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Six Functions of Non-Governmental Organizations in a Democratic Society (Updated February 12, 2014)

The lead up to this week’s federal budget featured news that the Canada Revenue Agency, the federal government’s tax collector, has undertaken an unprecedented series of audits focussed on the activities of environmental organizations in Canada. The audits, which are intended to ensure compliance with the rules regarding the activities of charitable organizations, have been specifically aimed at organizations who have been publicly critical of the Harper government’s oil sands expansion focussed economic strategy. Indeed, federal finance minister Jim Flaherty has been quoted as stating ““if I were an environmental charity using charitable money, tax-receipted money for political purposes I would be cautious." The minister’s statements follow-through on an $8 million allocation to the CRA in the 2012 budget for the specific purpose of reviewing the “political” activities of charitable organizations in Canada.

Given that all of the organizations being targeted by the audits had obtained appropriate legal advice and organized their activities in a manner to ensure their compliance with the CRA rules for charities, it is difficult not to conclude that the purpose of the government’s action is to constrain the ability of environmental groups to contribute to the public debates around its energy and environmental policies. This outcome would be achieved through a combination of the underlying threat of the loss of charitable status, which may limit organizations’ ability to access funding from philanthropic foundations interested in environmental issues, an important source of funding for public policy related research by Canadian environmental organizations, and by draining institutional resources in having to deal with the growing armies CRA auditors.

The Harper government’s actions and statements reflect a failure to recognize the legitimacy and usefulness of criticism of its core economic strategy. The brittleness and vulnerability of that strategy to factors far beyond the government’s control becomes more apparent every day the US government delays its decision on the Keystone XL pipeline. More broadly the government’s actions reflect a lack of understanding of the role of non-governmental organizations in democratic governance, and the formulation, implementation and evaluation of government decisions and policies. Non-governmental or civil society organizations can play six major roles in these processes. Although the examples of these roles that I give in this article are environmental, the same functions exist in relation organizations concerned with social policy and services, human rights, public health and safety, and other matters where the collective public interest is at stake.

First, NGOs can act as “knowledge creators” conducting original research and analysis. They can typically do this in a manner that is far more timely and relevant to current policy debates than is possible for academic researchers, and around which the work of experts within government is unlikely to ever see the light of day.  The Pembina Institute’s recent assessment of the greenhouse gas emission implications of the proposed Alberta to New Brunswick “Energy East” pipeline stands as an excellent example of such work, as do the efforts of the David Suzuki Foundation to establish the economic value of the services provided by the environment.

Secondly, NGOs can be  “knowledge brokers,” translating scientific and technical information generated by academic and government researchers into terms understandable to decision-makers, the media and the public, and into specific recommendations for new or amended laws, regulations, polices and initiatives to respond to this information. Environmental Defense’s current work on the presence of toxic substances in consumer and personal care products, provides a good illustration of these types of efforts.

Third, NGOs can be “policy entrepreneurs,” representing and advancing particular issues and initiatives through the policy process. This is an especially important function in relation to issues, like the environment, around which the benefits of public policy responses are likely to be widely distributed throughout society and the costs concentrated on a relatively small, but potentially powerful range of interests. Climate change is a particularly good example of such a case.  The benefits of reducing GHG emissions will be shared globally, but the costs, at least in Canada’s case, will be focussed on one sector, the Oil Sands, which accounts for the overwhelming bulk of the current and projected growth in Canada’s industrial GHG emissions. Without organized capacity to give voice to the public interest around such issues, the result will be environmental policies that only serve the interests of the biggest polluters.

Fourth, NGOs can be important contributors to the process of implementing policy and delivering services. In the environmental case this can include work to restore degraded areas, participation in scientific research such as wildlife surveys and bird counts and the management of natural heritage lands and features.

Fifth, NGOs can be major providers of public information, education, motivation and engagement on topics ranging from fair international trade, sustainable food, to home energy efficiency and production.

Finally, the combination of independence from government, expertise is what can be highly specialized areas of public policy, and capacity to communicate with the media and public, as well as decision-makers, positions NGOs to be highly effective “watchdogs” on government activities, decisions, and performance in their areas of interest. Canadian environmental organizations, including those targeted by the CRA’s audits, were leaders in documenting the near certainty that the Harper government’s efforts would come nowhere near meeting its own GHG emission reduction targets. These conclusions were later confirmed by the work of the Commissioner for Environment and Sustainable Development within the Office of the Auditor General of Canada.

These functions of NGOs in the public policy process have become even more important as the capacity to provide evidence-based analysis and policy advice contrary to what the current government wants to hear continues to be diminished in Ottawa. Last year’s elimination of the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy for its efforts to suggest ways in which the Harper government might meet its own GHG emission reduction targets has come to exemplify its attitude towards such inputs into its decisions.

The government’s behaviour also raises some profound issues about the basic rights of Canadians. Specifically, the situation begs an examination of whether the CRA’s intensive audit activities around these organizations constitutes a deliberate, constructive violation of the guarantees of freedom of thought, opinion and expression, and freedom of association, contained in section 2 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The very public comments of the Ministers of Finance and Natural Resources about the work of environmental NGOs and its relationship to their charitable status, reinforces the significance of this question.