The passing of the lobbying act puts the UK alongside countries such as Algeria, Ecuador and Indonesia in threatening the independence of not-for-profit organisations, according to a new report from the Charities Aid Foundation.
Future World Giving: Enabling an Independent Not-For-Profit Sector, published today, warns that legislation or measures that intentionally or unintentionally stifle the voice of the third sector could jeopardise efforts to promote giving among the growing global middle class.
"In many countries, NGOs are being prevented from performing their crucial role in holding governments to account and helping to drive improvements," the report says, adding that this is happening in both developed and developing countries.
This report comes after another from CAF in January warned that heavy-handed government policies and regulatory mismanagement were undermining public trust in charities and, potentially, the growth of giving as a result.
Algeria, Azerbaijan, Canada, Ecuador, Indonesia and the UK have all recently introduced, or are introducing, legislation restricting the right of not-for-profit organisations to criticise government policy, says the new report. "This worrying trend only serves to vindicate governments with long-standing restrictions on advocacy such as Vietnam and Saudi Arabia," it says.
Other examples include personal threats and prosecution of charity members criticising the government in Venezuela, the fact that in Cambodia and Thailand criticising government policies can result in the charge of defamation, and a Russian law introduced in 2012 that requires any not-for-profit organisations receiving foreign money and engaging in political activities to register as foreign agents.
But the report also says that under-regulation of lobbying and campaigning in the US has created the possibility of "appropriation of philanthropic language for the pursuit of vested political interests".
Although the report is critical of the UK government for introducing the lobbying act and calls for the prohibition of gagging clauses in contracts involving charities, it does praise the Charity Commission for allowing charities to make ethical investments rather than base investment policy solely on financial returns.
The report says that the UK Compact – the agreement that sets out how public and voluntary sector organisations should treat each other – "has been globally influential, leading to similar agreements in numerous other countries including Croatia, Denmark, France, Estonia, Canada and Australia", although it notes that the non-binding nature of the Compact has limited its effectiveness.
Adam Pickering, international policy manager at CAF, said: "It’s frightening to see how many countries have recently tightened controls on the activities of not-for-profit organisations. While governments might want to ensure that public donations to not-for-profits are used responsibly, their methods for doing so are in effect gagging charities and holding them back from achieving their missions.
"It is invaluable that not-for-profits are free to do things differently, to take risks and to speak out on behalf of the marginalised. Policymakers need to recognise this and ensure they do not create a barrier to these activities."