What is the role of NGOs in society?
In the last three decades, a number of books and articles have been published about Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Some focus on the marginal impact the NGOs have because they work within an existing institutional framework responsible for the absence of social justice. While some works praise the kind of unique services of NGOs to people in need, others are critical, stressing that NGOs’ goal is integration into an international political economy and institutional structure rooted in inequality and injustice. While it is beyond doubt that there are NGOs serving worthy humanitarian causes and acting as instruments of alleviating misery among the poor, refugees, and others in need, there are many more such organizations acting as instruments of globalization, and in some cases aggressive neo-imperialism.
Are all NGOs truly non-governmental and politically neutral, voluntary non-profit and humanitarian interested only in the poor, the refugees, the minorities, those unprotected by the institutional mainstream? Do NGOs serve society’s various needs at the grassroots level with the ultimate goals of promoting humanitarian needs, human rights, environmental protection, and social justice as they claim? Is the definition of NGO a grassroots non-profit local, national or international organization performing voluntary services for humanitarian purposes, or has it expanded to include what are in essence stealthy lobbying, media and communications, intelligence gathering, and business promotion groups?
Are all NGOs truly independent and practice transparency as they want the public to believe, or do they serve very sinister policy goals of big business and governments to the detriment of different countries and different segments in any given society, while preaching humanitarianism? How trusting should the public be when so many NGOs around the world have been caught in fraud and corruption, used as fronts for money laundering and other illegal activities, ranging from narcotics to arms facilitations or transfers?
Do NGO’s emerge at the grassroots level to serve emergency needs, and do they all have a progressive orientation as they want people to believe? Why did NGOs expand so rapidly after the fall of Communist regimes in the early 1990s, and how do they reflect the era of globalization under neoliberal policies of the past three decades? What role do NGOs play in molding public opinion and why do mainstream media present them as non-partisan when most collaborate with government and business to shape public opinion into accepting globalization, Western-style institutions and thorough integration into the Western spheres of influence?
In this very brief essay, my focus is on the top-down structure of many NGOs that have been established to serve the interests of specific political and business interests, thus playing a counterrevolutionary instead of a progressive role in society. Through the manipulation of mass public opinion in the age of social media and high tech communications, many NGOs are nothing more than agents of promoting globalization.
NGOs - Humanitarians or covert agents of government and big business?
Generally speaking, the average person reading or hearing about NGOs assumes that these are all about helping starving children in sub-Sahara Africa, providing clean water for the impoverished masses in rural areas of developing nations, setting up medical facilities to help the very poor in Central America and Caribbean, helping refugees out of Iraq and Syria, etc. It is true that there are many such organizations, including OXFAM, Danish Refugee Council, “Doctors without Borders”, and others across the world that are devoted to helping those in dire need, that are truly humanitarian and deserve the name non-governmental.
These NGOs deserve support of all people because they are delivering small miracles every day, miracles that governments and United Nations agencies cannot or would not deliver. These prototypes were the honest NGOs before the proliferation after the collapse of Communism that along with it created the massive wave of corrupt and sinister organizations hiding behind the NGO name.
Large segments of the public in many countries have little faith in government because it serves narrow socioeconomic interests. There is equal skepticism toward big businesses and the media that caters to the political and socioeconomic elites. This is the case as much in smaller countries as it is in the US where the poor and minorities do not feel that government represents them, while media is nothing more than a propaganda machine.
To fill the credibility gap that exists among the masses and to mold mass public opinion, NGOs have become a great way for government and business to promote their agendas. There are NGOs that governments and businesses set up, or fund in order to promote a political, military or economic agenda at home or abroad. With the advent of what the US in the early 1990s called the “New World Order”, namely a single integrated world market under the preeminent economic, political and military leadership of the US, there was an NGO explosion to help achieve those goals. The goals included spreading Western-style political institutions and ideology, preventing socialist or nationalist policies from taking hold to obstruct American-led globalization and neoliberalism, removing all obstacles to globalization by making use of the media and social organizations, including social networks in social media in recent years.
Because NGOs are rarely questioned and people assume they are non-partisan, and above nations and politics, what better way to pursue a covert agenda than through an NGO that is above suspicion? What better way than through an NGO, which people believe is progressive and humanitarian, to pursue a reactionary agenda intended to serve political and socioeconomic elites? This category of NGOs has a history of corruption, questionable activity with regard to moving money around illegally, transferring it if not laundering it outright from various sources, becoming involved in staged uprisings and rebel movements, utilizing social media and communications as part of elaborate covert operations to undermine or overthrow governments, and other such activities one would never imagine as the business of an NGO.
There are NGOs operating as fronts for US Agency for International Development (USAID) and major US foundations linked to billionaires whose goal is to secure market share around the world. Many of these NGOs were causing havoc in Russia until Putin tried to curtail their operations. However, Russia is hardly the exception, considering that NGOs with similar funding and goals operate throughout the world from India to Brazil, from the Philippines to Ukraine.
Using NGOs as fronts, the US and its allies have used anti-nuclear and environmental NGOs to stop nuclear plants. This is partly because the contracts for products and services are not awarded to Western corporations, but also because of geopolitical considerations. In July 2014, the Indian government announced that NGOs were fronts for foreign interests undermining the national economic interests and the country’s security. It is well known that India has a record of many human rights violations that the media has publicized. It is not as well known, however, that NGOs operating in India are using human rights, environmental issues and other very significant humanitarian matters to conceal their covert role in subverting the national economy as the finance minister announced in July 2014.
One may argue that permitting NGOs to operate freely is a testament to a nation’s democracy. However, there is the question of drawing the line between pressure groups acting as lobbyists, and non-profits acting as humanitarian NGOs. Would the US permit an al-Qaeda-funded NGO parading as a human rights group defending the rights of Muslim prisoners in Guantanamo? Would the UK permit an Indian NGO undermining its energy sector unless UK bought more equipment from India? Would the UK permit an Iranian NGO promoting a national nuclear energy policy?
In October 2012, NBC news published a story about a New York-based NGO claiming to oppose Iran’s nuclear development program. Calling itself “United Against Nuclear Iran” (UANI), it is staffed by former US diplomats and intelligence officers, as well as former Israeli intelligence agents. UANI presents itself to the public as a peace-loving and a non-governmental organization opposed to Iran developing nuclear weapons. However, UANI has no problem with the nuclear weapons of Israel. A US-Israeli propaganda and psychological warfare machine, UANI’s goal is to stop Western companies from doing business with Tehran, applying some of the same tactics as human rights organizations did when they opposed multinationals doing business with the apartheid state of South Africa before Mandela.
Presenting their groups as citizen advocacy with an altruistic agenda above governments and politics, NGOs are a very clever way to push through political, economic, strategic and other agendas that on the surface appear to be for “the good of society”. Enjoying the cover of legitimacy as guardians of people’s rights, it is very difficult to put an NGO on the defensive in the absence of hard evidence about its real agenda.
Despite the aura of legitimacy, there are NGOs that are conduits not just for governments seeking to undermine another regime, but for money laundering from government budgets going to the pockets of politicians as well as non-government individuals and organizations. Officials in India, Philippines, Greece and other countries have NGO’s used for money laundering and other fraudulent operations. Receiving NGO laundered funds as part of elaborate schemes in clientist politics is not nearly as unusual as it sounds. Even bankrupt Greek government was using NGOs of various types to reward financially certain politicians and favorite clients of the ruling parties.
Some of the NGOs publicly stated purpose was so ludicrous that it would be humorous if it were not criminal. According to a Greek government report on NGOs, nine out of ten of the 3000 organizations were engaged in fraud and corruption involving millions transferred from government funds into NGO budgets and back into the pockets of certain individuals linked to the ruling parties. The Greek foreign ministry funneled millions through NGOs for projects that never took place, including some that never took place. Some money apparently went to bribes for removal of land mines supposedly carried out in Iraq, Lebanon and Serbia, while other funds went for the purpose of reforestation not of Greece that can use it but of areas already fully forested!
The level of corruption that existed in Greece during the 1990s and 2000s also took place in other countries, including the Philippines. Receiving public funds, NGOs would then turn around and use them not for the publicly stated purpose but to line the pockets of politicians. Millions in public funds designated for agricultural development simply wound up in the hands of a handful of people connected with corrupt NGOs. The situation in the Philippines appears similar to that of Greece, and both are similar to that of Brazil where the government began a crack down to distinguish between NGOs involved in corruption and public distortion and those doing an honest day’s work as they publicly stated.
The subversive use and manipulation of NGOs by governments and corporations is a distortion of publicly-proclaimed goals. For example, Israeli arms manufacturers sell land mines used in various conflicts. At the same time, the same manufacturers work with NGO's to have the land mines removed. This is example illustrates the nefarious use of NGOs, but it also reveals the unseen and unpublicized role of these organizations that are more complicated than they appear on the surface.
NGOs, the former Soviet Republics, China and India
We have seen just a few examples of NGOs in several countries where their role in society has nothing to do with the promotion of public welfare, the poor or the environment, but in essence all to do with money laundering, fraud, political, economic and geopolitical goals. This raises the question about NGOs as a counter-revolutionary force in society, rather than progressive as they claim. Is their goal to advance social justice and national sovereignty or to minimize social justice and national sovereignty, thus advancing the interests of large international and domestic wealthy interests and foreign governments' geopolitical agenda? Nowhere are these questions more significant to address than in the Ukraine and all the former Soviet republics.
NGOs with questionable goals and modes of operation are in many countries from the US to developing nations. Russia after the collapse of the USSR has at least 400,000 NGOs, and probably as many as one million – registered and non-registered - carrying out political commercial and other activity behind the cover of a non-governmental organization. Russian officials believe that roughly one-fourth of these NGOs are foreign funded, using the cover of human rights, environmental protection, and consumer advocacy to pursue their agendas unrelated to what they declare. Utilizing the connections with government agencies and mainstream media outlets, directly or indirectly-funded government NGOs essentially exert what some analysts call “soft power” – “co-opting through their organizations.
When the Communist bloc fell, the US and western European NGOs played a key role in infiltrating the newly-independent republics with the goal of helping to integrate them in the West and preventing their dependence on the Russian Federation, and to a lesser extent China and Iran. Western-funded NGOs were involved in manufacturing grassroots movements in the Ukraine so that the country dependent on Russia for energy and trade would become a Western satellite that would provide NATO with the stranglehold it wants on Russia’s border as part of a containment policy. Although the Western-funded NGOs actual goal is to secure Western corporate infiltration of the Ukraine, Georgia and other former Soviet republics, the alleged purpose is humanitarian and human-rights-oriented democracy. The publicly-stated goal used was and remains a cover to conceal the real goals of promoting globalization and geopolitical influence.
The Ukrainian upheaval of 2013-2014, culminating in the overthrow of president Yanukovych in February 2014, and the ensuing separatist movement by Russian minorities in the Eastern provinces has brought the role of the NGOs to the attention of some of the more discriminating analysts. The two-year old rebel movement in Syria against Assad also involved Western NGO’s working to fund and guide rebels on the ground, along with other players, including Saudi and Gulf States elements. The goal here was and remains regime change, even if it meant indirectly assisting jihadists that would eventually turn against the West. Similarly, NGOs are operating everywhere from Venezuela and Cuba where the US wants to see regime change to parts of Africa, Middle East, and Asia where the West wants to have a preeminent political, economic and military influence.
In March 2013, Russia decided to curtail the operations of NGOs by introducing legislation that would have them registered as foreign agents. Backing the legislation, Putin stated: “Whether these organizations want it or not, they become an instrument in the hands of foreign states that use them to achieve their own political objectives. This situation is unacceptable. This law is designed to prevent interference in Russia’s internal political life by foreign countries and create transparent conditions for the financing of nongovernmental organizations.”
The spirit of the Russian legislation is not very different from what India has tried to do facing somewhat similar problems with NGOs. More restrictive than India and Russia, China had several hundred thousand NGOs operating under different registrations. Like Russia and India, China has argued that the US and other governments use NGOs to infiltrate institutions, manipulate and mold public opinion, influence policies and destabilize countries with the sole purpose of economic, political, cultural and strategic advantage.
Not just in the former Soviet republics, including troubled, Ukraine, but in China and India NGOs have multiplied by the hundreds of thousands pushing an agenda on everything from varieties of Christian fundamentalism to commercial products, all under the convenient cover of freedom and democracy, and humanitarian assistance.
It is important to note that when European colonists infiltrated Africa, they sent in the clergy to convert the natives, then the merchants and finally the military to protect priests and merchants who enjoyed protection under a formalized colony. NOGs are the instruments of 21st century neo-imperialist policy with a soft front and a very hard core of commercial, political and military interests behind the soft face of human rights.
An example of the NGOs role in neo-imperialism is a case of Russian national Alexei Pankin who ran a USAID-funded media-influence program with $10.5 million coming from billionaire George Soros.
In a published interview, Pankin admitted that his NGOs included US intelligence officers. Russian police have cracked down on numerous non-governmental organizations receiving foreign government funding, an act that means they are in fact foreign agents by definition even in the US. One way that the US has used to circumvent the direct ties with NGOs is to establish funding through foundations including the National Endowment for Democracy, Ford, Rockefeller, Soros, etc. The money trail may start with the foundations, but behind them are the government and the largest multination corporations interested in the integration of former Soviet republics into the Western sphere of influence in every sense from cultural and political to economic and strategic.
The role of U.S.-funded NGOs in trying to impose regime change in a number of Latin American, African, Asian and Eurasian countries has been controversial because people have one impression of NGOs when in fact that impression has nothing to do with the reality. Although NGOs operate on a large scale in the former Soviet republics, their role is hardly known because the Western media does not conduct investigative reporting to expose their sources of funding, their tactics and goals. On the contrary, the media focuses on what appears to be grassroots movements for progressive change, without mentioning that behind the movements are NGO’s and that the movements often contain extreme reactionary elements. This is exactly what took place in Ukraine where neo-Nazis were part of the pro-West movement.
Besides US and EU governments, the IMF and World Bank as well as large corporations funding private foundations are behind the NGOs in the former Soviet republics with the ultimate goal of thoroughly integrating them into the Western orbit of influence – militarily, politically, and economically. The International Center for Policy Studies in Ukraine, an organization devoted to integrate Ukraine into the West, takes pride that the country had more than 40,000 NGOs involving citizens that took place in the Orange Revolution. Needless to say, when a revolution is top down, paid for and manufactured, it hardly represents the grassroots and it hardly has a chance at success, as we have seen in the last two years in civil-war torn Ukraine. This raises the question of how the West uses NGOs to stage revolutions for counterrevolutionary purposes, while all along projecting the impression to the public that the goal is human rights, freedom and democracy.
NGOs can play a vital role in monitoring the abuses of governments and violations of civil rights and human rights. They can also play a significant role assisting in emergency situations with epidemics, famine, refugees, and environmental disasters, economic, social and scientific development, and other such causes that promote the welfare of people and the planet. No doubt, the people involved in NGOs come from the professional middle class and represent a value system and perspectives of the bourgeois society, while the people on the receiving end are invariably working class and peasants. As long as the needs of people are met, the civil society concept is fine. However, when the purpose is to coopt the masses into a political system and consumerist culture, when the purpose is to prevent progressive forces from achieving social justice instead of helping them, then civil society is nothing but an instrument of imperialism.
The president of Liberia recently warned that although NGOs had financial and moral integrity problems, they were challenging the state's sovereignty on the same grounds. That so many NGOs have become everything from soft pressure or lobbying groups for governments and business, that others are in the business of spying that modern technology has made easier, or that they have sinister goals of undermining the public good in order to serve narrow interests is a distortion of the historical purpose of NGOs.