Wednesday, 11 March 2015

The Highly Questionable Ethics of NGOs

Would you donate to a children’s charity that gave Tony Blair a ‘global legacy award? Clearly many people wouldn’t, as over 125,000 signatories to a petition attest, and at least some of them will have cancelled their direct debits. However if you are one of those who have stopped donating to Save the Children (and if I was I certainly would be), bear in mind that over 500 staff signed a letter calling the decision “morally reprehensible”, and they’re the ones who’ll now be worried about their jobs.

Now what about donating to an environmental NGO that is collaborating with a major manufacturer of soft drinks with a highly questionable environmental and humanitarian record as part of a transformational partnership in 2007 to help conserve the world’s freshwater resources”, in return for a mere $23 million? Or one that is collaborating with the Murdoch empire to tackle rainforest deforestation, or one that named a company that provides vehicles for constructing the Israeli wall as one of its ‘green game-changers?

Of course all those three are the same NGO – the WWF –and  it’s easy to pick holes in the ethical stance of an organisation once described in the usually arcane language of an academic paper as being “more concerned with the likeness of a panda bear on its bumper sticker, than it is concerned with the preservation of the panda itself”, to which we can now add bus shelters and adverts for Sky TV. 

But whilst the WWF is a serial offender it is far from the only one, and under Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ agenda the number and range of NGOs working with government and the private sector is increasing, whilst the recession has hit the pockets of individual donors and traditional funders.

For some organisations falling under the NGO umbrella this is business as usual, as the sector includes many respectable organisations that have formal relationships with government and deliver services beneficial to it in ways that do not represent conflicts of interest and are unlikely to compromise their independence. A good example of one of these is the RSPB, which effectively campaigns to get the government to spend more on doing something for which it is one of the main service deliverers, and yet few would argue that there are problems with this relationship.

Academics who have looked at this question have placed NGOs on a spectrum (see above) according to how closely or not they collaborate with government and how formal the relationship is, and the same model can be applied to relationships with corporations. What’s important here is placing them not according to where they’d put themselves, but where others perceive them to be. Then once you place an organisation, consider how it is funded and how democratic it claims to be.

An easy one is Greenpeace, who clearly exist towards the left end of the spectrum and whose relationships with government and business are only formal insofar as the mere threat of their activists turning up on their doorsteps can be enough to make them change their ways. Yet whilst Greenpeace is entirely funded through donations it is far from a democratic organisation, but this means it can work in ways that, aside from appointing the odd frequent-flying exec, usually justify this.

Both of these organisations have, in part, maintained their reputations through being consistent and transparent about the relationships they engage in, but what happens when an organisation does something that moves them closer towards collaborating? Or what happens when a formally oppositional campaign group is invited in for ‘discussions’? And where should an organisation draw the line?

Eco-socialists recognise that where you stand on environmental issues is inseparable from where you stand on any other issues. The environment, the economy and society are all complexly interlinked, and an attack on one is an attack on all. So an organisation that claims to care about the environment but has no compunction about collaborating with Coca Cola, Sky and Caterpillar has not so much as stepped over the line but jumped over it, and in the immortal words of Bill Hicks, sucked Satan’s cock.

But there are more subtle changes going on. Under the Big Society NGOs and third sector organisations are increasingly being tempted closer to government, for example by delivering services that were once in the public sector. This may all be well and good if third sector involvement can improve these services, but the same could be said about privatisation – something we rightly oppose. As the WWF example shows, just because an organisation is not-for-profit does not necessarily make it any less vulnerable to commercial pressures, nor any more accountable.

As Greens we recognise the benefits of working with NGOs, but those relationships should not compromise their integrity, nor ours. A Green government should not make political offers to NGOs in return for support, however formal or informal, in delivering our agendas. This was part of the failings of the Copenhagen Earth Summit, where a culture of hubris, stoked by some NGOs, led some to expect that it would be a turning point in the negotiations, and similar criticisms can be levelled at the involvement of NGOs in the development of the UK and Scottish Climate Change Acts. Politics is a dirty business and even a Green government will have to make compromises, at least in its early days, and we’d do NGOs no favours by soliciting their complicity in these.

Nor should we, or anyone else, accept the claims of NGOs at face value without questioning their own agendas. We are the first to call out prominent climate change deniers when they’ve received funding from the fossil fuel industry, but the continued survival of the WWF and other commercialised NGOs shows we tend to turn a blind eye to those whose views we agree with. This isn’t just confirmatory bias, it’s hypocrisy.

What we should do is ensure those organisations that depend on donations from the public can continue to do so because the public are educated enough to care, and have the disposable income to donate. We can only do that by taking a consistent and principled stance against the onslaught of neoliberalism, capitalism and the austerity agenda in all their forms. We may not yet be in a position to do much to limit the excesses of capitalism, but that doesn’t mean we should condone the actions of those that have chosen to embrace it – indeed they should be left to live or die by its sword.

Finally, we should remember the controversy that surrounded the ‘NGOs’ who attended the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, around a third of who were criticised for being vaguely disguised businesses, and ask ourselves how well many of today’s NGOs would fare if exposed to the same scrutiny?

Written by Dr Keith Baker of the Green party and Green Left

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