US Conservatives Take Aim at NGOs


Jim Lobe

June 12, 2003

While non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as Amnesty International, Greenpeace, and Oxfam have made significant contributions to human rights, the environment, and development, they are using their growing prominence and power to pursue a "liberal" agenda at the international level that threatens U.S. sovereignty and free-market capitalism. That was the message delivered by a series of speakers at an all-day conference, "Nongovernmental Organizations: The Growing Power of an Unelected Few," Wednesday sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a Washington think tank that has been particularly influential with the Bush administration. "NGOs have created their own rules and regulations and demanded that governments and corporations abide by those rules," according to AEI and the conference co-sponsor, the rightist Institute of Public Affairs of Australia. "Politicians and corporate leaders are often forced to respond to the NGO media machine, and the resources of taxpayers and shareholders are used in support of ends they did not sanction." "The extraordinary growth of advocacy NGOs in liberal democracies has the potential to undermine the sovereignty of constitutional democracies, as well as the effectiveness of credible NGOs," they warned.

To shed more light on NGOs, AEI announced the launch of a new website, (, that will provide information about their operations, funding sources and political agendas. Brian Hook of the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, which is co-sponsoring the site, said it will cover those NGOs "with the most influence in international affairs." NGOs, which have proliferated at the local level since the 1980s--particularly in developing countries--have become major players at the United Nations and other multilateral agencies, such as the World Bank, which had traditionally dealt only with governments. Several thousand NGOs now enjoy "consultative status" at the UN, which entitles them to participate in some debates, while their image as representatives of "global civil society" has endowed them with a moral and political legitimacy, which they have used as leverage in dealing with the other major global actors, governments and corporations. But, unlike corporations and governments, they are largely unregulated, and their internal processes often lack transparency and accountability, according to their critics and even to many NGOs themselves. Indeed, a UN commission on civil society chaired by former Brazilian President Henrique Cardoso is expected to recommend the adoption of guidelines or other mechanisms to ensure that NGOs recognized by the UN are transparent and accountable.

To the groups who gathered at AEI Wednesday, however, international NGOs raise concerns that go far beyond transparency and accountability. To them, the international NGOs are pursuing a leftist or "liberal" agenda that favors "global governance" and other notions that are also promoted by the United Nations and other multilateral agencies. "This is inherently a project that is tilted to the left," according to Cornell University government professor Jeremy Rabkin, who argued that NGOs are using the multilateral system to try to regulate corporations and governments. "NGOs want to be players. They want to be regulators," agreed IPA's Gary Johns. He cited NGO lobbying for the adoption of codes of conduct for multinational corporations. "Before long, you have a degree of regulation that no one thought was possible."

In fact, according to George Washington University political science professor Jarol Manheim, international NGOs are pursuing "a new and pervasive form of conflict" against corporations which he calls "Biz-war," the title of his forthcoming book. NGOs, for example, work with sympathetic institutional investors, such as union and church-based pension funds, to sponsor shareholder resolutions demanding that corporations adopt more environment- or human-rights-friendly policies. Such efforts, he said, should be seen as "part of a larger, anti-corporate campaign." This was echoed by John Entine, an AEI adjunct fellow, who called the "social investing" movement, as it is called, a "wolf in sheep's clothing. "Anti-free market NGOs under the guise of corporate reform are extending their reach into the boardrooms of corporations," he said. "In many cases, naive corporate reformers, within corporations and in government, are welcoming them."

Moreover, the strategy is working. "Big shareholders are getting embarrassed to be associated with some companies," said Manheim, who noted that companies are increasingly using NGOs as consultants or even hiring former NGO officials to protect themselves against negative publicity or consumer boycotts. On the global political front, international NGOs, which led the fight for the global ban on anti-personnel mines, the Kyoto Protocol to curb greenhouse-gas emissions, and the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court (ICC), are pursuing a "liberal internationalist" vision that is very much at odds with that of the Bush administration, according to American University law professor Kenneth Anderson.

These efforts are intended in part to further a world order based on "global governance" and the rule of international law, rather than one based on the sovereignty of democratic nation states. The leaders of international NGOs are part of a culture that "wants to constrain the United States" and whose ideas about world order "are not congenial to the ideas of this administration," according to Anderson.

Several speakers praised the work of NGOs in providing services and humanitarian aid to needy people in developing countries but stressed that, at the international policy level, much of what they did actually hurt the intended beneficiaries. Roger Bate, director of Africa Fighting Malaria, cited NGOs' opposition to the use of DDT to fight malaria and to the delivery of genetically-modified maize in southern Africa as examples of policies which amounted to "eco-imperialism" and showed a "callous disregard for human life." "NGOs definitely provide benefits in the short run, but in the long run, their influence is almost always malign," he said. Mike Nahan, IPA's executive director, charged that international NGOs supported secession movements in East Timor and Aceh, Indonesia; put Papua New Guinea "on the road to bankruptcy" by forcing out the mining industry; and is "destroying civil society in many of these countries."

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