Wednesday, April 30, 2003

Pious Irresponsibility - the Baleful Activities of NGOs

I recently came across a piece by Sam Vaknin that makes strong criticisms of the role played by NGOs in determining the fates of many developing countries. In the name of alleviating human suffering, these unelected and unaccountable organizations take it upon themselves to promote all sorts of agendas of doubtful benefit to their intended beneficiaries, even as they undermine the authority of the elected representatives of the nations in which they operate.

It would be too simple to say that everything non-governmental organizations do is detrimental, or even that all such organizations are the same - far from it. Many NGOs do indeed do good work a lot of the time, and many of those who work for these groups are motivated by the purest of intentions. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the old saying is true: the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Policy positions advocated by NGOs, and motivated by the most noble ideals, can end up - and indeed, often have ended up - doing far more damage than the ills they are supposed to cure. The campaign against child labor is one glaring instance of this sort of naivete.

What makes matters worse is that for many NGOs, all the pious talk plays at most a marginal role to the true agenda of their participants, which is to propagate some ideologically motivated position with only the most tenuous claim to benefiting anyone other than the advocates themselves. This is particularly true of the environmental, birth control and "fair trade" lobbies, for whom perverse notions of mankind as corrupting of nature, racist fantasies of dark-skinned peoples "breeding like rabbits", or protectionism and marxist anti-capitalism, are the true motivators behind the proclamations of concern.

To offer one concrete and egregious example, take this article: not satisfied with the success of their efforts to prevent the distribution of "GM" food aid to starving Zambians, the same ideologues are now at work in Kenya, calling for more "research" into the "risk and impact of contamination of local food, labour and health" before any consideration is given to the acceptance of such aid. What is most worrisome is that they already have some of the local authorities agreeing with them, in this case, Kenyan Assistant Environment Minister Wangari Maathai, who is quoted as saying "those pushing GM food to Africa were exploiting the poverty level of African markets" ... [ farmers need to] "secure and plant their own seedlings to avoid further impoverishment".

Now, I am not surprised by the statement by the good Mr. Maathai, given the notorious tendency of Third World politicians to believe in sinister motivations behind all the actions of Western governments, but one might be forgiven for wondering if people on the edge of starvation might not have more pressing worries than "risk and impact of contamination of local food, labour and health" or the avoidance of "further impoverishment." How much more impoverished than being at starving point is it possible to get? Leaving aside such nonsense, what is truly disgusting is that organizations like Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and the like, run by comfortable Westerners for whom hunger is but an abstraction, should be willing to encourage such paranoia, and thereby to condemn millions of poor people to death, simply to further an anti-biotechnology agenda. These groups love to make a big hue-and-cry about the evils of multinational corporations, and yet their own activities are given an automatic pass by the Western media and public. Why should this be so?

And yet it is so, and is made worse by the semi-official status the NGOs are granted by corporations, and by organizations like the World Bank and the United Nations. It is not permissible for a few vocal lobby groups to be given the power to determine the fates of so many millions who have never voted for them, or even been consulted by them, simply because a few thousand spoilt brats are willing on occasion to take to the streets, faces hidden behind balaclavas, to smash up Starbucks and McDonalds.