Foreign and Defense Policy

How Foreign Aid Is Used to Support the Political Activities of NGOs

In most of the world, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) raise money the old-fashioned way: they do good deeds and demonstrate their organizing mettle to their grateful supporters, who repay them with donations. Not so in much of Europe, where NGOs, especially of the liberal stripe, are on the federal dole of most of the EU countries.

Much money goes to non-political NGOs that do invaluable work that governments do not have the expertise to address. But some funding is highly politicized. Israel is a major target. Earlier this summer, NGO Monitor detailed how the Swedish government funds explicitly anti-Israeli NGOs under the banner of “human rights” and “humanitarian aid.” Last year, NGO Monitor did a similar expose of Denmark’s pro-Palestinian NGO handout strategy. In fact, many of the “civil society” organizations deeply involved in the conflict are funded under the European Commission’s Partnership for Peace Program, which has taken a highly biased approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Now, the International Policy Network, based in London, has released a startling report, “Fake Aid,” on the latest NGO funding corruption scandal. According to the IPN, Britain is passing out more than $250 million this year to a select group of NGOs to “fund lobbying activities, marketing, and the promotion of political ideology,” rather than to deliver aid.

The UK government started funding a select group of NGOs, including such high-profile activist organizations as Oxfam, ActionAid, and the World Wildlife Fund, through the Department for International Development’s (DFID) Partnership Program Arrangements fund in 2000 with a budget of about $55 million. The list of recipients has grown, but is now frozen, so those lucky enough to be grandfathered in have a guaranteed income flow that’s set to grow to more than $300 million by 2011—a total outlay over a decade of well more than $1.5 billion.

Where is this money going and to what causes?

The funding is unrestricted, which means that some NGOs with hard-edged ideologies that conflict with UK policy end up campaigning against the government that funds them. ActionAid, for example, openly decries free trade. “There is very little evidence to support claims that free trade lifts people out of poverty—in fact, the opposite is true,” it declares in a diatribe posted on its website, ignoring the dramatic advances in China, India, and other developing countries that have embraced free trade. The IPN report is filled with dozens of similar stories uncovering the spending inconsistencies of numerous NGOs.

The UK handout program, like similar giveaway efforts in other EU countries that together total several billions of dollars, is politically invested in the “human rights-based approach” to international development that’s favored by the United Nations. That trendy idea emphasizes the loudest of the advocacy NGOs and the politicized solutions that they advocate. Pressure groups argue that wealthier countries give too little aid to poorer countries, demanding that they meet an arbitrary target of 0.7 percent of GDP set back in 1970.

But does much of the aid really trickle down to the neediest? One recent study raised serious doubts. A 2006 DFID study by Mike Battcock of Oxfam’s first five years in DFID’s program concludes, “National governments complain that UK NGOs (not specifically Oxfam) take strong positions on issues that bear no relations to the views of the people.”

Is this where reasonable people want government dollars to go? It kind of takes the “non-governmental” out of “non-governmental organizations.”

We’re going to be taking a closer look at the funding sources of NGOs and where they spend their money in the coming months at NGOWatch. Stay tuned.

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