In recent years, nations have challenged the activities and very existence of non-governmental organizations. Russia, Zimbabwe, and Eritrea have enacted new measures requiring registration; “Open Society Institute” affiliates have been shut down in Eastern Europe; and Venezuela has charged the Súmate NGO leaders with treason. In Iraq and Afghanistan, staff of Western charitable NGOs (CARE and Doctors Without Borders) have been assassinated.
What are these organizations, and who or what is behind them?
They are heirs of the missionaries, who did many good deeds, bringing sewing machines to Bulgaria, ideas of women’s liberation to Chinese footbinders, and life-saving medicines to the less industrialized world. Yet the missionaries also served as scouts for corporations and colonizers, tying knots with the most ambitious local people, especially those adept at bilingualism.
Missionaries are still operating today, but the field has become more intensely populated and diverse. Today’s NGOs are elephantine, serpentine, and Byzantine. They may be international organizations, their local affiliates, or seemingly spontaneous grassroots groups.
Most funding and direction come from the wealthy nations. Often the donors form a conglomerate creating mutual responsibility and considerable ambiguity. CIVICUS, a partnership to promote “civil society” worldwide, is funded by, among others, American Express Foundation, Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation, Carnegie Corporation, Canadian International Development Agency, Ford Foundation, Harvard University, Oxfam, and United Nations Development Programme.
If the source is confusing, the message is usually clear: “democratization” strives for civil rights and elections, but it also must include an open door to foreign capital, labor contracts, resource extraction, and military training. These networks also define “civil society” to include rock concerts and street mobs, but not government-provided maternal health clinics, child care, or senior services.
Affluent nations’ government agencies are important NGO funders. The most notorious is the US National Endowment for Democracy (NED; ostensibly a nongovernmental foundation), created by Congress in 1983 to do openly what had been CIA cold war covert activities. When these operations were revealed in 1967, there was shock, not so much because the US was covertly funding foreign political and labor groups, but because organizations such as the National Education Association, American Newspaper Guild, American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, and the National Student Association were secretly used as pass-throughs, and all but the top officers were unwitting. Actual and phony foundations also distributed CIA funds.
NED changed this-but not very much. It distributes grants both directly and through other organizations, now overtly. Its “core grantees” are the Center for International Private Enterprise (of the US Chamber of Commerce), the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (of the AFL-CIO), and, affiliated with the parties, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and the International Republican Institute. Some private foundations chip in, for example, Smith Richardson and Mellon-Scaife. The Mott Foundation gave the NDI $150,000 in 1998 “to increase public confidence in democratization and the transition to a market economy in Ukraine.” Foundations also directly co-fund NED’s ultimate grantees. Thus, the Lilly Endowment supports the Institute for Liberty and Democracy in Peru, headed by Hernando de Soto, which offers free-market remedies for poverty.
Other capitalist democracies now have government foundations similar to NED, and they work collaboratively, e.g., the Canadian Rights and Democracy and the British Westminster Foundation for Democracy. Additional US agencies have joined NED and the CIA in this work, notably, the Agency for International Development (USAID) and United States Information Agency (USIA), which support and create foreign NGOs and media.
Germany, France, the Netherlands, Greece, Italy, and Sweden fund their political parties’ foundations. The European members of the Socialist International’s fund, the European Forum for Democracy and Solidarity, distributes “democratization” aid.
The European Union has worldwide grant programs for sustainable development and democratization. NATO grant programs support environmental organizations, among others. United Nations agencies such as UNICEF, WHO, UNESCO, UNDP, and FAO have long operated this way, and the World Bank funds, sponsors, guides, and coordinates grassroots poor people’s organizations.
NGOs in prosperous nations have extensive grant programs overseas. These include not only the obviously international ones, e.g., Rotary, American Friends Service Committee, and Oxfam; but also labor organizations such as the American Federation of Teachers Educational Foundation. Corporate foundations are active throughout the world, and sometimes have separate funds directed by employees, for example, the Boeing Employees Fund, which supports charities in Japan and England.
Why would these philanthropic efforts offend anyone? Why do they hate our kind hearts?
In the first place, these public-private philanthropies have worked together to fund and direct overthrow movements. We had a “Subversive Activities Control Board” here, but export was encouraged. The grantees’ activities included destabilization, the creation of mobs preventing elected governments from ruling, chaos, and violence. Among those funded were the Civic Forum in Czechoslovakia, Solidarity in Poland, Union of Democratic Forces in Bulgaria, Otpor in Serbia, and, more recently, similar groups in the succession states of the USSR. Sometimes mobs (especially of young people) have been moved around from one country to another to give the impression of vast popular opposition. The NED, Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, and the Soros philanthropies have been particularly active in these operations. Human Rights Watch (formerly Helsinki Watch) has nurtured opposition groups. Reformers seeking social democracy or democratic socialism were excluded; such systems might oppress the “vulture capitalists.”
It is hard to know how much native support existed for the Western-funded revolutions, as media and information (especially if we can’t read Mongolian, Bulgarian, or Uzbeki) are produced by the same conglomerates. Of course, all revolutions are made by minorities, often with assistance of foreign allies. However, by today’s standards as embodied in the UN Charter, subverting with the intention of overthrowing foreign governments is a grave violation of international law. Many were shocked by the NED activities complementing other instruments of intervention that helped to destroy the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua. Yet the 1990 election was judged by the NGO observers to be a free one; neither threats of physical annihilation nor millions of foreign dollars violated the purity of that process. “Cold-war liberal” policymakers have advocated covert actions as a peaceful alternative to invasion, but it isn’t as if military action has faded away; they work together.
Such attempts are ongoing. The Venezuelan indictment is just one indication of a larger NED-NGO operation. Plans for annihilating the Cuban revolution, via “independent libraries,” “Red Feminista Cubana,” and other created organizations, are clearly spelled out on the NED web site.
NGOs are also used to disrupt revolutionary or even reformist movements that might interfere with neo-liberal goals, hampering the ability of corporations to go anywhere and do anything. Thus, as James Petras has reported, radical social groups and their leaders are co-opted into NGOs dedicated to worthy, ameliorative projects that are no threat to Western interests. Instead of broad movements challenging systemic causes of oppression, activists are recruited into discrete, well-funded “identity” politics and single-issue organizations, and poverty is just another minority status.
In India and South Africa, the very poor have been organized into Slum Dwellers and Shack Dwellers Associations, which meet with the World Bank people to discuss what is to be done. Protesters against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) were channeled into groups that were invited and funded to attend the meetings preparing this treaty. Those concerned with the devastation of oil, lumber, and mineral extraction throughout the world can utilize the “participatory mechanisms” of the Earth Council, one of whose board members is Klaus Schwab, director of the World Economic Forum. Conferences for the protesters “parallel” to the globalization elite’s are supported by that same elite. These do create fruitful interaction among dissidents; yet they may also function as a diversionary tactic. We won’t know unless these possibilities are investigated.
Amelioration is important to keep those societies newly “marketized” on a steady course despite crushing poverty. In Mongolia (as elsewhere), “shock therapy,” decimating both employment and social services, has resulted in street children, child prostitution, and increasing maternal mortality, none of which occurred in its “undeveloped” or communist phases. However, the rock concerts and street mobs have attained freedom. Enter PACT (originally, Private Agencies Collaborating Together; funders now include the Ford Foundation, US AID, Mercy Corps International, the Nature Conservancy, the World Bank, Citigroup, Chevron, Levi Strauss, and Microsoft), which provides some substitutes for the former socialist institutions, while desperation drives Mongolia’s leaders to welcome foreign garment industries and copper and gold extraction.
For many nations far from the North Atlantic, NATO seems to promise economic security. This inclination has been abetted by the creation, through NATO’s grant programs, of NGOs to foster the NATO spirit, and in Bulgaria, a charitable NGO to provide employment for their former military officers, who wouldn’t fit in. NATO also supplies research funds for universities in Eastern Europe, which now have little government funding, and is attempting to expand its charities throughout North Africa and the Middle East.
Prominent insiders, who sit high in the democracy-promotion turrets of the foundation-NGO international world, have problems with the system, although they may ignore or applaud the overthrow operations. What concerns them is the feudal relationship existing between the wealthy Western institutional patrons and the clients in poorer lands, and the NGOs lack of a genuine local constituency. Thomas Carothers, of the Carnegie Endowment, has written: “Transnational civil society is . . . very much part of the same projection of Western political and economic power that civil society activists decry in other venues.”
Others are concerned about the “brain drain” drawing the scarce educated people away from government service or authentic grassroots organizations, neither of which can offer comparable pay or perks. They protest the imposition of a foreign culture that denigrates indigenous knowledge, and paradoxically, programs such as microcredit in South Asia that reinforce the more oppressive patriarchical aspects of traditional cultures.
NGO staff members have been accused of being spies. Whether or not this is the case, the system allows access to remote native cultures, where the lay of the land and sociograms of local influentials can be charted for any purpose. This type of missionary penetration, attained through Bible translation in the Amazon River basin, has been recounted in Thy Will Be Done, by Colby and Dennett.
NGOs are now extensively occupied in the relief of disasters, whether natural or man-made, and the US military (with its “coalition”) is deeply involved in both the comforting and the afflicting. To receive US funds, humanitarian organizations must support US foreign policy. Consequently, some, such as Oxfam UK, have withdrawn their workers from Iraq. Those remaining are often regarded as collaborators, which is not surprising, as many international NGOs have been handmaids to subversion, overthrow, and occupation. Some have even supported “humanitarian” bombing, especially in the case of Yugoslavia.
It is hard to assess accurately NGOs’ complicity because there are few incentives for critical studies by journalists or academics, and anti-capitalist activists are often knotted up in some way. Information about NGOs mostly comes from the same funding sources, such as “Transitions on Line” of the Soros enterprises, or OneWorld.net, sponsored by the Ford Foundation and others. A networking resource, Ngo.net, is administered by Freedom House and funded by the USAID.
The peak of international NGOs, the World Social Forum, meets at the same time as the World Economic Forum, only far away. The WSF’s general funding is rarely scrutinized by the participants, whose travel expenses come from similar sources. An exception is a report by the Research Unit on Political Economy-India, which explains why foundation funding was refused for the 2004 WSF in Mumbai, and discusses critically the activities of the Ford Foundation in India.
It is news when any NGO nibbles at the hand that feeds it, as did a Pakistani theater group last November. Invited to a women’s theater festival in India, they were sent home because the organizers deemed their contribution too anti-US for a Ford Foundation-sponsored event.
As all generalizations have exceptions, let it be noted that some NGOs are impeccable, and even peccable ones often have humanitarian staff and directors. A recent attempt by dissidents seeking international donors to “democracy promotion” in the US, the International Endowment for Democracy, could give an effective jolt. Yet it may be that democracy, justice, or equality are not readily attainable by such means. For several centuries NGOs have been providing “disaster aid” for societies being “marketized.” What can we learn from this history?
JOAN ROELOFS is a professor emerita of political science in Keene, NH. More information on this subject may be found in her Foundations and Public Policy: the Mask of Pluralism. Other books are Greening Cities: Building Just and Sustainable Communities, and a just-published translation of Victor Considerant’s Principes du socialisme: Manifeste de la démocratie au XIX siècle. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org