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Stay or Exit: How do International NGOs Respond to Institutional Pressures Under Authoritarianism?

Fri, July 15, 9:00 to 10:30am, TBA


International non-governmental organizations (INGOs) are increasingly important players in global politics and development. However, they are undergoing significant adaptations as governments worldwide have instituted restrictions to regulate their activities. What explains the various ways in which they respond to these institutional pressures?

In this study, we analyze INGOs’ adaptation of operations and strategies in response to the Law on Administration of Overseas Nongovernmental Organizations in China and the shrinking space for civil society. To study the effects of regulatory change, we conducted 33 in-depth interviews with INGOs in China in 2018-2020, including 27 with INGO executives, 3 with domestic NGOs, 2 with scholars, and 1 with government officials.

We show that INGOs adopt four different responses: legal registration, provisional strategy, localization, and exit. Legal registration is the most active response to the Law, with INGOs actively seeking to register with the government and following the rules in their operations. A provisional strategy serves as a temporary means for INGOs to stay in China. Those unable register in due time file temporary activities specified by the Law to continue their operations.

Localization, wherein INGOs register a domestic entity, indicates that INGOs seek to bypass the Law. Exit entails INGOs’ efforts to withdraw their operation and escape from government control in China.

Faced with the same INGO law and changing political environment, organizations do not respond in the same way. Our interviews show that INGO adaptive capacity, which captures an organization’s ability to adjust and respond to external environmental shocks, pressures, and changes, is a strong predictor of variation in their responses. Higher adaptive capacity means better ability to detect, absorb, and adapt to external pressures. INGOs’ adaptive capacity in turn depends on the organization’s issue area, value-add, government ties, and reputational authority.

Putting the concepts discussed above together, we formulate an integrated framework of INGO strategic adaptation. The framework developed in this article can shed light on state-INGO relations in other countries (such as Russia and Egypt), many of which are similarly subjected to increasingly stringent regulation and a closing political environment.


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