Policing Civil Society: NGO Watch

By Jean Hardisty and Elizabeth Furdon
From The Public Eye, Vol. 18, No. 1 - Spring 2004


As the Department of Homeland Security pursues a general crackdown on dissent, and the U.S. federal government holds (and exercises) more and more power under the rubric of the "War on Terror," civil society seems increasingly at risk. While the brunt of this crackdown has been borne by immigrant communities, particularly Muslim, Arab, and South Asian, it is also being directed at members of the antiwar movement and those opposed to the Bush Administration's politics and policies. For example, a number of environmental groups, including Rainforest Action Network and Greenpeace have been targeted by the Administration. More recently, the Drake University (Iowa) chapter of the National Lawyers Guild was subpoenaed for its records, later withdrawn after national outrage and widespread press coverage. Although scholars and activists define the term "civil society" differently, depending on the context, it is generally understood as people gathering together in nonprofit, voluntary associations to express themselves and advocate for a cause or promote an issue. Civil society acts as a counterweight to governmental power and as a regulator of the abuses of free market capitalism. Most of civil society's voluntary associations are labeled "the nonprofit sector" or "nongovernmental organizations"(NGOs). Private donations, philanthropic organizations, or the government fund these self-governing, private, nonprofit associations. When they seek the imprimatur of the United Nations, they apply for a formal status as "nongovernmental organizations" or NGOs. When granted that status, they become eligible to participate in U.N. activities. However, it is common for nonprofit organizations that lack formal United Nations NGO status to be referred to as NGOs.

Because many NGOs provide humanitarian relief or advocate for reformist goals, they are often stereotyped as "liberal." Increasingly however, as documented in the pages of The Public Eye, U.S.-based nonprofit organizations that self-identify as part of the Christian or secular Right have applied for and obtained NGO status with the United Nations. Just as the number, profile, and influence of these groups has risen within U.S. politics, they have become more prominent at the United Nations as well.

Since the mid-1990s, funders of NGOs-both private and public-have emphasized two aspects of NGO work in assessing the effectiveness of their funding: accountability and transparency. A growing body of literature is devoted to assessing the role, value, and shortcomings of NGOs, and consensus has emerged that NGOs should be reasonably accountable and transparent, though it would be unfair and counter-productive to monitor them as if they were private businesses or government programs.[1]

Supporters of NGOs argue that NGOs are more flexible, creative, and closer to the needs of those they serve than either private business or government programs. Despite this inherent value, it is nevertheless important that they conduct their work responsibly and that they indeed do with their funding what they said they would. In the words of Australian journalist Leon Gettler, "Even NGO supporters concede there are issues (concerning accountability). A report prepared by British consultant SustainAbility, in conjunction with the United Nations Environmental Program and the UN Global Compact, found that most NGOs need to come clean if they are to thrive."[2]

NGOs have responded to calls to "come clean." Following the horrifying 1994 failure of NGOs to convince the United Nations and world governments, including the United States to act decisively and in time to quell the violence in Rwanda, where refugee camps were used as staging grounds for murderous raids, NGOs undertook a self-examination that became The Humanitarian Accountability Project. Since then, a large number of NGOs have instituted more rigorous reporting and measuring systems to monitor their own effectiveness.[3]

Increased scrutiny by funders and pressure to demonstrate accountability and transparency can cause NGOs to become more cautious, less risk-taking, and less aggressive in advocating for the people (usually poor) they serve. To add to these conservatizing forces, NGOs have come under attack from rightist organizations for their "liberal" politics. The political nature of these attacks is barely disguised. For example, the Right identifies "bad" civil society as NGOs that support women's rights, environmental protections, gay rights, or indigenous peoples' rights. Often the attacks are cloaked in the neutral language of transparency and accountability. In 2004, with a conservative administration in power, these attacks can often mobilize governmental regulatory and enforcement agencies to take action against "liberal" organizations.

A case study of such right-wing attacks is "NGO Watch"-a project initiated in 2003 by the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Federalist Society.

The American Enterprise Institute's "NGO Watch"

On June 11, 2003, AEI and an Australian think tank, Institute for Public Affairs (IPA), cosponsored a conference titled "Non-governmental Organizations: The Growing Power of an Unelected Few," held at the AEI offices in Washington, D.C. The conference laid the ground for the launch of "NGO Watch"-a website and political campaign cosponsored by AEI and The Federalist Society.

NGO Watch is a clear example of a right-wing campaign designed to monitor and critique "liberal" U.N.-designated NGOs, but will undoubtedly be applied to other nonprofits with similar liberal politics, even though lacking the U.N. NGO designation.

NGO Watch is not attacking all NGOs, as its intellectual architects are always quick to point out. Those organizations that hold strictly to the social service tasks of feeding and clothing the hungry and poor have the support of AEI, the Federalist Society, and IPA. Instead NGO Watch attacks those NGOs that organize and mobilize public opinion and advocate for "liberal"causes. It charges them with being "unaccountable" to their governments, and therefore to the people of their society. NGO Watch's principal sponsor, The American Enterprise Institute, is a think tank with roots in the Old Right of former senators Barry Goldwater (R-AZ) and Strom Thurmond (R-SC). Since its founding in 1943, AEI has always been best known as a defender of free market capitalism and, as such, has represented corporate and business interests. Secondarily, because it is known as a safe haven for militarists and those who believe in international U.S. dominance, it has also been closely aligned with the military.

With the rise of the New Right in the 1970s and the election in 1980 of Ronald Reagan, AEI enjoyed a certain rebirth. But it lived in the shadow of the new kid on the block, the Heritage Foundation. It was Heritage's Mandate for Leadership that became Reagan's bible for public policy.[4]

Under the leadership of William Baroody, Jr., AEI's reputation was more moderate than that of the Heritage Foundation. Although AEI was never sidelined, since Baroody's departure in 1985, AEI has moved distinctly to the right. Under the current leadership of Christopher DeMuth, formerly a publicist in Ronald Reagan's Office of Management and Budget, it has regained much of its former stature and funding.

Since 1986, AEI has brought into its ranks some of the luminaries of right-wing social and economic public policy. A number of these appointments have been controversial, even within the Right. For instance, AEI offered a position to Charles Murray after he became too controversial for his former sponsors, the Manhattan Institute. Murray coauthored (with Richard Herrnstein) the patently racist book The Bell Curve. Other well-known and also controversial fellows and scholars are Dinesh D'Souza, William Bennett, Judge Robert Bork, Jeane Kirkpatrick, President Ronald Reagan's U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, and Lynne Cheney, wife of Vice-President Dick Cheney. These prominent people helped retain and build AEI's status as a central Washington player during the years of the Clinton Administration, when its influence within policy circles was substantial, especially within the Republican-dominated Congress, even though it was not as influential as its rival, the Heritage Foundation.

But with the arrival of the George W. Bush Administration in 2000, AEI's longstanding agenda of unfettered free-market capitalism, including deregulation, international free trade, anti-unionism, privatization, and opposition to environmentalism, became the Administration's agenda. Both the Administration and the Republican-controlled Congress have increasingly implemented here at home the policies of structural adjustment imposed on developing countries by organizations such as the IMF and the World Bank under U.S. influence. In sync with AEI, these policies include tax cuts for the wealthy, a rollback of the safety net for the poor, liberalization of access to public land for private profit, especially for extraction industries such as mining and logging, and privatization of publicly-owned infrastructure such as airwaves and schools.

All three organizations, AEI, IPA and the Federalist Society, are ideologically aligned with the Bush Administration: that is, they are well to the right of traditional mainstream conservatism. Traditional conservatism sees the need for a healthy and lively sector of voluntary associations and nonprofit advocacy groups, with each representing some particular sector of society, vying among themselves for governmental favor, public support, and attention. A strong civil society serves to limit the concentration of power in the hands of government-a central concern of traditional conservatives. The sector of the Right represented by NGO Watch, however, favors a weak civil society that does not challenge the two central ideological pillars of the contemporary Right: a free market economic system characterized by privatization and deregulation and a democratically elected government.

Responding to a proliferation of NGOs since the early 1980s, Gary Johns of the Australian think tank IPA, the inspiration and initial force behind NGO Watch, laid out the principal NGO Watch arguments regarding accountability, and developed an elaborate system for holding NGOs accountable-a system whose particulars differ little from the vetting process that U.S. philanthropies follow with their grantees.[5] In his several papers on NGOs, Johns' arguments are arbitrary and reach illogical conclusions.[6]

He grants that civil society itself is important in a thriving and well-run democracy. Then he goes on to distinguish between democracies that are "developed" and those that are "emerging."Corruption, sham representative governments, and even autocratic rulers may still characterize the "emerging" democracies. He asserts that, in such instances, NGOs have a legitimate role to play in urging the democracies forward on the path to "more developed" forms of governance.

But in the case of highly developed democracies, such as Australia (and presumably western European democracies, the United States, and Canada), Johns argues that NGOs are problematic and possibly undemocratic. He arbitrarily maintains that government in these societies accurately represents the will of the people as a whole; therefore NGOs are promoting "special interests" that most often oppose the government's-and therefore the people's-interests. Johns defines "developed" democracies as "democratic societies with accountable government, strong regulation of the corporate sector and an absence of endemic corruption in business-government dealings."[7]

He goes on to say that in such countries, "the role of NGOs is problematic… An organized and active citizenry on some issues may be good for the activists; but it may be bad for everyone else."[8]

In its statements, NGO Watch argues that NGOs in developed democracies often act on behalf of government as a replacement or usurper of legitimate government. By resting its case on the twin assertions of the legitimacy of representative government in developed democracies, and the usurpation of that legitimate power by narrowly based special interest NGOs, Gary Johns and NGO Watch condemn NGOs as antidemocratic.

From the perspective of NGO Watch, NGOs "usurp" legitimate government functions and policies in two ways. The first is by interfering in government negotiations and agreements over trade and other policies by applying pressure through advocacy work and mobilizing public opinion. The second is by criticizing business and corporate interests for acting without regard for the public interest. Indeed, NGOs do often act in contradiction to two ideological commitments that are now dominant within the U.S. government: the assumptions of neo-liberalism (a conservative ideology that supports limited government and unregulated free market capitalism, opposes government ownership of public utilities, and supports privatization of any nonmilitary governmental functions), and the consensus that democracy, which is naturally linked to a free market economic system by votaries of this argument, is the highest form of social system. NGO Watch shares the current Administration's commitment to these two beliefs and opposes any civil or government bodies that do not support them-positions that align NGO Watch with free market capitalism and its institutions, such as private corporations, businesses, free trade agreements, and unilateral international treaties.

It is no surprise to see AEI launch a campaign on behalf of corporate interests, free trade, and the free market system. Its publications, as well as its roster of supporters, fellows and donors, are consistent with such a campaign. NGO Watch directly reflects AEI's central focus on the defense and promotion of free market capitalism. As described in a New York Times editorial, AEI's June 2003 conference was a "misguided effort" that "attacked other nongovernmental groups for positions that offend the religious right." The editorial went on to say that, while the website has improved since June 2003, "its ideological underpinnings continue to rob it of credibility."[9]

Why This Campaign Now? Who Benefits?

NGO Watch accomplishes a number of strategic goals for the Right.

NGO Watch is an explicit attack on NGOs, domestically and internationally, many of which rightist groups perceive as "liberal." Accusing them of being "unaccountable" and "working for the good of a few people instead of the good of the whole society" may play very well with the broad U.S. public. At the June AEI conference, Roger Bate of International Policy Network acknowledged that, although NGOs and aid agencies do alleviate problems experienced by developing countries, some have been undermining democratic processes and, at the very least, advocating policies that exacerbate poverty and disease. "NGOs definitely provide benefits in the short run," said Bate. "But I would argue in the long run their influence is nearly always malignant, either through their own political acts directly or via aid agencies."

Bate cited the recent controversy over the use of the chemical DDT in South Africa as an instance of "eco-imperialism," with NGO influence causing significant harm. Under pressure from environmental organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace, South Africa stopped using DDT in 1996 and switched to an alternative pesticide. But then it started using DDT again in 2000 after malaria rates began to climb. "Fortunately for South Africans, their government can fund DDT spraying from their own treasury," Bate said. "[But most African countries rely] very heavily on aid. The Swedish international donor agency claims it can't fund the use of DDT in poor countries because it's illegal in Sweden. If 3 percent of Swedish babies were dying every year, that opinion would change rapidly in Sweden and in Europe." Bate went on to draw similar conclusions regarding long-term AIDS policy and genetically modified food policies.[10] From his perspective, wisdom in these areas lies in the free market.

NGO Watch defends the unfettered free market, domestically and internationally, and the freedom of private business and corporate interests to enter into agreements with governments, without NGO lobbying or mobilization of public opinion. Accusing NGOs of acting in place of the governments of the countries in which they reside, NGO Watch concludes that NGOs illegitimately usurp the sovereignty of those governments. The sector of the Right that sponsors NGO Watch believes that only duly elected democratic governments and the free market-based business community have legitimate roles in State sovereignty (decisions made by the State, actions taken by the State, and official State foreign and domestic policies).

At the June AEI conference, David Riggs of the Capital Research Center noted that, "By definition, NGOs should be independent from government. However, today 3,000 NGOs, including the National Organization of Women and Greenpeace International, have consultative status with various U.N. bodies. NGOs are promoting new international arrangements that are indifferent to the U.S. Constitution, which safeguards our liberties and guarantees our national sovereignty.[11] A hypothetical example of what NGO Watch sees as NGO interference with the natural sovereignty of the State and the legitimate operation of the free market would be an environmental group that organizes against an oil agreement between a large U.S. oil company and the Peruvian government. If the oil company agreed to adopt some of the NGOs demands, the Right would accuse it of interfering with "government sovereignty."

NGO Watch is a subtle attack on the United Nations, which legitimizes and listens to NGOs. NGO status is granted by the United Nations, an institution long opposed by the Right as a threat to U.S. sovereignty and an impediment to U.S. international economic interests. The United Nations symbolizes bilateralism in foreign policy, sets the standards (and hence the limits) of international adventurism, and gives voice to less powerful countries in international affairs. By targeting both U.S. and international NGOs, NGO Watch is accomplishing its goal of advancing the public critique and damaging the U.N.'s international legitimacy.

NGO Watch places the philanthropic sponsors of NGOs under increased scrutiny by accusing them of promoting an activist agenda that is "unaccountable"and challenges the "legitimate" agendas of governments and the free market. In the case of government funders, such as USAID, pressure from NGO Watch could discourage government agencies from using NGOs as their agents in aid, relief, and democracy-building projects. In the case of public and private foundations, NGO Watch could harass foundations with unflattering critiques packaged as "research," mobilize public opinion againstfoundations, or even pressure Congress to hold public hearings on foundation grant-making.

NGO Watch is a subtle attack on civil society itself. By drawing a distinction between civil society practices that are acceptable and those that are "unaccountable," the sector of the Right that is sponsoring NGO Watch is attempting to strip civil society of its core feature-a space where voices that are independent of government or free market economic institutions can be heard and can exert influence. Not all rightist organizations are ideologically opposed to civil society. Most are simply opposed to those organizations within civil society that oppose their goals. However, AEI and The Federalist Society see only two legitimate sources of power in society: the government (legitimate in genuine free-market democracies), and the free-market system (which operates by "the invisible hand"). One scholar has described AEI's ideology as "business fundamentalism." The Federalist Society, which in its mildest form, advocates strict constitutionalism in legal decisions, could be described as supporting a form of "judicial fundamentalism."[12]

AEI bases its belief that an unfettered free-market system is the only legitimate economic system on its faith in "the invisible hand" that controls market decisions and directions for the greatest benefit of society. Introduced by Adam Smith (1723-1790) in his book, The Wealth of Nations, the concept of the invisible hand currently refers to a notion that, although consumers choose the lowest priced goods and entrepreneurs seek the highest profits, consumers control entrepreneurs through the open market of competition. Economic prosperity and individual satisfaction are maximized, if consumers are free to seek the best products produced by entrepreneurs at the lowest cost. The system is self-regulating, unless government regulations, taxes, unions, and pressure from mobilized "interest groups" distort the workings of the free market.

According to the true believers of NGO Watch, free market capitalism in its pureform is unquestionably the best economic system, and the legitimate expression of public opinion occurs only through the institutions of government in a democracy. From their perspective, all other expressions reflect the will of a tiny minority and are symptomatic of the danger posed by civil society.

What Can We Learn about the Right from This Campaign?

NGO Watch has been launched in the midst of a consolidation of the Right's political power in Washington and at the state and local levels under the umbrella of the George W. Bush Administration and Republican control of both houses of Congress. It is also a time of consolidation of the Right as a social movement. Given these favorable conditions, this historical moment is the Right's chance to chill and roll back the work of liberal and progressive NGOs.

The Bush Administration creates an opportunity for the Right, one in which it must use all its muscle to push through "reforms" that will perhaps go further than the American people know or support, but which, once established, will be hard to reverse. A strategic division of labor is the key to success when a social movement has its representatives in positions of power.

How a Social Movement Works when it has Governmental Support

An effective social movement exploits its connections with power-holders and policy-makers. If it has the sympathetic ear of federal and state legislators, and is aligned with the party that holds a Congressional majority or the Presidency, its voice is magnified enormously. In this case, each group-the movement organizations and the elected and appointed official powerholders-has a role to play.

NGO Watch is sponsored by two organizations that have a strikingly symbiotic relationship with the Republican Party and especially the George W. Bush Administration. It attacks opposition groups that might hold back or even stand in the way of the shared goals of the Bush Administration, the sector of the Right represented by AEI and the Federalist Society, and the larger Right. Its home page, www.NGOWatch.org states that "Many NGOs are true grassroots organizations committed to humanitarian ideals; but many have now gone beyond their original missions and are assuming the roles of consultants to corporations and public policy and political decision makers. This is especially true for international NGOs…" This is a veiled reference to cases in which NGOs have pressured for the protection of human rights or the insertion of environmental regulations in international treaties or international business deals. This sort of "liberal" activism is nearly always opposed by the Bush Administration, and by AEI and the Federal Society.

A wonderfully illustrative document is a speech on the subject of NGOs, given by the secretary of labor in the Bush Administration, Elaine Chao. In her speech, she begins by stating how proud she is that, other than the Department of Justice, the Department of Labor has the Administration's greatest number of members of the Federalist Society members in its ranks.

In her critique of NGOs, she echoes the perspective of NGO Watch. She argues for accountability and transparency, but goes on to complain that, "…what is notable, and what you need to pay attention to, and what your program is pointing out, is the growing alliance of unelected NGOs and multilateral bodies, such as the United Nations, its various affiliated organizations, and the European Union, to influence the politics and laws of democratic societies… We've noticed that elements of controversial social agendas advocated by NGOs are cropping up more frequently in the documents of these international multilateral organizations." She complains that "Among the accredited observers found at a recent general conference attended by our department's officials were organizations whose mission statements support disarmament, the reallocation of defense spending to social needs, quotas based on sex and race, or government intervention in national cultural practices to ensure they're gender neutral. "Implying that organizations promoting these issues are "anti-liberty," Secretary Chao later states that "There's a real need for organizations that believe in liberty to become engaged in this battle for international public opinion and standard setting. All too often our side writes off the United Nations and other multilateral international organizations as a waste of our time and resources… The reality is that multilateral organizations, NGOs, are becoming major, key players in global public opinion and standard setting. Conservatives need to pay attention to these organizations and the NGOs that influence them… The (Federalist) Society's NGO Watch program will provide an invaluable resource for those who cherish freedom, liberty, transparency, and accountability.[13] In a previous issue, The Public Eye has documented how Christian Rightists have not only been engaged in obtaining NGO status at the United Nations and its bodies, but have also been members of the official U.S. delegation to the United Nations.


With so much publicity devoted to AEI's NGO Watch, it is easy to over-look another conservative NGO watchdog group, NGO Monitor, which focuses on perceived threats to Israeli interests. Run by the Institute for Contemporary Affairs (ICA), which is based in the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA), NGO Monitor is a joint venture of B'nai B'rith International, ICA, and the Wechsler Foundation. Its website states that it was founded "to promote accountability, and advance a vigorous discussion on the reports and activities of humanitarian NGOs in the frame-work of the Arab-Israeli conflict."[15] NGO Monitor cites examples of anti-Israeli "distortion" by humanitarian groups such as the UN Commission on Human Rights (which it accuses of regularly adopting 5-8 anti-Israel resolutions, and using meetings for one-sided discussions of Israeli policy), Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, the Ford Foundation, the Israel Fund, Christian Aid, and the Advocacy Project.

In an article by two researchers at JCPA, titled "Monitoring the Political Role of NGOs," the authors accuse "many NGOs" of "misquoting international law and overusing the terms 'war crimes,' 'genocide,' and 'ethnic cleansing.'" They go on to say that NGO Monitor and similar initiatives serve to challenge the moral authority of NGOs, increase the accountability demanded from them, expose them to greater scrutiny by the press and by funding organizations, and question the "halo effect" that has protected them from criticism and scrutiny.[16] The ideological slant of NGO Monitor's work is unabashedly pro-Israeli. It does not claim to be a politically neutral examination of NGO activities and practices.

By her actions, we know that Secretary Chao also supports "transparency" on the domestic front. She has pushed through an executive rule that unions must disclose how they spend their money, so that those expenditures can be challenged by their members. Transparency, in this case, is intended to open labor unions to challenges from conservatives in order to blunt labor's support for Democratic candidates.

A Campaign in Waiting

But in early 2004, NGO Watch has barely lifted off its launching pad and is presenting an anemic face to the policy world. It is virtually a campaign-in-waiting. Though it lists 170 organizations on its website, there is no relevant information about the organizations, other than publicly available information. Its ineffectiveness is apparent in the way it describes work that appears on its website: "This site will, without prejudice, compile factual data about non-governmental organizations. It will include analysis of relevant issues, treaties, and international organizations where NGOs are active. There will be cross-referenced information about corporations and NGOs, mission statements, and news about causes and campaigns. There will be links to NGOs and to articles and authors of interest."[14] This sort of research could be done by an undergraduate student. It almost seems the push behind NGO Watch is on hold. So, should we write off this effort as a non-starter for the Right?

First, NGO Watch is only one of a phalanx of attacks on progressive and liberal organizations. The attacks take many forms, from defunding liberal and progressive social service and advocacy programs to "public education" campaigns against "liberal" causes, and executive orders and recess appointments that bypass the normal governmental channels.

Second, we should know by now that when the Right's campaigns are quiescent, they are not necessarily abandoned. Time and time again we have seen rightist organizations construct an antiliberal campaign, give it a launching conference or press release, then decide that the time isn't ripe for this particular campaign. This was done with an attack on lesbian and gay people as the recipients of the plague of AIDS because of their lifestyle. AIDS as an expression of God's judgment on homosexuals and overt gay-bashing failed to move the public, and so the Christian Right toned down its rhetoric to present a compassionate face by claiming to want to save gay people from the sin of homosexuality. When "partial birth abortion" or "abstinence only" sex education curriculum were initially launched and resourced, they too were too extreme for public opinion. These early efforts create an ideological placeholder. They remain in waiting until the moment is right for them to enjoy their day of acceptance in public opinion.

We must not be naively lulled into thinking that NGO Watch is a non-starter-a campaign with no future. Rather, we should see it as a forecast of things to come.

What Consequences Can We Predict?

We should not dismiss the obvious bias of the American Enterprise Institute and its colleagues in NGO Watch as fringe rightist ideology. AEI is extremely influential within the current Administration. George W. Bush has acknowledged, that at least 20 of his Administration's members came from AEI, and others have placed that figure in the low 40s.[17] AEI is not just another player in the marketplace of ideas. Rather, it is intimately connected to the Bush Administration and, as such, signals Administration policy and tests it against public opinion, sometimes before the Administration itself has floated a public policy balloon.

The same is true of the Federalist Society. In addition to its increasingly prominent role in recommending judicial nominees for the Bush Administration (which now uses it, rather than the American Bar Association, as the source of vetting and recommendations for judicial appointments), 21 senior members of the Executive Branch of the Bush Administration are members of the Federalist Society.[18]

First, because AEI and the Federalist Society are so influential at this moment, we may see U.S. and international NGOs increasingly subjected to government scrutiny that NGOs may experience as harassment. Two areas in particular may be charted as courses of action against NGOs: 1) questioning of 501(c) (3) status by the Internal Revenue Service; and 2) a decrease in the funding of NGOs by foundations and by government bodies that use NGOs to distribute food and other form of aid. For instance, USAID is now beginning to criticize NGOs in Afghanistan for not making recipients of food donations aware that the donor is the U.S. government.[19]

Second, rightist campaigns often contain internal contradictions that seem obvious but can fly beneath the public's radar. In this case, the contradiction is between the usual mantra of the Right-that government should be limited (the more limited the better)-and the arguments made by NGO Watch that governments should be sovereign, are the only authentic voice of the people, and should have absolute power in policy making. It is rare in rightist campaigns for government to be portrayed so favorably. But the contradiction itself may be too complex for the public to grasp, and the attack on NGOs may go unquestioned by a public looking for somewhere to place blame for U.S. domestic and foreign policy misfortunes.

Third, it is common practice among rightist organizations to attack "liberal"organizations for the very practices that the rightist organizations use on a daily basis. In their accusations that progressive organizations are guilty of hypocrisy or opportunism, rightist organizations themselves use hypocrisy and opportunism. In the case of NGO Watch, rightist tax-exempt organizations (or, in the case of the Institute for Public Affairs, an actual NGO organization) are attacking other tax-exempt organizations for attempting to influence the course of history by working outside the spheres of the government and the free market. This, of course, is what rightist tax-exempt organizations do every day. But in 2003, criticizing those who oppose governmental policies is particularly beneficial for the Right, because their own ideological colleagues control government. The critique, therefore, is entirely situation-based. From the Right's perspective, in 1995 it was entirely correct to attack government, even to shut it down. In 2003, criticizing the government is seen by the Right as unpatriotic and threatening to the country. Unfortunately, public opinion can be easily distracted and logic can be submerged beneath popular rhetoric.


Many questions about the appropriate role and identity of NGOs remain unanswered and deserve lively debate among activists, funders, relief and aid organizations, religious groups, policy makers from many countries, and (importantly) recipients. A thoughtful dialogue, which places the NGO mandate of alleviating poverty and oppression at the center of the discussion, is much-needed. Unfortunately, NGO Watch, with its antiliberal political agenda and corporate clientele, holds very little promise of such a debate.

Instead, NGO Watch is a predictable right-wing attack on liberal activism, launched on behalf of corporate interests and the agenda of the George W. Bush Administration. It will play out-if not now at sometime in the near future-as a strategy of harassment against humanitarian and progressive organizations.

NGO Watch and the aggressive pursuit by the Justice Department of new governmental powers provided by the USA PATRIOT Act have already begun to chill the atmosphere in international aid work. While contributing nothing at all to making the United States more safe from attacks from within or without, NGO Watch uses the threat of its full complement of attack mechanisms, including damaging an organization's funding and credibility, to further the Right's agenda.

Jean Hardisty is President of Political Research Associates. Elizabeth Furdon is an independent researcher based in Somerville, MA

More from the
Spring 2004 Issue:

Online Articles:


1) See Alnoor Ebrahim. 2003. NGOs and Organizational Change: Discourse, Reporting, and Learning. New York: Cambridge University Press. Critiques of NGOs, and the foundations that fund them, have also been raised by pro- gressive groups and movements, which make the argument that the funding of the progressive movement by mainstream and even liberal foundations has led to "mission creep," and a corporatizing of groups within the progressive movement. Incite! Women of Color Against Violence, for example, is organizing a conference in April/May 2004 titled, "The Revolution Will Not be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex."Similarly, the World Social Forum which held its fourth meeting this year in Bombay, India, has also come under criticism for similar reasons.

2) Gettler, Leon. 2003. "For Corporate and Social Activists, the Key Word is Accountability." The Age (Melbourne), August 29, p. 2.

3) Van Tuijl, Peter and Lisa Jordan. 1999. "Political Responsibility in Transnational NGO Advocacy." Washington, DC: Bank Information Center.

4) See Heritage Foundation. 1979. Mandate for Leadership. Washington, DC: Heritage Foundation.

5) Johns, Gary. 2002. "Protocols with NGOs: The Need to Know." IPA Backgrounder, vol. 13, no. 1.

6) Ibid. See also, Johns, Gary. 2000. "NGO Way to Go." IPA Backgrounder; and Untitled, Senate Occasional Lecture, Parliament House, Canberra, August 23, 2002. Available at www.ipa.org.au.

7) Johns, "Protocols with NGOs," op. cit., p. 1.

8) Ibid.

9) "Holding Civic Groups Accountable." 2003. New York Times, July 21, p. A18.

10) AEI Press Release, June 11, 2003. See Bate, Roger, and Richard Tren. 2003. "Do NGOs Improve Wealth and Health in South Africa?" paper presented at AEI Con- ference, June 11, 2003.

11) AEI Press Release, June 11, 2003, op. cit.

12) Smith, James Allen. 1991. The Idea Brokers. New York: Free Press, p. 174.

13) Chao, Elaine. 2003. Speech at the 21st Anniversary, National Lawyers Convention Sessions, The Federalist Society, November 14, 2003.

14) Accessed on February 20, 2004 at www.NGOWatch.org.

15) See www.ngo-monitor.org

16) Steinberg, Gerald M., and Simon Lassman. 2003. "Monitoring the Political Role of NGOs," Jerusalem Letter/Viewpoints, no. 499, June 2003.

17) Lobe, Jim. 2003. "Right Wing Think Tanks Turn Wrath on NGOs." Published online by Foreign Policy in Focus, June 13, 2003, p. 1. Available at www.fpif.org.

18) People for the American Way. 2001. "The Federalist Society: From Obscurity to Power." Washington, DC: People for the American Way, August 2001.

19) Lobe, op. cit., p. 1.

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