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NGOs: Dependent 'Independents'

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NGOs: Dependent 'Independents'

Horner Article in the EU Reporter

Curious exhortations last week by crusading Commissioner David Byrne elevated questions over the deceptive role played by the Commission funded, yet purportedly “independent” lobby of NGOs (“non-governmental organizations”). NGOs claim to represent “civil society” albeit completely free of any requirement to disclose financial backing and, if any, their constituency. Still, evidence is increasingly available that the NGO lobby may be little more than a collection of front groups seeking to advance Commission and, often, big business agendas.

Experts on trends in modern democracy describe civil society as a collection of communitarians insisting on the need to override the wishes of the individual in the name of the greater good. (Berry, C. 1993. ‘Shared Understanding and the Democratic Way of Life.’ In Chapman, J. and I. Shapiro eds. Democratic Community NOMOS XXXV New York: New York University Press, 67). This structural reform and the concomitant agenda specifics are not, however, argued simply in the name of communal benefit. Instead, NGOs speak on the express pretense of representing the voice of unnamed masses advocating sublimation of their own freedoms and choice to the state.

Public funding of NGOs

Typically there is little honest idea of who these groups represent. Nor is there any way for the public, Parliament, and likely the deep-pocketed Commission to find this out, despite the latter representing (and also financing NGOs on behalf of) the taxpaying public. Although Commission specifics are elusive, it is inarguable that there is substantial public financing of NGOs and a corresponding growth in their influence on policy. Given this and, indeed, NGOs’ partnership with policymakers, who if anyone has actually assigned representative status to these groups is an issue of growing concern among certain lawmakers, as well as the regulated community bearing the brunt of the policy steamroller that is the communitarians’ agenda.

In the near future, EU Reporter will publish the 

results of its inquiry into the actual constituencies, if any, represented by the increasingly influential groups. Further, EU Reporter will focus upon who funds these groups. This is also a relevant inquiry given the response by NGOs to any idea resistant to their agenda, for example decrying “industry-funded studies” or even, ironically, rival groups as mere tools of a larger agenda.

For now, comments by Byrne bring to the fore the chasm between perception and reality of NGOs’ independence, and their true role within the policymaking industry.

Anti-business voices

Commissioner for Health and Consumer Affairs Byrne attended portions of the 6th Annual Meeting of the Commission-chartered Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue (TACD) held in Brussels from 2-4 February. Sessions included an obesity conference with governmental representatives from the U.S., EU and numerous NGOs including some of America’s most rabid anti-business voices.

At such a session Byrne lauded the benefit of the TACD having the counsel of such “independent” consumer voices as the European Consumers’ Organisation (BEUC). The Commissioner’s clear implication, as well as that of TACD and BEUC publications, is that TACD brings together disparate voices representative of – and representing –actual consumers for the purpose of educating a bureaucracy eager to “develop and agree joint consumer policy recommendations to the US and European Union to promote the consumer interest in EU and US policy making.”

“Independent”

This quote is from TACD’s website, which despite voluminous rhetoric on TACD’s use of “independent” advisors – even helpfully noting it offices within the NGO Consumers International – bashfully demurs on the subject of its origins in the Commission.

TACD also holds forth that the group, launched in great part on Byrne’s initiative in 1998, “provide[s] a formal mechanism for EU and US consumer representatives open to all EU or US consumer organizations which are independent of business and political interest.” Again, this intimates a council of advisory groups representing and representative of consumers. Reality paints a picture so different as to beg the question whether this slogan of democratic policy making is not merely self-interested advocacy of a stark if deceptive form.

The Commission established this “third party” to, as Mr. Byrne put it this week, serve as “an important source for ideas for EU policymakers.” It appears, however, that instead of serving as a source for ideas for the Commission TACD, through its council of anti-business activists, is a straw advocate to second views of the Commission. Adding to this perception is that BEUC, like so many NGO advocates purporting to represent constituencies, receives as much as 90% of its funding from the Commission it so ably serves.

Elected and appointed leaders, particularly those who increasingly rely upon NGOs to support their agendas, increasingly assert in word and deed the importance to their work product of NGOs. Sound public policy is to avoid even the appearance that this increasingly influential tool of policy makers is in fact little more than a collection of Potemkin villages.

Right-to-know

Traditional commercial interests do not have the luxury of keeping their funding or constituencies free from scrutiny or debate. NGOs advocating codes of corporate social responsibility offer up no such programs applicable to themselves. Sound policy and the public’s right-toknow logically lead to requiring parity of disclosure and other standardization among organized advocates that seek to impact the laws that govern all.

All of this does seem to militate in favor of transparency requirements allowing the public to understand how they might be swayed to support policies actually advanced by regulators’ or, on occasion, industry ambitions (the latter a subject this paper will address in

future reporting). Equally important, this would arm those policy makers who to date remain unaware to gauge, or as appropriate rebut, the supposed independent, expert and representative advice that increasingly guides public policies emanating from Brussels.