| Opinion
Casey Michel

NGOs Under Siege: The Insidious Influence of Kleptocracy

Over the past few years, Western nations have paid increasing attention to foreign influence campaigns destabilizing democratic societies. From Beijing to Moscow, kleptocratic regimes have used a broad array of tools – including everything from shell companies to anonymous real estate purchases to secretive political donations – to access Western policy-makers, shifting policies from Brussels to Washington to Canberra to favor dictatorships around the world. 

While Western governments have begun implementing a range of policies to counter such kleptocratic networks, including things like corporate formation databases and enhanced sanctions policies, there is one clear vector that democratic policy-makers continue to overlook: non-profits. Specifically, officials across the West have shown little interest in how non-governmental organizations, universities, and think tanks have opened themselves up to kleptocratic forces – and transformed into pro-kleptocratic mouthpieces, without any kind of requisite transparency. 

Look at the U.S., for instance. Following Russia’s 2016 election influence efforts, a broad range of investigations discovered how Moscow used non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like the National Rifle Association (NRA) to access American policy-makers. However, while governmental investigations reflected and detailed some of these campaigns, they were hardly comprehensive. For instance, even the Mueller Report failed to detail how Russian officials and oligarchic proxies targeted and funded, for instance, far-right Evangelical organizations, as well as American NGOs advocating for things like increased homeschooling or Texas secession

Likewise, while officials in Washington have at least expressed interest in recent years in finally enforcing transparency requirements surrounding foreign funding of American universities, there hasn’t been nearly enough follow-up. For instance, while legislation passed in 1986 required American universities to disclose significant donations from foreign benefactors, these regulations were effectively unenforced for decades – with billions of dollars unreported as a result. Even after high-level hearings forced U.S.’s leading universities to finally disclose such donations in 2019, there’s still been almost no enforcement or penalties levied against universities failing to disclose. All of this took places while Russian oligarchs, Gulf dictatorships, and Chinese officials built up close links with universities, using them to access both students and experts in the process.  

And then there are think tanks. For years, think tanks have been the go-to vehicles in the U.S. for kleptocratic forces to connect with American policy-makers. Unlike lobbyists and even universities, think tanks are under no disclosure requirements whatsoever – and what little we know about American think tanks’ kleptocratic benefactors comes only from what think tanks choose to disclose. All of America’s leading think tanks, from the Atlantic Council to Brookings Institution to Center for American Progress, have been mired in scandals related to donations from foreign dictatorships, including from places like Azerbaijan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. And there’s little hope for any change on the horizon, as the current administration has rolled back even basic requests for disclosure when think tank employees meet with American officials.

These are but a handful of examples of how the world’s most kleptocratic regimes have turned to non-profits to further their own ends. This isn’t even touching on the role of things like foundations, museums, and a range of other non-profit entities that kleptocratic and oligarchic forces have been bankrolling for years. 

Nor is it even touching on similar processes in places like the European Union, where scandal after scandal has ensnared European non-profits. For instance, a now-sanctioned Russian oligarch bankrolled a Berlin-based NGO that peddled pro-Moscow talking points, acting as a mouthpiece for the regime in the heart of Europe. And a now-sanctioned pro-Russian oligarch in Ukraine donated millions more to the University of Cambridge, successfully laundering his own reputation as a supposedly generous benefactor. Like their American counterparts, European universities, think tanks, and other non-profit groups have proven themselves open time and again to kleptocratic wealth – often with even fewer transparency requirements than seen in the U.S. 

But even with these few examples, we have a staggering array of oligarchic and kleptocratic networks intertwined – and a staggering range of successes. We see now-sanctioned Russian oligarchs and Kremlin proxies who landed board seats on leading American think tanks and universities; Gulf dictatorships directly threatening American academic freedom; Chinese cut-outs attempting to launder Beijing’s reputation; and much more. 

And all the while, we see American officials who are either unaware or uninterested in providing solutions. Whether it’s failing to investigate influence networks, ignoring university disclosure requirements, or rolling back scant requirements, American officials have been woefully unprepared and unmotivated as it pertains to implementing necessary reforms. 

And until they do, there is little reason to expect any change on the horizon. After all, kleptocratic regimes have succeeded for years in turning Western non-profits to their own ends – why would they stop now? 


Casey Michel is the Director of the Human Rights Foundation (HRF)’s Combating Kleptocracy Program, focusing on transnational corruption, illicit finance, and the corruption that links dictators around the world. He is the author of “AMERICAN KLEPTOCRACY” and the forthcoming book “FOREIGN AGENTS,” both published by St. Martin’s Press. Casey has written on kleptocracy and related topics for outlets like The Atlantic, Washington Post, Foreign Affairs, Wall Street Journal, and others. He received his master’s in Russian, Eurasian, and East European studies from Columbia University.