Non-governmental Organizations on Development Issues

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  • by Anup Shah
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Development is the strategy of evasion. When you can’t give people land reform, give them hybrid cows. When you can’t send children to school, try non-formal education. When you can’t provide basic health to people, talk of health insurance. Can’t give them jobs? Not to worry, just redefine the words employment opportunities. Don’t want to do away with using children as a form of slave labor? Never mind. Talk of improving the conditions of child labor! It sounds good. You can even make money out of it.

Palagunmi Sainath, Everybody Loves a Good Drought; Stories from India’s Poorest Districts, (Penguin Books, 1996), p.421

On this page:

  1. What are NGOs?
  2. Neoliberal Economic and Political Agenda Has Seen a Greater Role of NGOs
    1. NGOs as a Weak Third Sector Compared to Governments and Corporations
    2. NGOs as Dependent on Governments and Corporations and NGO Neutrality
  3. Criticisms of NGOs Come From Many Areas
    1. Inadvertently Doing More Harm Than Good?
    2. Reliance on Philanthropy May Reveal More Fundamental Issues
    3. NGOs Showing Positive Signs of Change?
    4. Criticisms From Government and Corporate Interests
    5. Silencing Critics by Shouting Communist! or Terrorist!

What are NGOs?

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have become quite prominent in the field of international development in recent decades. But the term NGO encompasses a vast category of groups and organizations.

The World Bank, for example, defines NGOs as private organizations that pursue activities to relieve suffering, promote the interests of the poor, protect the environment, provide basic social services, or undertake community development. A World Bank Key Document, Working With NGOs, adds, In wider usage, the term NGO can be applied to any non-profit organization which is independent from government. NGOs are typically value-based organizations which depend, in whole or in part, on charitable donations and voluntary service. Although the NGO sector has become increasingly professionalized over the last two decades, principles of altruism and voluntarism remain key defining characteristics.

Different sources refer to these groups with different names, using NGOs, Civil Society Organizations (CSOs), Private Voluntary Organizations (PVOs), charities, non-profits charities/charitable organizations, third sector organizations and so on.

These terms encompass a wide variety of groups, ranging from corporate-funded think tanks, to community groups, grassroot activist groups, development and research organizations, advocacy groups, operational, emergency/humanitarian relief focused, and so on. While there may be distinctions in specific situations, this section deals with a high level look at these issues, and so these terms may be used interchangeably, and sometimes using NGOs as the umbrella term.

Since the 1970s, it has been noted how there are more non-governmental organizations than ever before trying to fill in the gaps that governments either will not, or cannot.

The above-mentioned World Bank document points out that Since the mid-1970s, the NGO sector in both developed and developing countries has experienced exponential growth…. It is now estimated that over 15 percent of total overseas development aid is channeled through NGOs. That is, roughly $8 billion dollars. Recognizing that statistics are notoriously incomplete, the World Bank adds that there are an estimated 6,000 to 30,000 national NGOs in developing countries alone, while the number of community-based organizations in the developing world number in the hundreds of thousands.

Such organizations must operate as a non-profit group. While in that respect, NGOs are meant to be politically independent, in reality it is a difficult task, because they must receive funding from their government, from other institutions, businesses and/or from private sources. All or some of these can have direct or indirect political weight on decisions and actions that NGOs make.

Professor of anthropology, Richard Robbins, in his book, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism (Allyn and Bacon, 2002, Second Edition), suggests a few reasons why NGOs have become increasingly important in the past decade or so. Amongst them (from pp. 128 to 129):

  1. The end of the Cold War made it easier for NGOs to operate
  2. Communications advances, especially the Internet, have helped create new global communities and bonds between like-minded people across state boundaries
  3. Increased resources, growing professionalism and more employment opportunities in NGOs
  4. The media’s ability to inform more people about global problems leads to increased awareness where the public may demand that their governments take action of some kind.
  5. Perhaps most important, Robbins suggests, is that some believe NGOs have developed as part of a larger, neoliberal economic and political agenda. Shifts in economic and political ideology have lent to increasing support of NGOs from governments and official aid agencies in response.

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Neoliberal Economic and Political Agenda Has Seen a Greater Role of NGOs

Neoliberalism is a dominant ideology being pushed around the world today spearheaded by the United States and various other nations, and known as the Washington Consensus.

One of the many aspects of this ideology is to minimize the role of the state in things like health and education; NGOs and other organizations receive funding as an alternative to the state.

There is a good deal of evidence, Robbins says, that NGOs are growing because of increased amounts of public funding. (p. 129)

However, the neoliberal ideology and its policies have also come under much criticism in recent years around the world, including mass protests in many countries, because of their social impacts, sometimes devastating.

As a result, a number of alternative, grassroots type of NGOs have grown in both developed and developing countries campaigning and researching issues related to globalization, social justice, the environment and so forth. These are independent of government aid. However, NGOs not dependent on state aid are the exception rather than the rule as Robbins also adds (p. 129).

NGOs as a Weak Third Sector Compared to Governments and Corporations

Some have observed that in a way then, the complex group termed NGOs are seen as the weaker part of a triumvirate, or third sector to counter the other two actors, the state and the market.

It is suggested that NGOs are a natural outcome of a free democratic and capitalistic society. The idea is that as market forces require more and more relaxations of rules and regulations for their benefit, society will naturally demand social justice to balance out negative aspects of market forces such as exploitation and environmental degradation.

This leads to a romantic notion of what Adam Smith, regarded as a father of capitalism, described as a hidden hand in his 1776 book, Wealth of Nations, where through the pursuit of self-interest, hidden forces would automatically help balance things out.

Yet, NGOs are typically weaker because they are not as financially independent as the other two actors, and are often dependent upon them. Or, when independent, they typically do not have the resources and political power that the other two wield (for example, both states and corporations can own large influential media organizations), and are not as well and long established as the other two.

One of many effects then is that many NGOs are subject to political and market forces, as Jude Howell and Jenny Pearce observe, quoted at length:

For donors, civil society is a force for and ingredient of democratization, as well as a natural component of a market economy. In legitimizing civil-society strengthening programs, donors make frequent reference to the potential of civil society, to hold in check the state, to serve as the moral pulse of society and to further democratic value. By reducing the power of the state and increasing the role of the market, it is assumed that civil society too will flourish and will in turn encourage further economic liberalization. Moreover, civil society, state, and market are assumed to constitute an organic, symbiotic whole, characterized by unity rather than disjuncture and by cooperation rather than conflict. There is thus an expectation that civil society will function to mediate and balance the power of the state and market, to provide a moral check on the market, and likewise to maintain the democratic integrity of the state. Finally, there is an implicit assumption that external donor agencies can create, nurture and strengthen civil society in aid-recipient countries.

…The triadic unity of state, market, and civil society also assumes neat boundaries between the three elements, discrete functions and actors, and an organic harmony and balance. Yet, many organizations within civil society receive funding to varying degrees from both state and private sponsorship. In some countries, government officials have set up their own NGOs as a way to work more creatively, access different resources, and gain new opportunities. Similarly, some development NGOs amount to no more than briefcase companies founded for the purpose of tax evasion and private gain. Furthermore, the triadic representation implicitly assumes an equal — or at least unproblematic — division of power between the three elements, indeed three separate domains of power. Yet organizations within civil society do not enjoy the same degree of power. Business associations, for example, are more likely to be better resources and wield greater political leverage than trade unions or community groups. The power of the market thus permeates and shapes the composition of civil society. As Wood (1990) so cogently argues, the juxtaposition of an array of fragmented and diverse institutions within the conceptual space of civil society masks the totalizing logic of capitalism that fundamentally binds these diverse institutions together and gives them meaning.

… Although the state may welcome charities and welfare bodies providing for the homeless, elderly and sick, not least because this reduces state expenditure, it may take less kindly to advocacy groups that promote causes contrary to government policy or organizations that challenge the legitimacy of the state…. Similarly, businesses may sponsor community development, but they may be less receptive to challenges from labor organizations or environmental groups for minimum labor and environmental standards. Thus the interactions of state, market, and civil society are overlaid by contradictory purposes and value, the resolution of which may not necessarily favor the sustenance of civil society nor guarantee stability. The alliances and coalitions are not always self-evident nor conducive to redistribution of power and wealth.

Jude Howell and Jenny Pearce (David Lewis and Tina Wallace, Editors), New Roles and Relevance; Development NGOs and the Challenge of Change, (Kumarian Press, 2000), pp. 76, 77-78 (Emphasis added)

NGOs as Dependent on Governments and Corporations and NGO Neutrality

Howell and Pearce also note that civil society cannot really be grown from outside; it comes from within society; it reacts to specific historical, social and cultural contexts.

In the past, many development NGOs gained a bad reputation with developing countries because they were seen as arrogant and going into poor countries and telling people how to do things, or doing things for them. They have also been described by some as the modern missionaries, referring to the imperial and colonial times, where things like converting people to Christianity was considered the moral thing to do by European and American missionaries.

And even in recent years, some NGOs, aid organizations and development institutions from the North have been described sometimes as being tools or part of the objectives of the foreign policy aims of the northern nation from which they come.

There is plenty of evidence that the growth in size and number of NGOs is fed by increased governmental contributions along with greater contributions from multilateral developmental organizations such as the World Bank. On the one hand, these conditions have created additional monies for NGOs and GROs [Grassroots Organizations] to develop; on the other hand, they risk becoming so dependent on governments that they have been co-opted and their independence threatened.

Richard Robbins, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, (Allyn and Bacon, Second Edition, 2002), p.129

Howell and Pearce also note that donor agencies can appear neutral but that may not be the case:

Also problematic is the donors’ image of themselves as neutral actors, brokering relations between the state, business, and civil society, and indeed separate and hidden from the triadic unity. … Yet this begs the question from where international agencies derive their authority to act as broker and to pose as neutral observers. Indeed, the prior assumption of a broker role — unnegotiated, uncontested, and unlegitimate — in itself is revealing about the balance of power. The notion of brokering suggests that the broker has no interest of its own, no ideological preferences, no intrinsic values and goals.

Apart from the question of neutrality, which services to mask the distribution of power, there is also the larger question of the morality of interventionism. Is donor support to civil society another manifestation of neocolonialism in the post-Cold War era, aimed at controlling the nature of political regimes and extending global markets? Do donors have the right, let alone the capacity, to shape other civil societies? By projecting their own visions and understandings of civil society, do they not undermine the ability of local organizations to set their own priorities and agendas, to vocalize their own imaginations of social and political change?

Jude Howell and Jenny Pearce (David Lewis and Tina Wallace, Editors), New Roles and Relevance; Development NGOs and the Challenge of Change, (Kumarian Press, 2000), p. 83

It is not that donor programs are entirely negative, Howell and Pearce add, but that they are certainly not neutral (p. 84). By making various assumptions they conclude that donor agencies risk becoming creations of the outside, embodiments of external norms and goals, and materially dependent on outside rather than local sources.

David Rieff, writing in The Nation expands those ideas suggesting that strengthening the civil society sector goes in line with the neoliberal idea of reducing the role of the state:

That this emphasis on local capacity building, to use the bureaucratic term of art, and on fostering civil society arose at exactly the moment when development aid from most major donor countries was plummeting (in many countries, including the United States, they are now at historic lows) may, of course, be coincidental. But in the development sphere, at least, ideological commitment to making states responsive to civil society seems to have been accompanied by a determination to cut funding. When pressed, development specialists who favor this new approach insist that a robust civil society will open the way for the integration of the poor world into the global economy — supposedly the first step toward prosperity.

Viewed from this angle, the idea of civil society begins to look less like a way of fostering democratic rights and responsive governments and more like part of the dominant ideology of the post-cold war period: liberal market capitalism.

… any term that can be embraced as warmly by the Clinton Administration and the European Commission as civil society has been threatens no important vested interests in the rich world.

Again, there is no question of a subterfuge. The idea of civil society simply coincides with the tropism toward privatization that has been the hallmark of these post-cold war times. Far from being oppositional, it is perfectly in tune with the Zeitgeist of an age that has seen the growth of what proponents like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair are pleased to call the Third Way and what might more unsentimentally be called Thatcherism with a human face. As we privatize prisons, have privatized development assistance and are in the process, it seems, of privatizing military interventions into places like New Guinea, Sierra Leone and Angola by armies raised by companies like Sandline and Executive Outcomes, so let us privatize democracy-building. Let’s give up on the state’s ability to establish the rule of law or democracy through elections and legislation, and instead give civic associations — the political equivalent of the private sector — a chance to do their thing.

David Rieff, The False Dawn of Civil Society, The Nation, February 22, 1999

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Criticisms of NGOs Come From Many Areas

There has also been criticism on how NGOs have used their funding and other monies received or raised. Criticisms range from pointing out that only small percentages go to people in need, that a lot goes to recover costs, and some have even been used to pay very high salaries of the people at the top of these organizations.

In some cases, this is fair criticism. In other cases, these arguments have been used by those who wish to paint a dark picture of NGOs in general because NGO research may ultimately criticize their practices. It has to be expected that NGOs need to pay for expenses, for permanent staff and for various other costs incurred.

Due to the pressures of obtaining and maintaining funding, much effort is spent on marketing, and the already constrained budgets require many NGOs to ensure optimal efficiency, similar to private corporations. Sometimes then, the actual activity can be affected due to the need to raise funding.

It is easy to think of NGOs as one group. However, the interests and perspectives are so diverse, that summarizing and generalizing criticisms that can be valid to all NGOs and similar organizations is obviously unfair. Indeed, there are many NGOs now that don’t really work in tune with government and corporate interests as suggested above, but seriously challenge and criticize. As David Lewis and Tina Wallace write in an introduction to their book on development NGOs:

The new attention being given to NGOs as actors in civil society unleashes a new set of difficult conceptual and terminological problems, partly because nongovernmental organization is in many ways a virtually meaningless label.

  • For some analysts the term is synonymous with the aid industry, in which NGOs are viewed as effective tools or channels for donors to provide international development funds to low-income countries.
  • Conversely, they are seen as vehicles for privatizing foreign assistance, making it less accountable to either government authorities or local people because of a lack of clear governance structures for NGOs.
  • Some see NGO as a term strongly associated with grassroots action and community organizing, which may exist outside the doman of the formal development world.
  • Others see NGOs primarily as service contractors, able to work more efficiently and more effectively than government agencies, but with comparatively little legitimacy with which to challenge policy or represent people.

There is now growing interest in NGOs as international policy actors in the environmental and human rights fields.

David Lewis and Tina Wallace, Editors, New Roles and Relevance; Development NGOs and the Challenge of Change, (Kumarian Press, 2000), p. x (Text is original, bullet point formatting is mine)

Inadvertently Doing More Harm Than Good?

Another type of criticism for some NGOs is that despite good intentions, they may be doing more harm than good, without realizing it.

For example, many food aid groups where, in non-emergency situations, food is delivered from rich countries for either free, or virtually free, end up under-cutting local producers and hence have a negative effect on local farmers and the economy (as shown in this web site’s poverty sub-section on hunger and food dumping.)

As another example, many organizations working on population-related issues risk doing more harm in other societies due to either misconceptions about over-population, or misunderstandings about family and community structures in those societies. (See this web site’s section on population for more details.)

Aid has often been seen as an altruistic action often coming from religious roots and therefore seen as a moral thing to support. However, sometimes, what gets lost is the type of aid that is administered. While many wealthy countries are cutting back on their already low aid contributions, the discussion/criticisms and debates should also focus on the types of aid.

A lot of official aid, and that raised and distributed by NGOs, in the past has been based intentionally, or unknowingly, on foreign policy objectives, or the interests of the lenders, less of the recipients. Aid has often led to excessive dependency or reliance on aid rather than helping nations move away from this.

It is not that the poor are unable to do things themselves, but with the aftermaths of colonialism, corruption, conflicts and so on, rebuilding and developing often requires outside assistance. The form of assistance that would be preferred is one that allows the recipient to help them help themselves, along the lines of the famous age-old quote: Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime.

The special Dutch ambassador to Ethiopia and Eritrea, Pieter Marres has stuck his neck out by publicly questioning the use of development aid. He says it’s keeping people dependent and less self-reliant. It’s a situation perpetuated by the way international aid is organised. Every donor has its own priorities, procedures and regulations. Satisfying donor demands requires great effort and energy on the part of developing nations. Many have adopted a wait-and-see attitude, says Mr Marres.

Pieternel Gruppen, Let’s Abolish Development Aid, Radio Netherlands, 16 May 2001.

Reliance on Philanthropy May Reveal More Fundamental Issues

We hear more and more about philanthropic organizations set up by mega-successful business elites, where millions of dollars are donated to seemingly worthy causes. However, the fact that such donations are needed also serves as an indication that development policies and globalization policies in their current form are not sustainable! The following quote summarizes this notion quite well:

It is all very well for Bill Gates to charitably donate $750m to pay for immunization programmes for certain diseases, as he recently announced he would do, and for James Wolfensohn to urge transnational companies setting up in poor countries to contribute financially directly to local education services. Societies which depend on such largess to meet their basic health and education needs are neither sustainable, democratic nor equitable — yet new dimensions of power are ceded to large companies.

Brendan Martin, New Leaf or Fig Leaf? The challenge of the New Washington Consensus, Bretton Woods Project, March 2000.

And, as Noreena Hertz points out in the UK’s Observer paper, when there is economic down turn, corporate help and charity diminishes and so we shouldn’t become more and more reliant on it alone.

Dr. Stella Goings of UNICEF also points out that, Laying a foundation for a strong economy and not reliance on charity is a start to poverty reduction.

David Rieff, mentioned above, also adds that the belief that civil society will be able to cope where nations have failed is a counsel of despair as civil society does not have the ability the state would have:

The idea of civil society has been most coherent when applied to nations where citizens needed protection from a repressive state, as was the case in the Soviet empire. But in other parts of the world this paradigm is either irrelevant or of distinctly secondary importance. There are parts of Africa where a stronger state, one that could bring the various bandits and insurgents to heel, might be of far greater value. It’s tempting to add that the United States, after more than two decades of seemingly inexorable privatization, is a country where strengthening the state’s role would be preferable to hoping that NGOs will somehow be able to take up the slack.

The suggestion that civil society can cope where nations have failed is, in fact, a counsel of despair in such instances. Without a treasury, a legislature or an army at its disposal, civil society is less equipped to confront the challenges of globalization than nations are, and more likely to be wracked by divisions based on region and the self-interest of the single-issue groups that form the nucleus of the civil society movement.

David Rieff, The False Dawn of Civil Society, The Nation, February 22, 1999

NGOs Showing Positive Signs of Change?

On the positive side though, there is also an increasing number of organizations from developing countries as well as both new and more established ones in the industrialized countries, doing important work, helping to raise important issues or tackle various problems.

In recent years as well, development and environmental NGOs for example, are learning that they can be more effective, and their work can have more positive effects, if they work with the actual communities and help them to empower themselves. Working at the grassroots level helps to provide assistance directly at the source. Often corrupt governments can intercept much assistance so this approach is sometimes favored.

However, there is still much that needs improving. For example, a study commissioned by the Finnish foreign ministry and co-ordinated by researchers at Helsinki University to study issues of bilateral development suggested that there is an inequality in the relations between organizations of the North and the South. The study points to inequalities despite the shift from the imperious paternalism in development aid practices during the 1990s as described by Inter Press Service (IPS). One of the researchers for the report highlight an aspect of this difference:

Outi Hakkarainen, a researcher at Helsinki University’s Institute of Development Studies and one of the co-ordinators of the study says it’s striking that the reports tend to refer to Northern organisations as donors. Northerners, on the other hand, like to see themselves and their Southern counterparts as partners.

The influence of foreign money on CSOs in the South is huge and not always healthy, Hakkarainen says. It tends to be blind to the effects on regional and state structures, for instance undermining pressure for social services.

Mark Waller, South Too Far for Northern NGOs, Inter Press Service, October 10, 2002

Criticisms From Government and Corporate Interests

Criticism of NGOs also come from another quarter: corporate-related interests. Because there are a number of development and social-justice oriented NGOs that criticize excesses of concentrated and corporate capitalism, and because some of these criticisms are slowly spreading, corporate funded research and think tanks are hitting back. As hinted further above, this is almost to be expected. Some criticism is no doubt valid, as also discussed on the World Social Summit on Development (WSSD) page on this site.

On that page, back in September 2002, note was made how right wing think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute made some valid criticisms about NGOs, but that their criticisms were also tainted by their own ideological biases too.

Criticism has typically come in the form of questioning the undemocratic nature of NGOs, because the people didn’t choose them, yet they claim to be fighting for various issues for the people.

At the same time, however, the same criticism could be made of many mega-corporations and their enormous influence and power (far more than NGOs). Even some governments, including democratic ones, can be faulted for becoming less democratic in a variety of ways, from concentrating power, to bending to corporate and corporate funded influences, etc. Quoting what was mentioned on that WSSD page, for example:

While there are no doubt problems with many NGOs, many, from the third world especially are highlighting issues that their leaders and other leaders and elites around the world are unwilling or unable to address for a number of reasons.

  • Many NGOs are beginning to work with people in local and grassroots situations more effectively, often when governments don’t.
  • From a business interest perspective, many NGOs are indeed critical of transnational corporate interests. In that context then, NGOs are seen by them as undemocratic, when they are just as legitimate a part of civil society as businesses are.
  • Furthermore, the business interests being spoken for are not exactly democratic themselves.
  • The power wielded by just a handful of corporations is enormous, more than many nations, compared to NGOs and other segments of society.
  • Business lobbies and related groups do not have even the theoretical accountability to the public at large but to their industries and companies. Their resources and influence are immense.

Furthermore, the rising number of NGOs could be regarded as relating to failures of state and markets to provide all the requirements of society.

The above-mentioned American Enterprise Institution (AEI) has also been the same institution at which U.S. President George Bush has made numerous speeches on various domestic issues to foreign policies, such as the war on Iraq. That institute is considered right wing and friendly to many perspectives of neo-conservatives that make up major parts of the Bush Administration.

But, as Jim Lobe, of IPS reported on July 12, 2003, two right wing think tanks are turning on NGOs. AEI and another right-wing group, the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, announced Wednesday they are launching a new website ( to expose the funding, operations and agendas of international NGOs, and particularly their alleged efforts to constrain U.S. freedom of action in international affairs and influence the behaviour of corporations abroad.

The NGOWatch web site was launched at a conference looking at the undemocratic nature of NGOs. Their web site, should nonetheless be of interest, despite the ideologically based criticisms of just a certain type of NGOs.

Lobe added that the site will look at NGOs that are in some ways trying to curtail U.S. actions abroad as well as U.S. corporations. Yet, around the world, many have indeed criticized U.S. foreign policy and corporate behavior for undermining international law, violating human rights, etc, even while it is claimed that these are being supported.

In that context, it could be seen that AEI etc are themselves politically motivated with their site, for their fundamental beliefs are in essence, being challenged. Author and activist, Naomi Klein is less reserved and writes in a critique that the NGOWatch web site is more like a blacklist:

In fact, it is a McCarthyite blacklist, telling tales on any NGO that dares speak against Bush administration policies or in support of international treaties opposed by the White House.

This bizarre initiative takes as its premise the idea that there is something sinister about unelected groups of citizens getting together to try to influence their government. The extraordinary growth of advocacy NGOs in liberal democracies has the potential to undermine the sovereignty of constitutional democracies, the site claims.

Coming from the AEI, this is not without irony. As Raj Patel, policy analyst at the California-based NGO Food First, points out, The American Enterprise Institute is an NGO itself and it is supported by the most powerful corporations on the planet. They are accountable only to their board, which includes Motorola, American Express and ExxonMobil. As for influence, few peddle it quite like the AEI, the looniest ideas of which have a way of becoming Bush administration policy. And no wonder. Richard Perle, member and former chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, is an AEI fellow, along with Lynne Cheney, wife of the vice-president; the Bush administration is crowded with former AEI fellows.

Naomi Klein, Bush to NGOs: Watch your mouths, The Globe and Mail, June 20, 2003—Page A15

On their home page, states that This site will, without prejudice, compile factual data about non-governmental organizations. It will include analysis of relevant issues, treaties, and international organizations where NGOs are active. Technically speaking, it is indeed likely to indeed be without prejudice when it comes to detailing factual data. However, how they choose who to criticize and on what ideological grounds is also likely to not be without prejudice. As an example of that, consider what Jim Lobe further pointed out:

Both the website launch and Wednesday’s conference might normally be dismissed as a pep rally of a far right obsessed with left-wing and European conspiracies to impose world government on the United States and destroy capitalism.

But the fact that no less than 42 senior administration foreign-policy and justice officials have been recruited from AEI and the Federalists and that AEI fellows include such prominent figures as Lynne Cheney (the vice president’s spouse), former U.N.. Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick and the influential Iraq hawk and former chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, Richard Perle, suggests that Wednesday’s events may herald a much more antagonistic attitude towards NGOs on the part of the [U.S.] government.

Jim Lobe, Iraq-Attack Think Tank Turns Wrath on NGOs, Inter Press Service, July 12, 2003

On the issue of accountability, a UK organization, One World Trust is embarking on a project, called the Global Accountability Project, to try and compare accountability of various bodies such as transnational corporations and NGOs.

They also commented on the NGOWatch web site noting that The criticisms made by NGO Watch are not without foundation, but the conclusions drawn from them will make our world a poorer place, with even fewer mechanisms for taking the concerns of citizens around the world to international forums in order to help decision makers build the political consensus we need to solve the major problems facing us. An important point is made in that preceding sentence.

  • That is, some may argue that many NGOs are undemocratic and claim to speak for people who do not necessarily agree with them.
  • Instead, citizens should challenge their governments (assuming democratic ones here for the moment), as they are elected representatives of people.
  • Yet, and may be a bit cynically, others will argue that many democratic leaders are under more influences (of money and power) from large corporations compared to citizens.
  • As citizens feel more and more grieved about various issues, they may form groups and non-governmental organizations as a way to indeed attempt to make their governments listen to their concerns, which also indicates that states and markets are not completely fulfilling everyone’s needs.
Side NoteOf course, not all NGOs will fit into this mould. As mentioned further above, there are a number of types of NGOs, some as just front organizations, some may even be set up by terrorist organizations, while others — ironically, including the AEI — might be ideologically motivated based on their funders, etc.

In addition, One World Trust adds, From the abolition of slavery, the drafting of the UN Charter and its subsequent formation through to the campaign for the International Criminal Court and the ban on anti-personnel mines, NGOs have made a critical difference to our world. A whole host of other important campaigns and successes could be listed too, which could also indicate situations where citizens feel their elected representatives do not listen to them as much as say the influences and interests of lobby groups for multinationals and other privileged special interests etc, were they not to form such groups themselves, which still do not typically have the power and influence of wealthy corporations and elite.

In that context, it is interesting to note that when AEI and others claim that such NGOs are constraining U.S. freedom of action in international affairs and influence the behavior of corporations abroad, it is often on issues that much of the world may be in agreement of, but the position of the U.S. or a few allies may be at odds with, as many examples throughout this site highlights. But as Naomi Klein in her above-mentioned article also notes, while issues such as accountability are the reasons highlighted, the motives for criticizing certain types of NGOs are politically and ideologically triggered.

The timing of the launch also coincided with the director of the U.S. government’s development agency, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Andrew Natsios, reportedly saying that NGOs that received USAID funding for projects in Afghanistan and elsewhere were not giving sufficient credit to the U.S. government as the source of the aid. In the same article as above, Klein comments on this as well:

On May 21 in Washington, Andrew Natsios, the head of USAID, gave a speech blasting U.S. NGOs for failing to play a role many of them didn’t realize they had been assigned: doing public relations for the U.S. government. According to InterAction, the network of 160 relief and development NGOs that hosted the conference, Mr. Natsios was irritated that starving and sick Iraqi and Afghan children didn’t realize that their food and vaccines were coming to them courtesy of George W. Bush. From now on, NGOs had to do a better job of linking their humanitarian assistance to U.S. foreign policy and making it clear that they are an arm of the U.S. government. If they didn’t, InterAction reported, Natsios threatened to personally tear up their contracts and find new partners.

… this attack on the non-profit sector marks the emergence of a new Bush doctrine: NGOs should be nothing more than the good-hearted charity wing of the military, silently mopping up after wars and famines. Their job is not to ask how these tragedies could have been averted, or to advocate for policy solutions. And it is certainly not to join anti-war and fair-trade movements pushing for real political change.

Naomi Klein, Bush to NGOs: Watch your mouths, The Globe and Mail, June 20, 2003—Page A15

As mentioned nearer to the beginning of this page, NGOs can come under a variety of pressures, from states and corporate interests, and this seems to be such an example. Those NGOs which are more critical of state and concentrated corporate interests are the ones most likely to face the most criticism.

Just after the launch of the NGOWatch web site, on June 26, 2003, SunstainAbility in partnership with the Global Compact and the United Nations Environment Programme launched a report on NGOs in the 21st Century. They concluded that NGOs are likely to be an important factor in the future in both determining the roles of states and businesses as well as operating as businesses themselves:

  1. Although by no means universally popular, NGOs, NGO-like organisations and CSOs play an increasingly vital role in democratic and democratizing societies.
  2. The challenges they address are growing — and will continue to do so.
  3. Governments and business may resist their advocacy, but there is now real interest in the potential roles NGOs can play in developing and deploying solutions.
  4. As a result, a new market-focused opportunity space is opening up, but this often requires solutions that are not simply based on single-issue responses.
  5. This represents a challenge even for most mainstream NGOs, so public and private sector partnerships are increasingly essential in leveraging change.
  6. In the process, new forms of competition are evolving in the NGO market, with new entrants like companies, business networks, NGO networks and social entrepreneurs blurring traditional boundaries.
  7. Both national and international NGOs, as a result, are having to pay more attention to the whole area of branding and competitive positioning.
  8. In parallel, the mainstreaming trend is exposing established NGOs to new accountability demands.
  9. But, problematically, all of this is happening at a time when traditional sources of NGO funding are increasingly squeezed.
  10. Finally, we sense an urgent need to review — and further evolve — NGO business models.
The 21st Century NGO: In the Market for Change, SustainAbility and the United Nations, June 26, 2003

Silencing Critics by Shouting Communist! or Terrorist!

A recent example highlights how any criticism of US human rights violations are met with indignation and, at worse, a strong concerted attempt to ridicule the organization making the claim.

Amnesty International’s continued criticism of the US detention facilities in Cuba for suspected terrorists, and elsewhere has annoyed the Bush Administration.

The valid criticism, which has come from organizations all over the world, has been described as absurd from many top Bush Administration officials. It would appear that right-wing extremists in the US establishment have participated in an orchestrated effort to discredit independent human rights critics, as IPS noted.

Some like Cheney have commented that the US has liberated more people from tyranny than any other in the world, as if this should excuse all current and future accusations. (Whether his assertion is true or not depends on perspective. For example, the US has also armed and encouraged some of the worst dictators in the world, and helped overthrow many democracies, or potential democracies. Some of the later democracies that have been supported have sometimes been criticized for being puppet governments. This is quite a big topic in itself, so for now, please see Institute for Economic Democracy for a detailed look at this history.)

Almost predictably, from the hard core right wing, there have been comments that Amnesty’s accusations amount to pro-Al Qaeda propaganda. (This is akin to accusing anyone of being communist during the Cold War MacCarthy era.) The Wall Street Journal, which IPS notes as making this accusation perhaps does not realize that it is using a type of propaganda itself when applying such labels for the purpose of discrediting.

As Amnesty International’s US office director noted, this administration never finds it absurd when we criticize Cuba or China, or when we condemned the violations in Iraq under Saddam Hussein.

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If the current political, economic and social policies continue around the world as they are, the need for work from various non-governmental groups will still be needed. Although an increasing number of organizations would hint towards fundamental problems in the international systems and institutions, their contributions and research will no doubt be very valuable, but they must be careful not to fall into the traps that they have in the past.

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  • by Anup Shah
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Small note on recent criticism of Amnesty International by the Bush Administration.

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