NGOs: the West’s soft instrument for hegemonic policies

Developing Just Leadership

Tahir Mahmoud

Jumada' al-Ula' 16, 1431 2010-05-01

Main Stories

by Tahir Mahmoud (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 39, No. 3, Jumada' al-Ula', 1431)

The so-called NGOs that are financed by the US government are an important part of US policy to advance its hegemonic goals. It is likely that during the presidency of Barack Obama the NGO sector may be used even more frequently as a tool of US foreign policy.

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have become an important political tool in the hands of the West. Like the word “aid”, the NGOs (they also use the alias non-profit organizations) are used to penetrate and undermine other societies, especially in the Muslim world. Looked at superficially, the concept of NGOs may appear practical and beneficial, but the manner in which they are used by the US and the West in general is not only a distortion of their original aim but borders on the scandalous.

The role of US-backed NGOs was best summarized by Allen Weinstein, one of the founders of the National Endowment for Democracy who stated in a 1991 Washington Post article: “a lot of what we do today was done covertly 25 years ago by the CIA.” In order to be able to identify which NGOs are used as political instruments there is need to examine their links with state institutions, their operational modes and the sources of their funding.

It was US President John F. Kennedy (1961–63) who pioneered the politicization of NGOs when he US established the Peace Corps in 1961. Even though the Peace Corps is a government organization, its concept and model were later used to establish several other NGOs backed by the US government. The so-called Peace Corps sends American “volunteers” to promote “the understanding of Americans abroad.” The Peace Corps was the answer to the Soviet Union’s grass roots activism in Latin America and Africa. In 1981 anti-communist training was provided to Peace Corps volunteers and the US government hired Dean Coston Associates, a consulting firm, to train volunteers to undermine communist efforts by presenting communism in a negative light. However, since the Peace Corps is known as a governmental organization it does not always succeed in portraying its agenda or policies as unbiased. It seems that this weakness in the Peace Corps was first realized by US President Ronald Reagan who helped establish another NGO, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), in 1983, in order to promote “democracy.” NED is directly financed by the US Congress and has played an important role in advancing US interests in different parts of the world to the detriment of local populations. In the mid-1980s, the NED openly backed Manuel Noriega in Panama and the anti-Castro groups in order to advance US hegemony in Central America. Today through so called grants, the NED finances several anti-Islamic groups that work to sabotage the Islamic system of governance in Iran.

Since the 1980s, the US has adopted a more sophisticated approach to advancing its agenda through NGOs. One contemporary example of “NGO” work is the involvement of the Open Society Institute (OSI) in the so-called “Rose Revolution” in Georgia which brought to power a staunchly pro-US government. Instead of being directly involved, the US government remained in the background by using individuals such as George Soros, the billionaire financier, who funds the OSI. Organizations such as the OSI are given political and economic space to operate independently as long as their work does not impede US global designs at the strategic level. This provides the US a way to implement certain policies without taking official responsibility and therefore cannot be held directly liable politically, socially, economically and in some cases even legally.

The operational mode of US-backed NGOs is quite simple. They finance so-called projects and programs in many impoverished countries where the ruling system does little to improve the life of its citizens. Such brutal and corrupt regimes are sustained in power by the US itself; examples of Azerbaijan, Egypt, and Pakistan readily come to mind. In such cases it becomes easy for foreign NGOs to attract the local population to cooperate with it because the alternative is often unemployment and starvation. By providing even minimum services which the local government should have but does not provide, US-backed NGOs project themselves as benefactors of people. This garners support for them among local populations.

Western NGOs skilfully exploit the unpopularity of corrupt regimes in order to further the foreign policy objectives of their own governments. Since foreign NGOs have the money to implement vital projects, many local NGOs which are sincere in improving the conditions in their own countries become vulnerable to manipulation by receiving grants from outsiders. Lack of funding forces local NGOs in the developing world to surrender their integrity and lose their identity as truly non-governmental bodies since they become the extended arm of foreign governments.

Apart from NGOs that focus on social services, there are several so-called think-tanks and foundations that play an important role in policy formulation and implementation. The US has the world’s largest number of think-tanks which not only serve as policy formulation institutions, but also as a staffing center for the US government to recruit experts from various fields. Think-tanks and foundations became incorporated into the “non-governmental” scheme of the US government in the early 1900s. While foundations deal mainly with financing individuals and organizations, think-tanks are supposed to provide a non-biased second opinion. However, even though think-tanks claim to provide alternative perspectives they often promote policies that benefit their financiers. RAND Corporation, one of the leading US think-tanks, established in 1945 right after the Second World War by the commander of the US Air Force, General Henry H. Arnold, offers a good example. In 2008, RAND spent $230.07 million on research. Many RAND studies directly or indirectly advocated large military spending and in particular spending on the air force. The US Air Force contributed $42 million to RAND in the same year.

The so-called NGOs that are financed by the US government are an important part of US policy to advance its hegemonic goals. It is likely that during the presidency of Barack Obama the NGO sector may be used even more frequently as a tool of US foreign policy. In 2009 Obama openly proclaimed that Americans cannot only rely on their military and need a “civilian national security which is as well trained and funded.” Since NGOs often play a positive role in a society’s development, serious thought must be given to how best to protect NGOs from government manipulation. The best way to do this would be by making the NGOs less dependent on direct governmental funding. One way would be to establish an independent international fund for supplementary NGO funding.

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