Their arrival portends rising local prices and a culture shock. Many of
them live in plush apartments, or five-star hotels, drive SUV's, sport
$3000 laptops and PDAs. They earn a two-figure multiple of the local
average wage. They are busybodies, preachers, critics, do-gooders, and
Always self-appointed, they answer to no constituency. Though unelected
and ignorant of local realities, they confront the democratically chosen
and those who voted them into office. A few of them are enmeshed in crime
and corruption. They are the Non-Governmental Organizations, or NGOs.
Some NGOs - like Oxfam, Human
Rights Watch, Medecins Sans Frontieres,
or Amnesty - genuinely contribute to
enhancing welfare, to the mitigation of hunger, the furtherance of human
and civil rights, or the curbing of disease. Others - usually in the guise
of think tanks and lobby groups - are sometimes ideologically biased, or
religiously-committed and, often, at the service of special interests.
NGOs - such as the International
Crisis Group - have openly interfered on behalf of the opposition in
the recent elections in Macedonia. Other NGOs have done so in Belarus and
Ukraine, Zimbabwe and Israel, Nigeria and Thailand, Slovakia and Hungary -
and even in Western, rich, countries including the USA, Canada, Germany,
The encroachment on state sovereignty of international law - enshrined
in numerous treaties and conventions - allows NGOs to get involved in
hitherto strictly domestic affairs like corruption, civil rights, the
composition of the media, the penal and civil codes, environmental
policies, or the allocation of economic resources and of natural
endowments, such as land and water. No field of government activity is now
exempt from the glare of NGOs. They serve as self-appointed witnesses,
judges, jury and executioner rolled into one.
Regardless of their persuasion or modus operandi, all NGOs are
top-heavy with entrenched, well-remunerated, extravagantly perked
bureaucracies. Opacity is typical of NGOs. Amnesty's rules prevent its
officials from publicly discussing the inner workings of the organization
- proposals, debates, opinions - until they have become officially voted
into its Mandate. Thus, dissenting views rarely get an open hearing.
Contrary to their teachings, the financing of NGOs is invariably
obscure and their sponsors unknown. The bulk of the income of most
non-governmental organizations, even the largest ones, comes from -
usually foreign - powers. Many NGOs serve as official contractors for
NGOs serve as long arms of their sponsoring states - gathering
intelligence, burnishing their image, and promoting their interests. There
is a revolving door between the staff of NGOs and government bureaucracies
the world over. The British Foreign Office finances a host of NGOs -
including the fiercely "independent" Global
Witness - in troubled spots, such as Angola. Many host governments
accuse NGOs of - unwittingly or knowingly - serving as hotbeds of
Very few NGOs derive some of their income from public contributions and
donations. The more substantial NGOs spend one tenth of their budget on PR
and solicitation of charity. In a desperate bid to attract international
attention, so many of them lied about their projects in the Rwanda crisis
in 1994, according to The Economist,
that the Red Cross felt compelled to draw up a ten point mandatory NGO
code of ethics. A code of conduct was adopted in 1995. But the phenomenon
recurred in Kosovo.
All NGOs claim to be not for profit, yet many of them possess sizable
equity portfolios and abuse their position to increase the market share of
firms they own. Conflicts of interest and unethical behaviour abound.
Cafedirect is a British firm committed to "fair trade"
coffee. Oxfam, an NGO, embarked on a campaign targeted at Cafedirect's
competitors, accusing them of exploiting growers by paying them a tiny
fraction of the retail price of the coffee they sell. Yet, Oxfam Great
Britain owns 25 per cent of Cafedirect.
Large NGOs resemble multinational corporations in structure and
operation. They are hierarchical, maintain large media, government
lobbying, and PR departments, head-hunt, invest proceeds in
professionally-managed portfolios, compete in government tenders, and own
a variety of unrelated businesses. The Aga
Khan Fund for Economic Development owns the license for second mobile
phone operator in Afghanistan - among other businesses.