Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Non-government organizations

They are called NGOs, short for non-government organizations. They are typically privately incorporated, nonprofit organizations that perform governmental functions, such as relief delivery, research, medical or educational services, although they are not part of any government themselves. Although many NGOs are supported by private donations, many receive tax money from the international aid agencies of various governments. Glenn Reynolds reports that the Bush administration is requiring NGOs which receive US Government money not to engage in actions which the US Government feels is inimical to its interests. Not surprisingly, the idea went over like a lead balloon among some NGOs, according to the Guardian. The American Enterprise Institute, which is itself and NGO, is leading the charge to put NGO activity under scrutiny and to use the power of the public purse to influence their behavior.

This may not change NGO behavior much because most have already cozied up to funding whose strings they welcome. The US will be excoriated not so much for imposing conditionalities, but for belatedly remembering them so late in the game. Almost every NGO has a portfolio of funding sources whose beneficial purpose is specified and very often audited by the funding agencies themselves. Many left-wing NGOs are specifically tasked with spreading a particular world view by their funding sources. Still others are devoted to performing specific activities, such as promoting abortion, and the renewal of their funding is dependent on how well they perform these tasks. NGOs are formed around a set of purposes that both their members and funders agree upon. They were never independent. And this is as it should be.

But for the longest time Washington simply handed out money without explicit strings. Now that they are behaving like a normal funding agency, the NGOs are shocked. The Guardian says:

USAID told several NGOs that have been awarded humanitarian contracts that they cannot speak to the media - all requests from reporters must go through Washington. Mary McClymont, CEO of InterAction, calls the demands "unprecedented" and says: "It looks like the NGOs aren't independent and can't speak for themselves about what they see and think."

Hardly unprecendented. Private shipping, construction, delivery or engineering companies with US government contracts don't object to being prohibited from giving press conferences because they are not political organizations. Despite their nongovernment status, NGOs are intensely political. Their actions have always had a political content and purpose. The new policy of the Bush administration will simply force NGOs who cannot openly identify themselves with America to European or UN funding. And it will attract a new crop of NGOs who are willing to embrace American ideals into the field. And this is as it should be.