Durban and the NGOs
by Stephen Schwartz
The massive political carnival that has taken place in Durban, South Africa, over the past week--the third United Nations World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance (to use its full, trumpeting title)--has had many moments of high and low comedy. It seemed to have reached its nadir early, with the controversy that consumed it over Zionism and the state of Israel. But it also ended by making "racism" so wide and vague a category of evil that members of "low castes" in India, women, and gays and lesbians - none of whose problems are directly implicated with "race" - were all represented as the victims of racism by the close.
To some extent, this confusion can be blamed on the major role assumed at the Durban conference by some 4,000 "non-government organizations" or NGOs. As debate raged over a draft conference resolution that labeled Israel as "a racist apartheid state" and denounced it for "war crimes, acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing," many NGOs expressed support for such intemperate anti-Israel language-and this made headlines for a day. But it also raised the question of exactly what are these bodies that apparently play such a central but also controversial role in the UN and world affairs.
The answer is that NGOs are several things. Some are activist charities such as Oxfam, Amnesty International, and Medecins Sans Frontieres. Others are what used to be called "special interest groups" in American political parlance. And even before that, in the period when Russian Communism remained a major force in world affairs, many of them would have been called "front groups." Indeed it is a sobering thought that many of the most prominent NGOs today are the same entities that the Soviets used, once upon a time, to spread propaganda and disinformation worldwide.
In other words, NGOs are activist groups - councils, committees, clubs, associations, cults, sects, and "tribes" - formed to press their demands and recommendations for the betterment of the world. The extent and diversity of such groups is so extraordinary that they constitute a kind of surrealist political universe unto themselves. For funds they depend on the traditional sources: donations by rich humanitarians and charitable foundations like the Ford Foundation, public grants from governments, national and local, to alleviate social problems or advance certain ideas, and clandestine aid from other governments aiming to exploit various grievances for their own foreign policy ends, and so on.
Sources of funding, of course, change with social and political change. American NGOs in particular tend to draw from the deep pockets of '60s "social action" veterans who have grown wealthy. In some parts of Latin America, Africa, and Asia, NGOs still receive subsidies that began under the old Soviet Union, as well as from the Cuban and Chinese Communist regimes. In the same regions, many are supported by the moderate social-democratic governments of Germany and Scandinavia, or by local authorities in France, Italy, Spain and other European countries.
Most NGOs are open, indeed campaigning, about their aims. But some disguise themselves with names and costumes intended - as in the Soviet period - to hide their real intentions. One thing, however, is certain: where there are NGOs, there are Web sites. NGOs have probably done more than any other force in the world to expand the political use of the Internet. Numerous NGOs too have been involved in the successive waves of rioting at meetings of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and other global institutions.
To genuinely understand and navigate through the NGO swamp, one must have a background in the study of politics, mainly progressive politics. Without such knowledge, most people are bound to be overly impressed, baffled, or fooled by the pretensions some NGOs assume.
Not all NGOs, of course, are equally respectable or equally influential. As Durban illustrated, some fortunate ones have been lifted into the world of global policymaking by accreditation to the United Nations. The main coordinating agency for NGOs is the UN Conference of NGOs or CONGO. A century ago, the real country of Congo was a site for rich exploitation of natural resources; today the UN's CONGO is even more important as a place where social and cultural grievances may be exploited for political advantage. Indeed, the world of NGOs has become an important environment for the fostering of careers in politics and governance.
CONGO publishes a list of its members at www.conferenceofngos.org. It is hard to see, however, on what principles they have been selected for UN approval and accreditation. At the top, because its name cannot be alphabetized, is the 3HO Foundation: Healthy, Happy, Holy. Checking the website, we find this is "a non-profit organization dedicated to sharing the teachings of Kundalini Yoga as taught by Yogi Bhajan."
The list continues, alphabetically, with a traditional religious group: the Adventist Relief and Development Agency International. Presumably, the body does more to alleviate suffering than simply promote a form of yoga; it might well coordinate with the UN on issues involving children, hunger, and refugees. But as we continue down the inventory, another name quickly stands out: the Afro-Asian People's Solidarity Organization. This is the nom de plume of a support network for guerrilla movements established in the 1960s by the Soviet Union and Cuba. A dispassionate observer might argue that this group, with its focus on "anti-imperialist war," has been responsible for much of the victimization of children, the hunger, and the flows of refugees that the Adventists have been alleviating over the same period.
Further on, we find that CONGO also comprises the Croatian World Congress, an ethnic mobilization effort sponsored, in the past, by the Croatian government. Reassuringly, CONGO also encompasses some legitimate groups--for example, the American Cancer Society, the Child Welfare League of America, and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions--that must feel out of place rubbing elbows with either the promoters of yoga, of armed insurgencies, or of ethnic particularism: Rising above such petty inconsistencies, however, are such groups in the CONGO directory as the marvelously-named International Organization of Experts, whose mission, as described on its website, is "to maintain the dignity, independence and quality of the titles of Expert and Expert-Adviser"--a doomed cause, alas,. in these days of television "talking heads."
In other words, NGOs are do-gooders, with the proviso that their ranks also include such do-badders as the Federation of Cuban Women, an arm of the Castro dictatorship to mobilize and control women rather than an independent organization to represent female interests.
The significance of NGO accreditation with the UN is that it bestows on all these very different organization some considerable credibility, justifiable or not, with governments and media. In Bosnia-Hercegovina and Kosovo, for example, legitimate freelance journalists are barred from obtaining press credentials, but employees of NGOs are handed press cards virtually on arrival in Sarajevo or Pristina. And they accordingly shape outside perceptions of what is happening there more than many media organizations.
It used to be said that war was good business, but, as one may observe in war-torn settings like the Balkans, peace is also good business. Even with NGOs present on the ground in plenitude, many ordinary people in these regions still go without food or shelter, news of their disappeared relatives, or medical care for the victims of aggression. But thanks to NGOs, numerous functionaries, bureaucrats, and experts, as well as their translators, drivers, and other employees, have jobs. As long as there is pain and oppression in the world, it seems, there will be NGOs -- some of them really helping to alleviate the world's problems, others aggravating them.
At Durban a meeting of UN-accredited NGOs aggravated the world's problems in a modest way by their overwhelming support for anti-Israel and anti-Western slanders of the crudest and most morally objectionable kind. They have pretensions, favorably looked upon by the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, to form the nucleus of "international civil society." Rather than encouraging such utopian ambitions, the UN should reform its procedures for accrediting NGOs to ensure that they are at least respectable organizations that do more good in the world than simply produce extremist political rhetoric.