NGOs: Facing Up to the Need for a Viable Change Strategy

Sep 19 2003

John Bunzl, Director of the International Simultaneous Policy Organisation
(ISPO), comments on Naomi Klein’s article, Bush to NGOs: Watch Your Mouths,
appearing in the Global and Mail, June 20th 2003

Bush to NGOs: Watch your mouths
by Naomi Klein

The Bush administration has found its next target for pre-emptive war, but
it’s not Iran, Syria or North Korea — not yet, anyway.

Before launching any new foreign adventures, the Bush gang has some
homeland housekeeping to take care of: It is going to sweep up those pesky
non-governmental organizations that are helping to turn world opinion
against U.S. bombs and brands.

The war on NGOs is being fought on two clear fronts. One buys the silence
and complicity of mainstream humanitarian and religious groups by offering
lucrative reconstruction contracts. The other marginalizes and criminalizes
more independent-minded NGOs by claiming that their work is a threat to
democracy. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is in
charge of handing out the carrots, while the American Enterprise Institute,
the most powerful think tank in Washington, D.C., is wielding the sticks.

On May 21 in Washington, Andrew Natsios, the head of USAID, gave a speech
blasting U.S. NGOs for failing to play a role many of them didn’t realize
they had been assigned: doing public relations for the U.S. government.
According to InterAction, the network of 160 relief and development NGOs
that hosted the conference, Mr. Natsios was “irritated” that starving and
sick Iraqi and Afghan children didn’t realize that their food and vaccines
were coming to them courtesy of George W. Bush. From now on, NGOs had to do
a better job of linking their humanitarian assistance to U.S. foreign policy
and making it clear that they are “an arm of the U.S. government.” If they
didn’t, InterAction reported, “Natsios threatened to personally tear up
their contracts and find new partners.”

For aid workers, there are even more strings attached to U.S. dollars.
USAID told several NGOs that have been awarded humanitarian contracts that
they cannot speak to the media — all requests from reporters must go
through Washington. Mary McClymont, CEO of InterAction, calls the demands
“unprecedented,” and says, “It looks like the NGOs aren’t independent and
can’t speak for themselves about what they see and think.”

Many humanitarian leaders are shocked to hear their work described as “an
arm” of government; most see themselves as independent (that would be the
“non-governmental” part of the name).

The best NGOs are loyal to their causes, not to countries, and they aren’t
afraid to blow the whistle on their own governments. Think of Medecins Sans
Frontieres (‘Doctors Without Borders’ — JW) standing up to the White House
and the European Union over AIDS drug patents, or Human Rights Watch’s
campaign against the death penalty in the United States. Mr. Natsios
himself embraced this independence in his previous job as vice-president of
World Vision. During the North Korean famine, he didn’t hesitate to blast
his own government for withholding food aid, calling the Clinton
administration’s response “too slow” and its claim that politics was not a
factor “total nonsense.”

Don’t expect candor like that from the aid groups Mr. Natsios now oversees
in Iraq. These days, NGOs are supposed to do nothing more than quietly pass
out care packages with a big “brought to you by the U.S.A.” logo attached —
in public-private partnerships with Bechtel and Halliburton, of course.

That is the message of NGO Watch, an initiative of the American Enterprise
Institute and the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies,
which takes aim at the growing political influence of the non-profit sector.
The stated purpose of the Web site, launched on June 11, is to “bring
clarity and accountability to the burgeoning world of NGOs.”

In fact, it is a McCarthyite blacklist, telling tales on any NGO that
dares speak against Bush administration policies or in support of
international treaties opposed by the White House.

This bizarre initiative takes as its premise the idea that there is
something sinister about “unelected” groups of citizens getting together to
try to influence their government. “The extraordinary growth of advocacy
NGOs in liberal democracies has the potential to undermine the sovereignty
of constitutional democracies,” the site claims.

Coming from the AEI, this is not without irony. As Raj Patel, policy
analyst at the California-based NGO Food First, points out, “The American
Enterprise Institute is an NGO itself, and it is supported by the most
powerful corporations on the planet. They are accountable only to their
board, which includes Motorola, American Express and ExxonMobil.” As for
influence, few peddle it quite like the AEI, the looniest ideas of which
have a way of becoming Bush administration policy. And no wonder. Richard
Perle, member and former chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board, is
an AEI fellow, along with Lynne Cheney, wife of the vice-president; the Bush
administration is crowded with former AEI fellows.

As President Bush said at an AEI dinner in February, “At the American
Enterprise Institute, some of the finest minds in our nation are at work on
some of the greatest challenges to our nation. You do such good work that
my administration has borrowed 20 such minds.” In other words, the AEI is
more than a think tank; it’s Mr. Bush’s out-sourced brain.

Taken together with Mr. Natsios’ statements, this attack on the non-profit
sector marks the emergence of a new Bush doctrine: NGOs should be nothing
more than the good-hearted charity wing of the military, silently mopping up
after wars and famines. Their job is not to ask how these tragedies could
have been averted, or to advocate for policy solutions. And it is certainly
not to join anti-war and fair-trade movements pushing for real political

The control freaks in the White House have really outdone themselves this
time. First they tried to silence governments critical of their foreign
policies by buying them off with aid packages and trade deals. (Last month
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick said that the United States would
only enter into new trade agreements with countries that offered
“co-operation or better on foreign policy and security issues.”) Next, they
made sure the press didn’t ask hard question during the war by trading
journalistic access for editorial control.

Now they are attempting to turn relief workers in Iraq and Afghanistan
into publicists for Mr. Bush’s Brand U.S.A., to embed them in the Pentagon,
like Fox News reporters.

The U.S. government is usually described as “unilateralist,” but I don’t
think that’s quite accurate. The Bush administration may be willing to go
it alone, but what it really wants is legions of self-censoring followers,
from foreign governments to national journalists and international NGOs.

This is not a lone wolf we are dealing with, it’s a sheep-herder. The
question is: Which of the NGOs will play the sheep?
_ _ _ _ _ _ _

John Bunzl comments:

Ms. Klein’s excellent article raises some important surface issues but it
skates over some of the more crucial underlying points which I shall now
attempt to elucidate.

While Klein understandably personalises the attack on NGOs as a
kind of “Bush project”, we should be aware that, as the so-called Superpower
of Peace and Justice gathers force in the shape of NGOs and their
supporters, so the established political system is BOUND to fight it. This
fight is not in reality a ‘Bush project’ or even a matter of choice; it is
instead ENTIRELY inevitable. Bush, as the established system’s most
prominent leader, is merely the messenger boy. Why? Because the whole point
of democratic government is,

a) that IT and ONLY IT has the monopoly on governance, since you can’t have
two entities – governments AND NGOs – both trying to govern the same
populace and;

b) that since liberal democracies are at least theoretically democratic and
thus offer a means by which the government can be changed, there can and
should be no NEED nor justification for any alternative political force that
operates outside the established processes of that system.

For after all, the AEI and others would argue, “if you don’t like the
present leaders or system, you NGOs can always become political parties, get
yourselves voted into office, and then change the system or leaders that
way”. And lets face it, the AEI, ostensibly at least, has a point! Indeed,
this is surely what underlies the AEI’s comment: “The extraordinary growth
of advocacy NGOs in liberal democracies has the potential to undermine the
sovereignty of constitutional democracies”.

Be that as it may, the political influence of NGOs is bound to become
increasingly powerful because, as the people instinctively know and as
rampant voter apathy confirms, the present ‘liberal democracies’ are little
more than hollowed out pseudo-democracies. So, to the people desperately
looking for a means of political expression, NGOs look like their best and
only bet. But the more they express their political desires through NGOs,
the more the leaders of the established democracies can legitimately argue
that, in exercising political power OUTSIDE the established political
process, NGOs are illegitimately competing with liberal democracy and can
thus be said to be undermining it. The stronger NGOs become, therefore, the
more they’ll compete with the existing system: the stronger they get, the
more they can be portrayed as undermining democracy. However hollow or
corrupt NGOs may feel the established political system to be, it should be
clear that their’s is not a genuine strategy for change but one bound for
conflict – and not one they’re likely to win.

For as I have pointed out, there can only be ONE entity or system which has
the monopoly on
governance, so the existing system cannot and will not tolerate any
competition: a serious conflict is consequently inevitable. So this is not
really a ‘Bush project’; it’s really just a fact of political life that NGOs
and their supporters are yet to take on board. What Klein is reporting,
therefore, are merely the opening and tentative skirmishes of that conflict.

Furthermore, in defending democracy (as Bush, Blair and the economic elites
who benifit from our present hollowed-out system of democracy would see it),
its leaders will feel themselves quite justified in attacking the most
vulnerable NGOs first; i.e. those who depend primarily on governments for
funding, contracts, etc. That large swathe of the so-called Superpower of
Peace and Justice is likely therefore to be bought off and co-opted without
great difficulty. And the beginnings of this co-option process are just what
Klein so well describes.

What will be left after the carnage is likely to be a much smaller band of
NGOs who insist on their independence and who are primarily funded by the
public. But again, if their voice becomes too powerful, they will be
branded – as they already ARE being by the AEI – as having “the potential to
undermine the sovereignty of constitutional democracies” essentially because
they refuse to become political parties and thus to participate in the
established political process. This refusal by NGOs to exercise their
growing voice through established processes is, therefore, the nub of their
dilemma and their weak point.

For not only can attacks by the established system be argued as justified,
from a practical point of view it means that there is only one principal
means by which the growing political power of NGOs can be expressed: through
street protest. But this, too, can in the end be relatively easily
controlled and quashed by new laws or, if necessary, by the armies and
police the Western democracies have at their disposal. And all the while
NGOs refuse to participate in the party-political system, the leaders of
established democracies will be able to claim at least some justification in
doing so.

So the above, in my opinion, shows why the Superpower of Peace and Justice
in reality possesses only a DEFENCE strategy, and not a very good one at
that. But what it really needs, of course, is a CHANGE strategy. (See Roy
Madron and John Jopling’s excellent new book, ‘Gaian Democracies’ ISBN
1-903998-28-X for a full explanation of the difference between ‘change’ and
‘defence’ strategies.)

However, the need for an appropriate CHANGE strategy is where the
Simultaneous Policy (SP) might perhaps come in.

By adopting SP, members of the International Simultaneous Policy
Organisation pledge to vote in future elections for ANY political party or
candidate – within reason – that also adopts SP. With more and more
parliamentary seats and even entire elections – around the world being won
or lost on very small margins, citizens pledging to vote for any politician
(within reason) presents politicians in all countries with an attractive,
yet compelling, “carrot and stick” proposition.

Since SP is only to be implemented simultaneously, there’s absolutely no
political risk to politicians who adopt it because they need not fear any
economic competitive disadvantage. Indeed, they can adopt SP while
continuing to pursue their existing policy programmes until such time as all
nations have adopted and implementation proceeds. But failing to adopt SP
could cost them dearly, especially if they’re fighting closely contested
elections, for they’ll likely lose to rivals who have adopted SP to attract
the SP voting block. So SP’s growing number of adopters even if relatively
few – could make the vital difference between politicians winning or losing
their seats, or even an entire election.

Since any political power International Simultaneous Policy Organisation
(ISPO) possesses arises solely from the adoption of SP by individuals who,
in adopting, pledge to vote for ANY political party – within reason – that
other NGOs, therefore, ISPO cannot be accused of failing to exercise its
power through the established political system nor could it be accused of
undermining it. SP therefore has the potential to transcend and include
established democratic systems, changing them beyond recognition in the

Paradoxical as it may sound, this is why SP potentially represents such a
valuable CHANGE strategy to which NGOs would be wise to give serious
consideration as they increasingly face containment or co-option. For the SP
tool offers them a powerful ‘trojan horse’ for expressing their growing
political power in a new way which, while being complementary to the
important tool of street protest, is perhaps in the end much more likely to
see real change achieved.

John Bunzl – Director
International Simultaneous Policy Organisation (ISPO)
Simultaneous Policy: using our votes to take back the world

“Other News” is a personal initiative seeking to provide information that should be in the media but is not, because of commercial criteria. It welcomes contributions from everybody. Work areas include information on global issues, north-sutrh relations, gobernability of globalization. The “Other News” motto is a phrase which appeared on the wall of Barcelona’s old Customs Office, at the beginning of 2003:â€?What walls utter, media keeps silentâ€?. Roberto Savio

site admin