NGO, Reform Thyself

These days, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) face increasing criticism.  This is something new for the global NGO movement, whose actions, campaigns, and goals have, until recently, faced little scrutiny.  How might we interpret this development?  One possible explanation is a growing unease with a double standard:  NGOs demand accountability from corporations and governments, yet exempt themselves from similar standards of accountability.  Observers who have overlooked this double standard in the past are beginning to question it.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />


For example, an organization called the African American Environment Association (AAEA) recently asked 25 <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />U.S. environmental NGOs to fill out a survey on diversity in hiring.  Twenty-one of the groups AAEA approached did not respond, including the Conservation Fund, Defenders of Wildlife, Greenpeace, National Audubon Society, Sierra Club, U.S. Public Interest Research Group, and Wilderness Society.  AAEA declared non-respondents guilty until proven innocent.  “The refusal of the groups to complete the survey conveys the appearance that there are discriminatory practices being shielded from public view,” said a March AAEA statement.


Ironically, AAEA conducts this annual survey to allow green NGOs to fight the perception that they are “intentionally elitist.”  The poor response to AAEA's survey tends to strengthen, rather than reduce, this perception.  And it also lends credibility to the belief that NGOs want to hold the private sector to a higher set of standards than they apply to themselves.  Imagine the reaction from the NGO movement were the non-respondents corporations!


Academics are also placing new scrutiny on environmental NGOs.  For instance, a December 2003 paper by Duke University scholar Stephen Linaweaver raises the possibility that NGOs based in rich countries may be, inadvertently, hurting economic development and the environment in poor countries.  Linaweaver (by no means a right-winger) sounds especially concerned about the way NGOs work to sometimes obstruct loans by the World Bank to Third World countries.


NGOs's beef with the World Bank?  You guessed it: They argue that the Bank and other international financial institutions need to be more transparent and accountable.  Linaweaver observes that this accountability crusade, if pushed too far, may make it “excessively challenging and expensive” for developing countries to obtain approval for their World Bank loan applications.  This, in turn, could produce “an underinvestment in projects [in poor countries] in an era when further development is desperately needed.”


Linaweaver's research points to some unintended consequences of the NGO campaign against the Bank.  One is that when Third World governments cannot get a World Bank loan to fund a development project, they may opt to self-finance that project and avoid the Bank altogether, along with any environmental considerations the Bank may propose.  Linaweaver says, “The more the Bank answers to Northern NGO pressure, the less influential the Bank becomes in those countries,” who opt to self-finance.  Also, “NGOs become less powerful as a result,” because they cannot pressure self-financed projects the way they can pressure World Bank-funded ones.


Linaweaver also notes that NGO demands can create situations where “environmentalism is associated with foreign meddling” by governments of the developing world.  This perception gives “government officials an excuse to pay less attention—not more” to both NGOs and environmental issues.  Third World governments on the receiving end of NGO criticism are becoming less reticent about firing back or exploring opportunities to self-finance economic development projects.


For example, in 2002, foreign NGOs repeatedly denounced the government of Ugandan President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni for pressing on with construction of a dam.  Museveni's response was thus: “Those who are saying the World Bank should not give us money, like environmentalists, should know that [the dam] will be built, whether it is by the World Bank or by ourselves.  Those who don't want the dam, do they think they are dealing with a bunch of fools?… If private companies don't build it, we shall build it.”


And in 2001, Ecuadorean President Gustavo Noboa complained about NGOs demanding that his government abandon an oil and gas development project.  He said the NGOs were asking Ecuador to put “butterflies, hummingbirds, trees, and forests” ahead of “work for our people and food for our children.”


Up to now, most criticism of the NGO movement has been from the Right, in response to NGO efforts to erode state sovereignty.  But as the above suggests, new voices are joining the critics, opening up new avenues of analysis.  The longer international NGOs continue to ignore demands for more accountability, the more determined and vocal these critics will become.  Perhaps an editorial in the Far Eastern Economic Review put it best: The day can't be far off when important sections of the public come to wonder if NGOs, who regularly demand “reforms” in the name of this-or-that cause, “don't deserve reform themselves.”