National democracies today often present a bleak picture with fractured electorates dominated by minority parties that come to power through a combination of shrewd vote-skewing and sophisticated sponsored messaging. At the same time, traditional methods of inter-electoral participation like protest and petition have increasingly fallen on deaf ears. These issues with national democracies, have left many questioning our political processes and looking at possibilities for reform. The problems with democracy, as we know it, however, go much deeper than national politics, because many decisions today being made on the international level. Those decisions are made in a very different way, with a very different sort of ‘citizen input’ than is generally perceived. This is particularly true for those who favour ‘doing good’ through NGO or civil society bodies as a means of bypassing the elitism and/or corruption of electoral politics. While many civil society organizations do ‘do good’, public perceptions of the role they play in international decision-making are based on past performances that look nothing like the reality of today.
When someone hears the term ‘NGO’ chances are that they will think of an organization like the Red Cross or the World Wildlife Fund – bodies that run on a non-profit basis and that pursue uncontroversial goals, like alleviating suffering in conflict or protecting endangered species. However, ‘NGO’ at its most basic just means ‘non-governmental organization’ and there is no requirement that the goals or methods of NGOs be endorsed by, or of benefit to, the broader public. As a result, many NGOs that seek to influence decision-making at international bodies like the United Nations (UN) or World Trade Organization (WTO) are not necessarily founded for the benefit of all humanity or even of all of the citizens of a particular nation.
This is so much so that many ‘NGOs’ are either umbrella organizations for corporate interests, privately funded think tanks, or a mixture of the two. For example, the American Forest and Paper Association, which has enjoyed roster status at the UN since 1996, is an umbrella organization for American paper product manufacturers. It is joined on the UN’s roster list by the Arab Federation for Food Industries and the Association of European Manufacturers of Internal Combustion Engines, to name but a few. And specialized industry ‘NGOs’ like these are small fish compared to the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), the international business association to which many large companies belong. The ICC has held general consultative status (the highest status an NGO can hold) with the UN since 1946, and it has not been working with the United Nations for so long without having clear ideas about the advantages it is getting. According to its website, membership in the ICC gives businesses “access to the corridors of power” by placing “company executives…in contact with ministers and international officials at the heart of intergovernmental groups such as the G20 and the United Nations” promising that they can thus “help write the rules that business uses every day to reduce costs and uncertainties in areas from arbitration to banking and commercial contracts”. In other words, for ICC the benefits of UN accreditation do not include the chance to help the destitute and downtrodden, nor even to ‘help make the world a better place’ in some nebulous sense, but rather the access to power that allows businesses to write their own laws.
It’s fair to say, that this is not the picture most people have in mind when they think about civil society activism, nor does it present an atmosphere any more conducive to decision-making in non-elite interests than national electoral politics does.
The situation is similar at other big international institutions. For example, the WTO is famous for allowing NGOs to attend its negotiating meetings, thereby giving their delegates the chance to directly lobby national representatives on matters of international trade. However, an NGO can only send delegates to a WTO meeting if it is accredited, and this is rarely the case for grassroots organizations. In fact, at the WTO’s Ministerial Conference in 2011, 40% of all accredited NGOs directly represented businesses, e.g. The European Chemical Industry Council, the Canadian Turkey Marketing Agency, and MEDEF (France’s association of employers).
And disturbing as this is, corporations give the entire business another turn of the screw by funding other, nominally independent, NGOs. After all, the ‘non-profit sector’ operates according to funding principles that aren’t much different than those of political parties. While some of the largest NGOs still go collecting on the street, it’s the corporate donations that can total hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars that provide the core of their budgets. For example, CARE International (an aid organization that fights poverty in the developing world), includes on its top donors list: Coca-Cola, Credit Suisse, Starbucks, Google, Goldman Sachs, Nike, J.P. Morgan and Proctor & Gamble; while Oxfam (which primarily focuses on providing potable water), has ‘strategic partnerships’ with Unilever (which generously helps Oxfam incorporate small farmers into Unilever’s global supply chain), Nokia, Accenture and KPMG (which gives the organization ‘tax advice’). It’s more than fair to wonder how much the priorities of these NGOs, who also participate in international decision-making, might be affected by their generous corporate sponsors.
In fact, this revolving door between politics, corporations and NGOs was sensationally revealed in late 2014 when the global children’s charity, Save the Children, handed former British Prime Minister Tony Blair (one of the architects of the Second Iraq War which killed and injured thousands of children) a Global Legacy Award at a red carpet gala in New York. No surprise perhaps when one considers that Save the Children is funded by Unilever, Proctor and Gamble, Barclay’s Bank, Pfizer, Coca-Cola, Goldman Sachs, KPMG and IKEA to name but a few, and that members of Save the Children’s top staff had previously worked for Tony Blair. Some of Save the Children’s donors also contribute to political campaigns and most have benefitted from lax corporate taxation regimes at the national level, which are, of course, maintained by people like Tony Blair. While many people – including Save the Children staff members – were outraged, the episode reflects how a mechanism that was supposed to help vulnerable people find a voice in world politics has been hijacked by elite interests and is now used as a closed-circuit to reward themselves in an atmosphere where their priorities and choices are not radically questioned, even by those agencies that are, at least on paper, supposed to be acting as a vehicle of empowerment for the world’s most vulnerable.
By funding both their own and other pre-existing non-profit organizations, corporations and financial interests are exploiting the possibility of NGO participation at international institutions to trap the entire political system in a classic pincer movement. It’s a simple game, because big business already exercises a substantial degree of influence over national election outcomes. The winners of these elections go on to represent the State on an international level, where, in their interactions with other States and international organizations, they need to pay close attention to the needs of their sponsors if they want to be re-elected. This is the first line that corporations have into the international decision-making process: the knowledge that if their wishes are not considered, they can punish a politician for it later.
However, this still leaves the problem of the corporate-backed politician who is willing to break away from their sponsors and potentially double-cross them when it comes to making political decisions at an international organizations like the UN and WTO. Allowing corporations to form NGOs which are accredited to international organizations cuts down on the chances of this happening by giving corporate sponsors a second line into that decision-making process, a back-up plan as it were, that allows them to directly oversee international negotiations as they are happening. National representatives are thus caught in a vice between funding from the commercial arm of the enterprise on a national level and lobbying from their ‘NGO’ arm on an international level. There’s simply no escape, even for the rare politician who might want to go rogue.
Of course, not all internationally-active NGOs are business-oriented. Governments themselves also often take a hand in setting up and funding the NGOs that will be accredited to attend international meetings where they will allegedly ‘challenge’ those government policies. For example, the European Centre of Development Policy Management is funded exclusively by European governments, while Kenya’s Institute of Economic Affairs has received funding from the Canadian and Swedish International Development Agencies, the European Union, the Center for Private Enterprise, the World Bank, the Dutch and Danish Embassies and the British Council. Both organizations attended the 2011 WTO Ministerial Conference, where their ‘completely different’ perspective was no doubt highly appreciated by the representatives from their sponsor States.
Perhaps the NGO that best incorporates all of the elements of this NGO-industrial complex is the Club of Madrid (technically called, with a fitting sense of sophistication, the ‘Club de Madrid’). The Club of Madrid, which has enjoyed special consultative status at the UN since 2007, is composed of nearly 100 former Presidents and Prime Ministers, including: Bill Clinton (USA), Helmut Kohl (Germany), Carl Bildt (Sweden), Mikhail Gorbachev (Russia), Javier Solana (NATO/EU), and Mary Robinson (Ireland). The Club receives funding from, among others, the cities of Rotterdam and Madrid, the World Bank, the IMF, the Governments of Belgium and Mexico and the International Development Agencies of Australia and Sweden. It also receives sponsorship from Walmart, Microsoft and NATO. So, in short, the Club of Madrid, is an organization composed of former Heads of State (i.e. some of the most powerful individuals in the world) that accepts material gain from Walmart (one of the world’s most profitable corporations that has become synonymous with outsourced manufacturing, underpaying its workforce and heavy PAC contributions to American political campaigns), as well as from NATO (a military alliance that has largely degenerated into a glorified Groupon Club for arms purchases) and, of course, from the IMF and World Bank. To put it even more succinctly, the IMF, World Bank, NATO and Walmart are footing the bill for former presidents to influence decision-making at the UN well past their term in office. In other words, this kind of participation serves, all-too-often, to reinforce the prevailing power structures in world politics rather than to counteract them.
The public image of NGO participation at an organization like the WTO or UN is one of grassroots activists challenging representatives to act more responsibly on public interest issues, such as protecting the environment or ending poverty. This is because we often see these activists staging theatrical protests outside of these meetings. However, inside the meetings, the reality of NGO participation looks much different. Here national representatives will mingle with delegates from trade and corporate associations, former heads of state, university professors and functionaries from think tanks and institutes funded by their own governments. This is then packaged for public consumption as a consultation between ‘differing’ or ‘wide-ranging’ points of view. While a few token grassroots organizations inevitably manage to gain accreditation to these meetings, their views are effectively drowned out in the flood of corporate and government interests that already control official decision-making processes and which use ‘NGO’-funding to dominate the unofficial channels as well.
It is easy, in this atmosphere, to push genuine NGOs to the fringe of political discussion, because their policies are often more disruptive than those of say, the Club of Madrid, but also because it is more difficult for grassroots NGOs to organize in the first place, as they are generally unable to call on the generous funding of Walmart, Coca-Cola or NATO to assist them in their lobbying efforts. In this sense, international decision-making, even when it incorporates ‘civil society’ tends to mirror the elite biases of electoral politics.
The issues with democracy today, of course, include problems surrounding elections, such as loose campaign finance and corporate sponsorship, but they also go deeper and encompass severe inequalities in non-electoral participation, especially in the international civil society sector. This ‘informal’ participation, after all, plays a major role in buttressing and legitimizing unpopular government decisions, as it provides the nebulous (and mainly false) reassurance that ‘something’ is being done and some ‘voices’ are being heard at the international level. Reclaiming citizen participation is as much about facing up to the true nature of these ‘informal’ NGO participation structures, as it is about reforming the electoral process.
This article originally appeared on Alternet.org