Nongovernmental organizations–the notionally independent, reputedly humanitarian groups known as NGOs–are now being openly integrated into Washington’s overall strategy for consolidating global supremacy.
Events surrounding last month’s coup in post-Soviet Georgia, read in light of recent State Department documents, suggest that seemingly innocuous NGOs now play a central role in the policy of US-engineered “regime change” set forth in the notorious National Security Strategy of the United States.
The November 24 Wall Street Journal explicitly credited the toppling of Eduard Shevardnadze’s regime to the operations of “a raft of non-governmental organizations . . . supported by American and other Western foundations.” These NGOs, said the Journal, had “spawned a class of young, English-speaking intellectuals hungry for pro-Western reforms” who were instrumental laying the groundwork for a bloodless coup.
Astute commentators have correctly noted connections between these provocateur NGOs and mega-philanthropist George Soros, but the billionaire speculator did not act independently. Georgia’s so-called “Velvet Revolution” appears to have been a textbook case of regime change by stealth, carefully planned and centrally coordinated by the US government.
Thanks to first-rate reporting by Mark McKinnon in the Toronto Globe & Mail and Mark Ames in the Moscow-based online journal The Exile <www.exile.ru>, the Georgian coup can be understood as a virtual scene-for-scene rerun of the overthrow of Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milosevic–right down to the role of US Ambassador, played in both cases by spooky career diplomat Richard Miles.
But while foreign-funded NGOs played a significant minor part in the Yugoslavian operation, in Georgia they were granted star billing. This bold, all but overt, deployment of NGOs in service of US imperialism represents a new wrinkle in regime change, reflecting adjusted post-9/11 priorities at State and in the US Agency for International Development (USAID).
Illuminating background is available in a watershed USAID report, Foreign Aid in the National Interest: Promoting Freedom, Security and Opportunity, released in January 2003 but ignored by a press swept up in pre-invasion hysteria. In the report, USAID vows that development programs will no longer be directed primarily toward alleviating human misery, but will be committed to “encouraging democratic [i.e., US-friendly] reforms.” This policy shift is explicitly linked to the National Security Strategy of the United States, the 2002 White House blueprint for a new, openly aggressive phase of US imperialism.
Henceforward, the report promises, only friendly regimes will be rewarded with development money, while hostile (or merely independent) states will be punished by NGO-driven “reform” programs that sound suspiciously like old-fashioned destabilization ops.
The document notes with approval the explosive growth of NGOs worldwide and points to the NGO network as an attractive conduit for the strategic distribution of dollars. Of course, not every NGO is controlled by the US foreign policy establishment, and many rank-and-file aid workers continue to perform thankless but essential relief work in countries decimated by capitalism and war. But there’s no mistaking which way the wind is blowing in the development community: “NGOs used to work at arm’s length from donor governments,” the USAID report smugly observes, “but over time the relationship has become more intimate.”
To be sure, the vast global network of privately-funded foundations and NGOs has done enormous damage in its own right over the past two decades. With or without direct US assistance, NGOs continue to prop up immiserating neoliberal reforms, abet the schemes of transnational finance and agribusiness, and thwart the struggles of Third World people to claim better lives as of right. (The broader case against NGOs has been exhaustively set forth by James Petras, among others, and is powerfully advanced in the current issue of Aspects of India’s Economy.)
But USAID’s new emphasis on “building strategic partnerships” with humanitarian groups promises far worse to come. In thinly coded language, Foreign Aid in the National Interest touts NGOs and other private donors for their ability to lay groundwork for coups d’ état: “Assistance can be provided to reformers to help identify key winners and losers, develop coalition building and mobilization strategies, and design publicity campaigns. . . . Such assistance may represent an investment in the future, when a political shift gives reformers real power.”
As summarized by Hoover Institute fellow Larry Diamond, a self-described “specialist on democratic development and regime change” who contributed to the report: “Where governments are truly rotten, the report suggests channeling assistance primarily through nongovernmental sources, working with other bilateral aid donors and multilateral aid agencies to . . . coordinat[e] pressure on bad, recalcitrant governments.”
Shevardnadze, for many years a reliable US client, seems to have become truly rotten at around the time of his perceived tilt toward Russia, a development which potentially threatened US military access to the region and control of the $2.7 billion Baku-Ceyhan pipeline.
Per script, coordinated pressure began immediately. An interlocking network of development-oriented foundations, think tanks, and NGOs was mobilized to disseminate propaganda, recruit opposition leaders, and fund an ex nihilo “student resistance movement” modeled on Yugoslavia’s CIA-connected Otpor. Meanwhile, NGOs like the Liberty Institute–a USAID subcontractor managed by Mikhail Saakashvili, the US-approved candidate for Georgian leadership–worked hand-in-glove with the US Embassy (and presumably the CIA) to destabilize civil society.
Even the coup’s immediate pretext–allegations of electoral fraud — conveniently emerged from an “election support” operation run by USAID in consort with a Soros-connected NGO, Open Society Georgia Foundation. TV-friendly street demos and orchestrated international outcry followed in due course. Shevardnadze accepted the inevitable and agreed to go quietly. Within two weeks, Donald Rumsfeld was in Tbilsi as guest of the coup leaders, discussing a timetable for Russian troop withdrawals.
In the near future, the smashing success of the Georgia operation may be expected to lead to similarly coordinated attempts on independent-minded governments worldwide–Cuba, now doing its best to cope with an invasion of foreign-sponsored “reform” organizations, is an especially likely candidate.
Meanwhile, as the US continues to assimilate worldwide humanitarian endeavors to its imperial ambitions, the heavy hitters of the NGO establishment are preening for another round of mediagenic self-celebration at the upcoming World Social Forum. Suggested new slogan: “Another Coup is Possible.”
JACOB LEVICH, a frequent contributor to Counterpunch.com, lives in Queens, N.Y. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org