NGOs lead by example Worlds international NGOs endorse by tyndale


									                                 The Week in Europe
                                  By David Jessop

I have had an ambivalence about Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) ever
since I was at university. My reasons then and now relate to the way in which these
powerful organisations speak in absolutes and claim to be the world’s moral and
social conscience.

A week or so ago, eleven ‘leading human rights, environmental and social
development organisations’ endorsed an accountability charter for the non-profit
sector. These bodies, which include household brands like Oxfam, ActionAid,
Amnesty, Greenpeace, Save the Children and Transparency International, agreed a
code of conduct for NGOs. They created in the process what seems to be a new
category of global organisation, the international NGO.

Their objective in doing so was to set standards of accountability for themselves.
They signed a document that established core values and operating principles on
issues such as good governance, fundraising, respect for the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights and ethical objectives in fundraising.

The document was a response to growing questions about the legitimacy of such
organisations and who they speak for.

I have much sympathy with the broad social objectives of NGO’s and in particular the
original basis on which they were created. They cover gaps in the social provision in
many nations and provide relief in the event of major catastrophes such as a tsunami,
hurricanes or famines. In all these areas they have ably demonstrated a capacity that
has put governments to shame by their ability to mobilise finance and practical
support along with the rapid delivery of relief in complex situations.

I also respect their desire to create greater social equity and to bring about change in a
manner that ensures the world’s poorest benefit from economic growth and have
governments of their own choosing.

But where I have grave doubts – and here the Caribbean’s experience helps makes the
case - is when such NGOs begin to take positions of advocacy without recognising
that the world is complex and single solutions can not be applied to all. I also have a
deep concern about basis on which NGOs have been sucked into a process that
enables governments and international development agencies to justify their policies
and actions on the basis that dialogue with NGO representatives legitimises the plans
of the donor organisations.

With the exception of Haiti, Caribbean countries do not figure among the world’s
poorest nations. By applying the criteria of Gross National Product the region has
been set apart from other small and vulnerable developing nations by multilateral
agencies and is said to consist of middle ranking developing economies.

NGOs endorse this simplistic view of the Caribbean and to a significant extent have
as a consequence withdrawn from much of the region and the difficult issues of
economic transition it has to address. Arguably this is also because their core groups
of financial supporters in the developed world prefer simple messages and being
associated with helping those in absolute poverty.

Nowhere is this failure to address the complexity of international economic
relationships and the nature of poverty more apparent than when it comes to issues of
trade policy in the Caribbean.

By seeking solutions that benefit the largest number of the poorest in the world the
big NGOs are in danger of preferring in the context of trade, rapidly emerging
economies like Brazil over nations such as Guyana and Jamaica. This over simplistic
approach has been particularly evident in the case of sugar where a number of
international NGOs have taken a line that fails to understand that the consequence of
their policy will be for Brazil’s huge landowners to emerge as the pre-eminent global
sugar supplier to the detriment of the rural community of the Caribbean.

International NGOs have also in the past been at the forefront of actions that have
delayed key infrastructural projects in environmentally sensitive nations such as
Belize and Guyana without any suggestion or support for alternative courses of
action. There is some irony in this as developed country NGOs have the wealth and
support that they have because earlier generations of those who fund them benefited
from the largely unopposed deforestation and subsequent industrialisation of
eighteenth century Europe.

Another area in which NGO activity is questionable relates to governance. NGOs
seem set on promoting western absolutes in part, it seems, in response to the huge
sums of money that the world’s developed nations now want to throw at the
promotion of good governance. The consequence is that they now give less
consideration to the importance of social justice and equity in some nations and place
greater emphasis on the application of western democratic norms.

The decision by the world’s most powerful NGO’s to agree an accountability charter
is welcome but marks a further step away from their origins. It implies that they are
now seeking to become a part of the establishment with a political agenda, leaving
one to wonder if in years to come their desire for accountability and legitimacy will
lead them into becoming the first international global political parties.

They are not Governments and they have not been elected. They have huge financial
resources but a growing need to maintain the voluntary flow of cash on which their
often very large establishments are now dependent. They have seen poverty, the
reasons it exists and the justifiable emotional reaction it causes, as a reason to become
involved in the policy environment. In the process they have become a form of
business with market-oriented justifications for aggressive sales and marketing
techniques to sustain their revenues.

The decision by some of the world’s most influential NGOs to find a basis to be seen
as transparent and accountable in order, as they put it, to ‘merit the respect and
support they have’ will only have value if there is some penalty for non compliance
and greater certainty about where such bodies see their limits.
For the Caribbean, international NGOs would have much greater value if they re-
engaged and developed a nuanced, non- absolutist and supportive approach when
dealing with nations that are neither poor nor rich, but have unique problems that have
to be resolved within the trade, development and environmental rules that the world
has created.

David Jessop is the Director of the Caribbean Council and can be contacted at
Previous columns can be found at
June 9th, 2006

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