs supporting professional NGOs because — for a variety of reasons, symbolic, organizational, and political — it made sense to the donors, and not because post-Soviet societies were found to be especially well-suited — for symbolic, organizational, economic, or political reasons — to such assistance.

Since the early 1990s, U.S. civil society assistance has made possible the creation of tens of thousands of NGOs in Russia alone. These NGOs remain dependent on Western funding, and many of them have only weak domestic support. Why have the NGOs failed to take root? The Soviet legacy, represented by the passive public and/or the repressive state, is commonly cited as the main explanatory factor. Perhaps it is time for us to consider an alternative explanation: yet again, Western aid has been ineffective because it was guided by considerations having little to do with the needs and characteristics of receiving societies.


1 Sada Aksartova is a Japan Society for the Promotion of Science postdoctoral fellow at Hosei University in Tokyo, Japan, where she researches Japanese foreign aid. For more detail on the material discussed here, see her doctoral dissertation “Civil Society from Abroad: US Donors in the Former Soviet Union” (Department of Sociology, Princeton University, 2005).

2 Lester M. Salamon, “The Rise of the Nonprofit Sector,” Foreign Affairs 73, No. 4 (1994): 109.

3 Jessica T. Mathews,1997. “Power Shift,” Foreign Affairs 76, No. 1 (1997): 50.

4 Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community ( New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000): 21; see also “The Prosperous Community: Social Capital and Public Life,” The American Prospect 13 (1993): 35-42.

5 Strobe Talbott, “Democracy and the National Interest,” Foreign Affairs 75, No. 6 (1996): 49.

6 As the U.S. House of Representatives put it: “In December, 1991, the Soviet Union ceased to exist. Cold War has ended and the United States has won.” U.S. House of Representatives, “Foreign Operations, Export Financing, and Related Programs Appropriations Bill, 1993: Report from the Committee on Appropriations to accompany HR 5368,” (report 102-585), 102nd Congress, 2nd session (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1992): 6.

7 Jude Howell and Jenny Pearce, Civil Society and Development: A Critical Exploration ( Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 2001): 4.

8 Gary Hansen, “Constituencies for Reform: Strategic Approaches for Donor-Supported Civic Advocacy Groups,” USAID Program and Operations Assessment Report No. 12 (PN-ABS-534) (Washington, DC: USAID, 1996): 11.

9 By the end of the 1990s, USAID channeled one-third of its funding through NGOs. See Carol Lancaster, Transforming Foreign Aid: United States Assistance in the 21st Century ( Washington, DC: Institute for International Economics, 2000).

10 Contrary to what one might expect, there is no well-established definition of NGOs. One researcher who grappled with this issue notes that the lack of consensus impedes both theoretical and empirical efforts to “understand and facilitate the functioning of the NGO sector.” Anna C. Vakil, “Confronting the Classification Problem: Toward a Taxonomy of NGOs,” World Development 25, No. 12 (1997): 2057-2070.

11 Whereas professional NGOs in the West often rely on volunteers, this is not the case in the former Soviet Union, where volunteering is rare.

12 Karla Hoff and Joseph E. Stiglitz, “Modern Economic Theory and Development,” in Gerald M. Meier and Joseph E. Stiglitz (eds.), Frontiers of Development Economics: The Future in Perspective ( New York: Oxford University Press, 2001): 389.

13 As sociologist Craig Jenkins has found, foundations prefer professional NGOs over less formal grassroots groups because “[p]rofessional projects are typically organized hierarchically and directed by experienced, full-time managers who are likely to share the professional and social values of foundation executives and trustees. These organizations are sufficiently isomorphic with the hierarchical and professionalized organizations of the business and nonprofit world from which come foundation trustees and managers that these donors readily see them as being legitimate.” J. Craig Jenkins, “Channeling Social Protest: Foundation Patronage of Contemporary Social Movements” in Walter W. Powell and Elisabeth S. Clemens (eds.), Private Action and the Public Good (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998): 210.

14 Theda Skocpol, Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life ( Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003); Mayer N. Zald and John D. McCarthy (eds.), Social Movements in an Organizational Society: Collected Essays (New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1987).