NGOs operate as international political parties

By Eli Gottlieb

We need to face up to the fact that, when it comes to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), quangos and civil society organizations, the political right has a point. It’s not a large point, but it is a point: These organizations are fundamentally undemocratic. They have a loud, influential voice in our public life without subjection to electioneering laws, and often while receiving government funding. Through armies of lawyers, lobbyists and intellectuals, NGOs of both the left and the right have systemically shifted, from issue- or community-based advocacy organizations with little role in broader politics to organizations that openly claim the right to dictate what’s right and wrong to the public. In fact, in nearly every advanced democracy, they often act through legal cases and rights councils that directly override the democratically-decided laws.

Some might say that more constraint on the state’s power must always be better. However, the power does not simply disappear, it instead moves from the elected government to those in the super electoral domain: advising committees, courts, the legal profession and most of all NGOs. Laws no longer are written through ideological compromise and are not overridden through independent legal cases in an independent judiciary. Instead, NGOs (also known as “lobbies”) often take an active hand in writing the laws, push for the creation of new super electoral governing bodies and then use their financing, clout and intellectual might to colonize the new political sphere. They usually then turn their strength to populating the government with allies who will continue to hand money, prestige and legal power to the sphere where the NGOs operate. Thus, governmental good deeds become mixed so intimately with base corruption that many can no longer tell the difference.

Now, many will still ask, “What is wrong with constraining the government to respect the environment, the rights of citizens and all other good causes?” The problem is that most modern NGOs do not nearly qualify as non-partisan or transparent. Through their broad lobbying and intellectual production, each one now tends to push forward a body of opinion that qualifies as its own narrowly-focused ideology. In fact, some NGOs exist only to oppose or criticize other NGOs. How can we call them apolitical while they take political stances and joust with political opponents?

As Kevin Myers once put it in the Irish Independent, “[Amnesty International] originally began by demanding freedom for a Portuguese man in Salazar’s prison cell. Now it has forceful and declamatory opinions on littering, breast-feeding, double-parking, immigration, global warming, airline taxes and the laws on offside in soccer and [leg before wicket] in cricket. It is also – according to the [National Women’s C – in favor of keeping children’s benefits as they are. A human rights organization can only take a side on welfare benefits for parents by reading the doctrine of human rights into a full-blown governing ideology.”

In addition, the major NGOs don’t just operate internationally; they funnel money between their branches to support each other’s work. A donation to Oxfam in America intended to relieve famine can support warlords in the Congo of which the donor may not know and with which they may not agree. As it turns out, many conservative NGOs in the United States appear plentifully funded by the rich Koch Brothers and the royalty of Saudi Arabia. The quality of NGO work varies wildly based on the precise national branch in question and the precise views of the staff operating that branch, and all such work has a tendency to become explicitly political at some point, to voice opinions and biases rather than objective assessments. Staff and board members themselves receive their appointments without any recourse to the donors’ assent, and thus NGOs with backing from the rich can appoint whoever they want to do whatever they want.

In short, NGOs now operate exactly like international political parties, except that they never have to stand for elections, face restraint of their influence by low polling numbers, accept instructions from their members or abide by the clean-government laws for political parties. Now they operate exactly like international political parties, except totally and completely corrupt. They are the privatized public.

The complexities of modern political issues would be better represented by an assembly of interests than just a single-vote body, no matter how proportional its representation of those single votes. If we want a body with proportional representation, let the people have multiple votes (perhaps three or five) each to grant to whatever organizations they wish. Let’s integrate the so-called non-governmental organizations and civil society organizations into the political process as democratically accountable members, and let the assembly represent not only the diversity of the populace but the diversity of each person’s views and interests. Votes would remain of equal value, so once again a simple threshold proportional-representation system would adequately and fairly distribute seats.

Such a body would have the advantages of more accurately representing voters’ views, especially independent voters, and of integrating advocacy, activist and lobbying organizations into the political process, dependent on the people for their power. It would also grant increased voice to the many causes and interests supported by large portions of the public but lacking funding and column-space from the chattering classes.

Of course, many of today’s radicals and totalitarians rail against lobbies and undemocratic influence as well, but by this they tend to mean that they want to destroy the political voice (and possibly the rights and lives) of disfavored ethnic, religious or ideological groups entirely. I want nothing of the sort. After all, many NGOs provide crucial advocacy for issues too specialized or marginalized for the mainstream political parties to take up. No, I want only to bring the power of NGOs in line with their public support, whomever the public supports. I do, though, think that the results will surprise most NGO constituents, since I think the demographicss of today are far more interested in domestic economic and social issues than in the cratia’s desire to have more dance parties for “aid” that keeps hungry Ethiopians hungry.

Eli Gottlieb is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]