WASHINGTON -- Having led the charge to war in Iraq, an influential think-tank close to the administration of US President George W Bush has added a new target: international non-governmental organizations (NGOs). The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) is setting its sights on those groups with a "progressive" or "liberal" agenda that favors "global governance" and other notions that are also promoted by the United Nations and other multilateral agencies.
The AEI and another right-wing group, the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, have announced that they are launching a new website (www.NGOWatch.org) to expose the funding, operations and agendas of international NGOs, and particularly their alleged efforts to constrain US freedom of action in international affairs and influence the behavior of corporations abroad.
The organizations are especially alarmed by what they see as the naivete of the Bush administration and corporations that provide NGOs with funding and other support. "In many cases, naive corporate reformers, within corporations and in government, are welcoming them," complained John Entine, an AEI fellow.
To mark the site's launch, AEI, which is funded mainly by major corporations and right-wing foundations, also held an all-day conference called "NGOs: The Growing Power of an Unelected Few" that featured a series of presentations depicting NGOs as a growing and largely unaccountable threat to the Bush administration's foreign-policy goals and free-market capitalism around the world. The conference was co-sponsored by a right-wing Australian think-tank, the Institute of Public Affairs.
"NGOs have created their own rules and regulations and demanded that governments and corporations abide by those rules," according to conference organizers. "Politicians and corporate leaders are often forced to respond to the NGO media machine, and the resources of taxpayers and shareholders are used in support of ends they did not sanction. The extraordinary growth of advocacy NGOs in liberal democracies has the potential to undermine the sovereignty of constitutional democracies, as well as the effectiveness of credible NGOs," they added.
Both the website launch and Wednesday's conference might normally be dismissed as a pep rally of a far right obsessed with left-wing and European conspiracies to impose world government on the United States and destroy capitalism. But the fact that no fewer than 42 senior administration foreign-policy and justice officials have been recruited from AEI and the Federalists and that AEI "fellows" include such prominent figures as Lynne Cheney (Vice President Dick Cheney's spouse), former UN ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick and the influential Iraq hawk and former chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, Richard Perle, suggests that the events may herald a much more antagonistic attitude toward NGOs on the part of the US government.
The conference was also held on the heels of harshly critical remarks late last month by Andrew Natsios, the director of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which often contracts with NGOs for relief and development work. Natsios reportedly charged that NGOs that received USAID funding for projects in Afghanistan and elsewhere were not giving sufficient credit to the US government as the source of the aid.
His remarks coincided with moves by USAID to use more private contractors, instead of NGOs, for work in Iraq and other countries, and to impose stricter rules regarding contacts between NGOs working on USAID projects and the press that would reduce their independence.
In that context, according to one international NGO official who asked not to be identified, the AEI conference could be seen as part of a troublesome pattern. "There are a number of things we're seeing that we want to be sure are nothing more than coincidence," he said.
The general message at Wednesday's conference was that, while NGOs such as Amnesty International, CARE, Oxfam, and Friends of the Earth have performed valuable work in promoting human rights, development and environmental protection, their general policies, particularly at the international level, may be inimical to US interests and free-market principles.
According to George Washington University political-science Professor Jarol Manheim, international NGOs are pursuing "a new and pervasive form of conflict" against multinational corporations, which he calls "Biz-War", the title of his forthcoming book. NGOs, for example, work with like-minded institutional investors, such as union- and church-based pension funds, to sponsor shareholder resolutions demanding that corporations adopt more environment- or human-rights-friendly policies.
Such efforts, he said, should be seen as "part of a larger, anti-corporate campaign", which includes consumer boycotts and other efforts to influence corporate behavior. Companies are increasingly engaging in joint projects with NGOs, using them as consultants, or even hiring former NGO officials to protect themselves against negative publicity.
This was echoed by John Entine, an AEI adjunct fellow, who called the "social investing" movement a "wolf in sheep's clothing". "Anti-free-market NGOs under the guise of corporate reform are extending their reach into the boardrooms of corporations," he said.
Cornell University government Professor Jeremy Rabkin was particularly contemptuous of corporations that tried to establish good relations with NGOs by, for example, working on joint projects or contributing money or other kinds of support. "Why are NGOs in a position to confer legitimacy?" he asked. "A lot of this is a kind of protection racket."
On the political front, international NGOs, which in recent years led the fight for the global ban on anti-personnel mines, the Kyoto Protocol to fight global warming and the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court, are pursuing a "liberal internationalist" vision that "wants to constrain the United States", said American University law Professor Kenneth Anderson.
The groups prefer a world order based on "global governance" and the rule of international law to one that is based on "democratic sovereignty", where nation-states whose governments are subject to the vote of the people are the highest authority. In this quest, they are aided by UN agencies, which see in international NGOs and the global civil society they claim to represent an "alternative form of legitimacy beyond democracy", Anderson said.
"If you think about it, of course this is a left-wing program," added Rabkin. "The whole enterprise of global governance is going to appeal more to the parties of the left ... if it is global, it is anti-national," he said, at one point noting that the original notion of a non-governmental organization was a "Stalinist concept".
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