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24 November 2003

When good people are not all they seem

They're supposed to be non-governmental. But NGOs often get more cash from government than from dona

By Stephen Grey

Ever thought about taking a job working abroad in the developing world? Well, first answer three small questions:

1. Do you believe that the Bible is “inspired, infallible and totally authoritative”?

2. Do you believe in the personality of Satan, “which is the Devil” (Revelation 20:2)?

3. Do you believe the rich and poor of this world can find salvation “by grace alone through faith in Christ”?

If you do, that’s fine. Happily, you are free in Britain to choose your religion. But if you don’t, you may be refused a job with a charity whose development projects are funded by the taxpayer.

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A close friend was asked just such questions when she applied recently for several jobs in UK development. Evangelical charities commonly demand a commitment to their “core values”, which, to some eyes, are both fundamentalist and extreme.

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have become big business and the “faith-based” ones in particular are experiencing the greatest boom. In the US, where an evangelical Christian sits in the Oval Office and where evangelicals are defining a new interventionist foreign policy, two organisations alone, World Vision US and Catholic Relief Services, have had their annual budgets doubled in ten years to a combined annual total of more than a billion dollars.

But what is interesting is not just the undeniable revival of religious fervour, but that globally this expansion has been fuelled by public cash.

In Britain, for example, the total income of World Vision UK, famous for its child sponsorship programme and haunting adverts, has grown from £17m when Tony Blair took office to nearly £33m last year (2002). Its accounts show a big increase in voluntary donations. They also show a dramatic rise in government grants from £4.3m in 1998 to £9.4m in 2002.

Most staff at World Vision would be proud to regard their work as a Christian mission, but insist both that it serves all the needy, regardless of their religion, and that it does not proselytise.

Try asking for a job with World Vision, however, and you will have to be “fully in sympathy” with its internationally agreed core values which, besides recognising the need to be sensitive to local diversity, include both a belief in the infallibility of the Bible and a commitment that salvation comes only through Christ.

The organisation’s UK website declares: “We bear witness to the redemption offered only through faith in Christ . . . We share our discovery of eternal hope in Christ.”

Such beliefs reveal World Vision’s essential missionary aim. Anyone who believes salvation can come only through turning to Christ must logically regard normal development work as secondary to the mission of helping the poor find a Christian salvation.

World Vision is not the only evangelical Christian group to benefit from state largesse. Figures from the Department for International Development (DfID) show that Tearfund, which declares that job applicants “must be committed to Tearfund’s evangelical Christian beliefs”, receives £870,000 from the department towards a total of £3.2m in official grants that helped it achieve a record income in the year to March 2003. The Adventist Development and Relief Agency (Adra), the worldwide humanitarian arm of the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, and Christian Outreach – Relief and Development (Cord), where staff are required to be committed Christians and “participate in the spiritual life of the team”, received smaller sums. Cord’s figures to the end of 2002 show that it received more than £2.4m in official grants, compared with only £617,000 in voluntary donations.

Despite their missionary bent, all these groups employ teams of idealistic people who do extremely good work. All are registered with and regulated by the Charity Commission. I question only why, as non-equal-opportunities employers, they should receive a single pound of taxpayers’ money. This is not just subsidising unfair employment practices: such subsidies also threaten the organisations’ independence and purpose.

Evangelical charities are just one illustration of the new world of NGOs, in which “non-government” is increasingly a misnomer. The term “non-governmental organisation” emerged from the UN Charter of 1945 and, by its strict UN definition, includes almost anything outside government, whether for-profit business enterprises or mutual-aid groups such as trade unions. More recently, it has come to be used for voluntary and autonomous groups that exist for some social or economic purpose other than self-interest. Most are registered as charities, though some choose not to be.

Here is the problem. In Britain, there are roughly 185,000 registered charities (excluding schools, universities and research centres) with an annual income of £15.6bn each year, including 4,100 that have individual incomes of more than £1m. All enjoy virtually tax-free status. On average they now receive about as much money from the taxpayer (about one-third of their income) as they do in voluntary donations.

Look at one of Britain’s best-run charities, Oxfam, which has become a major UK government contractor. Last year, Oxfam’s accounts showed an income of £190m, of which roughly £40m came from government, EU and United Nations grants, £74m from donations, and £65m from the charity’s shops and trading.

Closer inspection of the figures reveals that the government money is even more significant than it appears. “Fundraising costs” swallow up about £20m of income from donations while “trading costs” take away £55m from the shops. This leaves £115m for charitable work, though this includes a further £30m in “support costs” and for management. Taxpayers’ money therefore funds almost half of Oxfam’s actual development projects. This huge dependence on the government threatens the independence of an organisation such as Oxfam, part of whose remit is to campaign and advocate for the poor.

Whilst many NGOs, including Oxfam, work hard to keep their ideals intact, the slush funds from Whitehall, Brussels and Geneva are a corrupting force that can do nothing but provide an incentive to distort the priorities of otherwise good organisations.

In Egypt, NGOs are popularly known as “fax-writes”, as their primary mission is considered not to be to communicate in Arabic with their supporters (they have none), but instead to concentrate on mastering the sort of English-language reports that they realise their donors will love. Many charities do great work representing and standing up for the dispossessed, but their connection to the “voiceless” is becoming increasingly fragile. The world’s homeless or poor have no “membership” or voting rights on the boards of organisations that claim to represent them.

In fact, most of Britain’s NGOs are run by groups of trustees who simply appoint their successors. If the source of their funding is guaranteed by the state (or if the charity acquires great volumes of savings or assets), then it begins to lose the incentive to keep in touch with its voluntary supporters.

Even some of the best-known international NGOs can be elitist and undemocratic. Take the International Committee of the Red Cross. The work of its brave staff costs 800 million Swiss francs a year, which comes almost entirely from governments. Yet few realise that the Red Cross is not an “international organisation”, as it is normally labelled, nor even an “international committee”, but simply a private Swiss body. According to Article 7 of its statutes, the committee will “co-opt its Members from among Swiss citizens”. Non-Swiss have no power.

Mahatma Gandhi argued that the voluntary organisations he founded should not even own the buildings where they were based. He argued that the best form of NGOs, or what he called “public institutions”, should live in a state of financial crisis so that they be continually required to adapt to the demands of the members they served. In his autobiography he wrote:

“A public institution means an institution conducted with the approval, and from the funds, of the public. When such an institution ceases to have public support, it forfeits its right to exist. Institutions maintained on permanent funds are often found to ignore public opinion, and are frequently responsible for acts contrary to it. I have no doubt that the ideal is for public institutions to live, like nature, from day to day. The institution that fails to win public support has no right to exist as such.”

These days, NGOs with no public support have every right to exist, provided they get a government grant. They may also be offered a seat at the international negotiating table.

The real problem with the increasing misuse of the phrase “non-governmental” in the appellation “NGO” is that it comes as voluntary groups are winning ever-greater influence over public decisions. Mike Moore, director general of the World Trade Organisation from 1999 to 2002, quoted an agency chief who spoke at an annual UN gathering under the chairmanship of Kofi Annan. “We are in a post-parliamentary, post-democratic age,” he said. “Nation states can’t function any more, politicians are despised and people can’t even be bothered to vote any more.” According to Moore, he went on to assert that the future of governance was with international organisations in partnership with NGOs representing civil society, bypassing politicians. “Many NGOs subscribe to and push this theory,” said Moore. “It gives them power, status and resources.”

This was illustrated at the ministerial meeting of the WTO in Cancun, Mexico, where the campaigning of NGOs arguably helped to persuade developing nations, in a stunt worthy of Yasser Arafat, to pull the plug on what might have been one of the most beneficial trade deals in years.

Cancun was swamped by NGO representatives. Oxfam, for example, says it sent 37 in total. That was more than the entire official delegation from the UK’s Department of Trade and Industry, DfID, the Foreign Office and the Treasury. Many western NGOs were not just lobbying from the outside. Surprisingly, they had won places not just on the EU delegations but as official delegates for developing nations. ActionAid, another state-funded British charity, had some of its staff representing Kenya, Malawi and Uganda. One EU delegate told me: “NGOs seemed to be everywhere. And they were playing just the kind of hidden, behind-the-scenes role for which they criticise big business.”

Oxfam would argue that meetings such as the September Cancun trade summit, where NGOs stirred up opposition to UK and EU trade policies, prove that, despite government grants, they preserve their independence. “Part of our mandate is to act independently of the government and of anyone who may be financing us,” says Amy Barry, from Oxfam’s press office. “At Cancun we were acting in a way that the UK government would not feel pleased about.”

No one wishes to imply that state funding means charities will simply kowtow to governments. But this kind of perpetual subsidy, and the growing role of charities in advocacy and international political decisions, increasingly divorces them from their roots and brings them ever closer to the establishment. NGOs need to choose what they are. Are they government contractors, using public money, and therefore fully accountable and responsible to the taxpayer? Or are they the voice of the poor, taking no state money, and accountable to their members?

Cover me – I’m going in

One extreme consequence of the symbiotic relationship between governments and the modern NGO is the latter’s special suitability as cover for espionage in war-torn areas, particularly in the guise of the Bible-touting missionary charity. A CIA official, for example, admitted to the Washington Post (22 February 1996) that a “controversial loophole” permitted the CIA to employ “clerics or missionaries for clandestine work overseas”.

Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) has also made good use of NGO cover to carry out its spying, according to accounts I have heard from those who operate in the shadows. One such situation occurred in 1995, when Iraqi opposition groups were organising an attack on Saddam Hussein’s regime from the Kurdistan mountain resort of Salahuddin.

In the middle of the turmoil, two British men and their companions arrived in town. The first was from an evangelical Bible society that apparently believed the time was right to win converts for the gospel. The other was apparently a worker for a Swiss medical charity.

The rebels – mostly members of Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress – soon grew suspicious of the missionary. They wondered why he needed so many aerials and satellite dishes on his roof. The other “Swiss” worker seemed to blend in more easily. Soon bloodshed visited the country. Saddam’s tanks and his treacherous Kurdish allies arrived and slaughtered more than a hundred rebels. Before then, however, the Iraqi National Congress came to know that both men were British – members of MI6 who were using fake charity credentials as part of their “cover” for spying.

The two “NGO workers” escaped unscathed. The first was evacuated with his staff with the help of the British embassy in Turkey after an assassination threat. The “Swiss” worker bravely stayed behind when Saddam’s troops arrived and was rescued after MI6 struck a brief tactical alliance with Iranian intelligence, which smuggled him to safety across the border in the boot of a car.

“In the emptiness of a war or disaster zone,” one intelligence veteran later explained to me, “there are very few ‘covers’ that can be successfully adopted to explain the presence of a white stranger. I’m afraid an NGO worker is still one of the best.”

Espionage agents have penetrated or specially created only a handful of charities. However, the success of MI6 and the CIA in exploiting this cover demonstrates the enduring credibility of the modern NGO.

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