How secrecy and greed are failing the world
THERE is a new disease abroad and it has just been correctly identified by Dr Ramazan Bashar Dost, currently President Karzai of Afghanistan’s minister for planning.
Yet NGOs and their ever more bizarre acronyms spread inexorably. Now we not only have plain NGOs, but GONGOs (governmental non-governmental organisations), the more familiar QUANGOs (quasi-autonomous NGOs), then INGOs (international NGOs), GRINGOs (NGOs with symbiotic relationships with governments), PANGOs (party-affiliated NGOs), DONGOs (donor-organised NGOs) and finally BINGOs (business NGOs). While some of them undoubtedly do excellent work, Mdecins Sans Frontires, the Red Cross and Red Crescent, for example, they are all also fighting for funding from both government and non-government sources, funding that, in many cases, it becomes increasingly difficult to trace to projects on the ground. "International NGOs get big amounts of money from their own nations just by showing them sensitive pictures and videos of Afghan people," Dr Bashar Dost complains, "but they [the NGOs] spend all the money on themselves, and we are unable to find out how much money they originally received in charitable funds."
One thing, however, is clear: the money NGOs receive is huge. Between 1990 and 1994, the proportion of relief aid channelled through their offices rose from 47 per cent to 67 per cent and has increased exponentially since then. According to the Red Cross, NGOs now disburse more money than the World Bank. In Afghanistan alone, a third of the $4.5 billion pledged by international donors for reconstruction has been allocated to NGOs, the same amount given to the Afghan government itself.
Where does all the money go? Nobody quite knows and those NGOs which spend every penny scrupulously should be very alarmed that the proliferation of DONGOs and GRINGOs etc, all claiming a slice of the charity/aid pie are giving the whole idea of foreign financed reconstruction, both physical and social, a bad name.
In the past, most of us tended to think of NGOs as being beneficial creatures, staffed by dedicated men and women looking a bit like Bob Geldof, bravely battling to bring order out of chaos, sanitation out of sewage and roads out of rubble. As soon as wars were over, there they were, mopping up. When they were killed, as many have been, we tended to feel a sense of outrage.
However, after the trouble caused by some NGOs at successive G8 summits people began to be a little more wary. Was money given in good faith actually being used to fund violent political protest? And then came increasing questions about NGO activities in the field. In 2000, Singapore’s finance and trade minister, described NGOs as "forces for destruction". Earlier this year, the writer Paul Theroux said he would never give them money and even Geldof’s Band Aid activities have not escaped scrutiny as it becomes clearer what happens when, as Daniel Wolf in the Spectator put it, you have "action in place of careful thought" and "gestures instead of engagement with complex realities". Some people hate such criticism of organisations supposedly dedicated to the poor and the vulnerable, saying that negative assessments just give us an excuse to close our minds and our purses. But when you learn that some of the staff and fundraisers for NGOs receive salaries in line with senior executives in private sector companies, you cannot help but be a little shocked.
Despite the recent wave of unease, NGOs, like the equally suspect UN, are still regarded as the good guys. This is understandable. With so much evil and corruption in the world, we need to feel that there is an equal and powerful force for good, one into which we can invest not just our money, but our prayers and goodwill as well. We know better than to trust governments, so civic organisations determined to ease beyond slippery ministerial promises and really "make a difference", organisations created by people passionate enough to get out there and get their hands dirty, are reckoned to be on the side of the angels. And even if you did wonder what the 17,000 NGO representatives who turned up at the parallel forum to the government- sponsored 1992 Earth Summit in Rio and the 35,000 who made it to the Fourth Beijing Conference on Women actually achieved for the money spent on flights, hotels and dinners, we have been happy to give them the benefit of the doubt.
YET we need to be more rigorous. In many countries, whilst some NGOs are essential, it is clear that they are not actually the answer to a nation’s troubles. Sure, they bring funds and even press interest, but they also bring other, less useful things: a determination to propagate liberal western values, for example, together with a kind of neo-colonialist approach to projects - we know what is best, so do as we say or we and our money will leave - and a narrow focus that breeds resentment because the NGO cannot, and does not want to, see the broader picture in case that upsets its "mission statement" and puts its funding at risk. Moreover, once ensconced, NGOs, all competing with each other, never seem to leave. In north-west Somalia, the 40 NGOs operating in 1992 had grown to well over 500 by 2000. If the measure of NGO success is to get a country back on its feet, they don’t seem to be doing a very good job.
Notwithstanding all this, I am not arguing that we do not need NGOs. What I do maintain, however, is that we need to find some way of measuring their usefulness. It is no longer acceptable just to assume benefit because the intentions are good and the arguments of those like Professor Rob Gray at the Centre for Social and Environmental Accounting Research at Glasgow University and the anti-globalisation activist Naomi Klein, who object to any pressure for NGO accountability on the grounds that it could create a blacklist, sound a little hollow. Even though, at present, the information on ngowatch.org does not go nearly far enough, there is nothing sinister about revealing the incomes and filed returns of "organisations exempt from income tax", which is the status NGOs enjoy. Indeed, we certainly should know how organisations which are the recipients of billions of pounds of tax-payers money are allocating the funds. Those of us - and it is all of us - who keep them afloat, are not stupid. We know that some missions are bound, in some senses, to fail, but that such missions might well be necessary all the same. It is not such missions that will deter us from giving to NGOs, it’s the secrecy and unaccountability which go with them. In Afghanistan, Dr Bashar Dost is about to make a stand against NGOs by introducing a law to clarify their responsibilities. Perhaps it’s time we did something similar.
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