Select Committee on International Development Written Evidence

Memorandum submitted by the NGO Monitor



  The community of non-governmental organizations has become extremely powerful and influential, particularly with respect to human rights and development issues in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Their reports, protests and lobbying activities have a dominant impact in shaping global attitudes and terms of reference.

  Until recently, however, these NGOs, which receive significant financial support from generous donors, philanthropic institutions, and government budgets, have not themselves been subject to independent and critical analysis. NGO Monitor, therefore, was founded to promote accountability, and advance a vigorous discussion on the reports and activities of humanitarian NGOs in the framework of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

  NGOs vary widely, not only in nature and quality, but also in their apparent motivations. Their power to "do good" is matched by their power to misrepresent. Unlike democratically elected governments or publicly traded companies, no systematic framework exists for holding NGOs to rigorous standards of accountability for the statements and reports they produce. In some situations, established NGOs that claim to pursue "universal humanitarian goals" enjoy a `halo effect' that grants immunity from detailed scrutiny or criticism. In other cases, the assumption that their motives are pure, and politically, as well as ideologically neutral, inhibits critical review.

  The vast resources at the disposal of these self-proclaimed humanitarian NGOs allows for large staffs who produce an immense volume of reports, press releases and media interviews, turning them into primary sources for journalists, researchers, and government policy makers. The amplifying effect of these public pronouncements has often framed the terms of public discourse and strongly influences the crafting of policy. NGOs are in a dominant position to offer the supply to meet the demand for quick and focused information on what Prof. Irwin Cotler has called "the new secular religion of human rights".

  However, as NGO Monitor has revealed, in many cases, the established humanitarian NGOs produce reports and launch campaigns that stand in sharp contradiction to their own noble mission statements claiming to uphold universal human rights values. Selective morality, as evidenced in the obscuring or simply the removal of context alongside highly misleading reporting, often through incomplete images, have made widespread gross distortions of the humanitarian dimension of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

  The aim of NGO Monitor is to provide information and analysis, in order to challenge such interpretations and the perceptions that have been built up by fostering a comprehensive debate on these critical issues.


  The increasingly frequent and large-scale intervention by development NGOs in complex humanitarian crises, especially those that revolve around intense ethno-national conflicts, such as that between Israel and the Palestinians, poses serious ethical dilemmas. First, the comparatively small group of self-selected and unaccountable NGOs engaging in humanitarian aid relief, `monitoring', conflict resolution, advocacy and funding, has major political ramifications. Secondly, the constant flow of public campaigns, press mobilization and mass e-mailings has played a prevailing role in fashioning the contemporary discourse on human rights, with little scrutiny of sources and wider contexts. This has led to a situation in which humanitarian activism has generated counterproductive outcomes in terms of the very human rights norms that these NGOs claim to champion.

  Many governmental bodies involved in these issues believe that NGOs, free from electoral and profit considerations, are unencumbered by narrow political or economic interests and thus are in a good position to promote democracy. The argument that NGOs are vital in promoting democracy and human rights has gained such momentum that NGOs have become a primary source on development issues, assuming an almost unquestioned authority[146]In their mission statements, websites, and fund-raising brochures, these NGOs proclaim very far-reaching objectives, including the commitment to universal human rights values, while eschewing particular political or ideological causes.

  However, it is becoming increasingly apparent that NGOs are in a position to undermine their own goals and those of their funding agencies, including government departments. We present below examples of where NGOs have undertaken activities contradicting their mission statement and exploiting the moral or political authority of their funders. We have organized this analysis around three sections:

      1.  Specific examples of UK NGOs and the Politicization of Human Rights.

      2.  The "NGO Information Chain".

      3.  Governmental Funding of NGOs.


  Not only is substance and evidence critical in protecting human rights reporting, but also definitions of acceptable practice, context and transparent methodologies. This section examines how two UK development NGOs, Save the Children Fund and Christian Aid, ostensibly committed to universal human rights, are in fact pursuing highly politicized agendas. The latter part of the section will also look at international law.

  Firstly, Save the Children Fund UK (SCF UK), defines itself as a "children's rights organization" and works mainly in education, health and trauma counseling and claims to base its ideals and goals on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

  These goals, however, are not reflected in SCF's Eye-to-Eye project, analyzed in detail below. There are several cases of factual and contextual inaccuracies, including critical omissions. This results in an incomplete presentation that departs from SCF's stated principles. The project was launched to draw attention to the humanitarian issues of the millions of Palestinian refugees languishing in poverty in the West Bank, Gaza and many Arab states. SCF also markets its material principally for teachers with little knowledge of the issues. Any inaccuracies or distortions in its educational material are therefore passed on to impressionable children and students. This creates a cycle of disinformation. Many schools have used SCF's educational materials, trusting their reliability because of the organization's perceived neutral and apolitical mission statement.

  SCF lists a series of UN resolutions, some of which grant legitimacy to Palestinians returning to the homes that their ancestors left over fifty years ago. The report, however, does not take into account the impact of the demographic and geographic realities that have overtaken these outdated resolutions. The Palestinian population has doubled several times since 1948, as SCF itself points out, fifty per cent of Palestinians who claim refugee status are under the age of fifteen, and many of the original homes and villages of the Palestinian refugees no longer exist. Many were destroyed in the war of 1948, and a comparable number of Jewish refugees from Arab countries and elsewhere have been absorbed in the population exchange.

  As a humanitarian organization and not a legal or political body, SCF should concentrate on humanitarian issues such as providing the means of improving the quality of life of children, and not advocate partisan agendas, even if such agendas are supported in international treaties. This is especially true if this agenda will almost certainly precipitate further humanitarian crises. If a sizeable section of the Palestinian refugee population suddenly relocated to Israel, it is fair to assume that both Israeli and Palestinian children would be plunged into a more difficult and tense humanitarian, economic and political situation, leading to even more misery and suffering. Throughout this particular section, SCF emphasizes on what it presents as Israeli policy of blocking implementing international treaties. However, an analysis of the implications of the violent rejection of the 1947 UN Partition Resolution by the Arab states, and of the requirement to negotiate "secure and recognized borders" with Israel (UNSCR 242 1967) is absent from this history. Such a simplistic and highly selective approach is neither in the interests of education nor in the interests of human rights.

  Additionally, the project also confuses the current Intifada with the issue of the refugees, "Since the second Intifada began in September 2000, roads have been closed and dug up by the Israeli authorities to make them permanently impassable, schools have been closed and factories destroyed. Before the second Intifada, 110,000 Palestinian workers (more than 20 per cent of the workforce) were working in Israel. The prolonged border closures by the Israeli authorities have prevented the flow of workers and goods in and out of the Palestinian Territories. This has created large-scale unemployment in an economy that is already impoverished."

  Closing roads, schools and factories undeniably has caused immense suffering among the refugees living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. However, the economic and psychological damage is not limited to the Palestinian areas. The Israeli population has taken a severe economic blow and sustained an immense amount of loss of human life too. That argument is omitted. Moreover, the effort to blame Israel for this suffering is misplaced. The legitimate defensive measures taken by the Israeli authorities served the purpose of restricting the infiltration of the borders of Israel by terrorists. SCF fails to mention any of these important points of context and instead mixes the results of this violence with the issue of the Palestinian refugees.

  There is a continuum throughout the history of the Palestinian refugee population that the SCF has chosen to ignore. The refugees continue to languish in camps throughout the Arab world, and not only in the West Bank and Gaza, because they are a convenient political pawn in the struggle of the regional Arab leadership against Israel's rights to exist. From a humanitarian perspective, however, this cannot justify the high levels of poverty and suffering that the unfortunate residents of these camps endure because of their lack of civil rights. The attitude of "waiting until the Zionist entity is destroyed" fuels a cycle of hatred and plunges Palestinians further into poverty. SCF omitted this critical dimension of the crisis.

  SCF also omitted two important points of historical context necessary to complete background of the continuing crisis:

    (1)  Despite the fact that there are many Arab citizens of Israel who regard themselves as refugees from their original villages and towns, none live in refugee camps and there is no appreciable difference in their socio-economic status nor civil rights.

    (2)  The Palestinian refugee crisis in 1948 coincided with a wave of Jewish refugees who were forced to flee Arab lands. These Jewish refugees, whose numbers roughly equal the population of the Palestinian refugees, were absorbed and integrated into Israeli society (despite immense financial and cultural difficulties). Refugees from this community today include several prominent politicians, diplomats and other public figures.

  From an educational perspective, it is important to look forward and not to engage in political-historical arguments. Save the Children Fund and its funding organizations bear an enormous degree of responsibility and authority. It promotes itself as an educational resource center for teachers and educators who often lack an in-depth knowledge of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Yet its inaccuracies and distortions in the educational material are passed onto impressionable children and students, as well as to journalists and policy makers who make use of the material of humanitarian and "neutral" NGOs. The size and status of SCF means both teachers and policy makers are unlikely to question the accuracy and relevancy of its materials.

  The urgent humanitarian issues of the Palestinian refugee crisis do not excuse the practice of confusing the political and humanitarian dimensions of this crisis. As a humanitarian NGO, SCF should be acting in exactly the opposite direction and should be seeking an end to the human suffering in the refugee camps by distancing itself from any ideological or political motivations.

  The second is the British NGO, Christian Aid. This organization ignores the complexity and sensitivity of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the core causes of poverty in the Middle East, while promoting anti-Israel propaganda that contradicts its claims of being a neutral humanitarian organization. The NGO and funding agency recently released a fundraising film entitled "Peace Under Siege" claiming to depict the "roots of Palestinian poverty." In practice, the 20-minute documentary consisted of a vehement and highly inaccurate attack on Israel. Although Christian Aid has undertaken important projects in the West Bank, it is clear from the footage in the film that Christian Aid also, and perhaps primarily, maintains the political objective of delegitimizing the State of Israel. Despite the NGO's declared commitment to non-partisanship, this is the latest in a series of highly ideological public statements against Israel. There are four problematic dimensions to the film:

    (1)  The survey of the Oslo peace process is very slanted, as is the recent history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The documentary talked of "continuous displacement for the Palestinian people since 1948" yet there was no mention of the nature of the Arab-Israeli wars, the continuous existential threats to the State of Israel and the Jewish people, and the fact that hundreds of thousands of Jews also became refugees as a result of these wars.

    (2)  The bulk of the film covered the recent economic history of the Palestinian people and their suffering. One of the most common themes was "since the intifada there are no jobs." Christian Aid failed to mention that the fall in the standard of living of the Palestinian population has been steady since the first intifada in 1987 and accelerated when the Palestinian Authority took control of the Palestinian population areas in 1994. Thousands of workers from the West Bank and Gaza Strip used to earn respectable salaries in Israel but Israel was gradually forced to tighten entry restrictions. Complete closures of the West Bank and Gaza were implemented after the first waves of suicide bombings after it became clear that terrorists were exploiting the easy access from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Yet none of this essential background is mentioned in this biased presentation by Christian Aid. Nor does this film acknowledge the prominent Palestinian officials, such as Mohammad Dahlan and Mahmud 'Abbas, who have admitted that the campaign of violence and suicide attacks against Israel have ruined the Palestinians economy.

  The producers also failed to mention the rampant corruption and waste in the Palestinian authority. Hundreds of millions of dollars of foreign aid has either been siphoned off to the bank accounts of ministers and bureaucrats or to weapons purchases. This has been carefully documented by the International Monetary Fund, and is not even mentioned by Christian Aid. This money, donated by the European Union, Japan, the USA and Israel itself could have been used for job creation and infrastructure building.

    (3)  The nature of the film's interviews is highly slanted to create a very negative image of Israel. For example, the Rev. Lucy Winket presents a highly distorted image of Israel as a gun-totting, anarchic military society, "soldiers who shoot at children . . . firing live ammunition at stone throwers" without giving any background or context. She ignores firstly, the strict regulations for Israeli soldiers concerning the use of live ammunition, and the legal proceedings brought against those who violate these regulations. Secondly, she failed to mention that the stone throwers in the present "intifada", in contrast to the intifada of the late 1980s, are organized by armed militants who shoot at soldiers over the heads of the children throwing stones. This deliberate exploitation of children has led to many unnecessary and tragic deaths. Thirdly, she omits entirely the reason for universal conscription in Israel and the many humanitarian measures that the Israeli army has undertaken to relieve Palestinian suffering.

    (4)  In its description of Operation Defensive Shield of April 2002, the half-hearted attempt at balance was totally undermined by the sarcastic voice of the narrator and the disbelieving tone when mentioning Israel's justification for the Campaign, "eradication of the infrastructure of terror." The narrator surmised the operation as an attempt to ruin the Palestinian economy and general infrastructure. The four-second very general mention of suicide bombings was dwarfed by the several minutes of coverage dedicated to the damage caused by the IDF response. No mention was made of the daily killing of Israelis preceding the operation, climaxing in a bomb in a hotel in Netanya on one of the most important nights in the Jewish calendar. Whole families were wiped out among the 29 killed. In addition, the producers did not mention the many bomb factories located deliberately in densely populated areas, or official Palestinian documents that revealed exactly how the terror campaign was being managed by Yassir Arafat and funded by Saudi Arabia and Iran.

  The film was professionally and carefully produced. Scenes of tanks pushing ambulances (with no mention of how ambulances were used to smuggle terrorists and weapons) were emphasized while scenes of Israeli suffering were practically non-existent. It is clear that the film was not at all an attempt to portray "the roots of Palestinian poverty" because the film concentrated almost entirely on demonizing Israel. Phrases such as at every corner a Palestinian boy is shot" are not only unbalanced but also do not do justice for the Palestinian cause.

  To make clear, Christian Aid deserves praise for its humanitarian projects on behalf of the Palestinian people. The organization has provided employment, training and assistance to many, as described in the film. However, this good work is entirely undermined by a highly distorted and politicized anti-Israeli tone and context. The leaders and officials of wealthy and powerful NGOs such as Christian Aid must learn to distinguish between genuine humanitarian efforts that relieve suffering, and political propaganda that actually adds to the conflict.

  There is a parallel tendency within the NGO community, reflected in government and the international press, of NGOs framing their arguments and allegations of abuse using the terminology of international law. Jeremy Rabkin, a professor of law at Cornell notes, "International human rights law is not the product of court rulings, but of international conferences. . . . Words spoken by diplomats at conferences are given much weight, and then the reconfiguring of those words by commentators is supposed to give more weight, and the repetition of the words by yet other commentators is thought to lend still more weight to contentions about the law. Soon there is a towering edifice of words, which is then treated as a secure marker of "customary international law."[147]

  Rabkin also points out that international law is a fluid and elusive concept, based largely on custom, international treaties and charters. The wide diversity of its sources and the lack of a centralized legal enforcement mechanism leave room for highly subjective and politicized interpretations. In the Israeli-Palestinian context, high-profile political NGOs "dedicated to legal human rights", such as Amnesty, Adalah and HRW, have exploited this situation to produce reports based on claiming "war crimes" and other violations that have no objective basis.

  Development NGOs can have huge impact in forming public opinions and in the past contributed enormously to promoting international freedom. However, there is no guarantee that the well-intentioned values of NGOs will translate into a just and accurate reflection of all the complexities in a conflict if there is not more scrutiny of agendas and methodologies. Severe damage can be done in fuelling conflict when the powerful international NGOs concentrate on just one side in a conflict.


  All professional organizations need to secure a reliable flow of resources and like most news organizations, international NGOs naturally tend to concentrate on conflict areas where information is plentiful and readily accessible. It is important to make a distinction between two different types of NGOs. The first category consists of international organizations. Many are UK-based such as Amnesty International, Oxfam and Save the Children Fund. Although they have small on-the-ground teams, most of their information is garnered from other sources, mainly local NGOs. The information is then packaged on their websites, in press releases and disseminated through reports. Examples of local NGOs in the Middle Eastern include Miftah, Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), Physicians for Human Rights—Israel (PHR-I), Betselem, Al-Haq, Adalah and LAW. The relationship between the two is a determining factor in how human rights issues are reported across the world.

  Local NGOs have many advantages, especially in terms of acquiring primary information. At the same time, however, their disadvantages include a tendency to advocate agendas that reflect only one side of the conflict. They run the risk of losing perspective. Mary Anderson terms this "mandate blinders[148]" and in the Arab-Israeli conflict it is particularly felt when NGOs gloss over the competing interests of the Palestinian population to live normal lives, on the one hand, and the moral right of Israel to defend itself, on the other hand.

  The international NGOs often fail to acknowledge the limitations of local NGOs and grant them inordinate influence, assuming that a "grassroots" perspective, ipso facto is accurate and reliable. The information may indeed be accurate, but it can also be misleading because it is not necessarily the full picture, and, as often happens in conflict reporting, leads to a narrow context that ignores wider dimensions.

  This situation is often reinforced by self-serving information networks. Local NGOs have an interest in the UK-based NGOs picking up on their material to increase their funding prospects. The larger and more established NGOs readily use this material because it is from "grassroots" sources. Even in cases where international NGOs send in their own teams, they usually lack the necessary language and access to work independently. Instead, they rely on local teams to show them around and to "find" the right people to "confirm" particular versions of events. It should also be noted that the Palestinian Authority has encouraged the growth in advocacy work in recent years on behalf of the Palestinian cause, at the same time as clamping down on their freedom to criticize human rights abuses within the Palestinian territories.

  Another explanation for the close cooperation between local and international NGOs in the charged and politicized atmosphere of the Middle East conflict is fear that a more neutral political approach could result in loss of the links with Palestinian organizations, a halt to the flow of information, with implications for visibility, power, and funding.

  Despite the problematic flow of information, there is a high degree of interdependence between local and international NGOs, which in the long term has a negative impact on the free flow of human rights reporting. In the New York Times Magazine, David Rieff emphasized the absence of democratic legitimacy in the human rights movement. "Human rights workers sometimes talk of their movement as an emblem of grassroots democracy. Yet it is possible to view it as an undemocratic pressure group, accountable to no one but its own members and donors, that wields enormous power and influence."[149]

  Mary Anderson points out how foreign aid workers can become unwittingly intertwined with the very forces that drive conflicts. Many of those engaged in aid work in the Palestinian territories include in their definition of aid blocking the path of tanks, using their bodies to prevent house demolitions and turning themselves into human shields. Foreign passports become a form of shield in the belief that no soldier will attack for fear of media and diplomatic repercussions. This has led to several tragic incidents[150]The international NGOs that produced the above press release are heavily influenced by local NGOs.

  Many international NGOs are not aware of the full complexity of the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East and, as Rieff observed[151] have become pawns of their own `human rights agendas.' Undemocratic NGOs are therefore contributing to a process promoting absolutist perspectives on events and norms of behavior with little accountability either in their own methodologies.


  Ironically, governmental funding, such as that from DFID, plays a key role in supporting the activities of these non-governmental organizations. This usually involves trying to influence the course of conflict as they see fit, unaccountable to anyone but themselves[152]In effect, they become an additional political actor within the state.

  Government funding, particularly the EU and its constituent members, funds many of the highly political NGO campaigns outlined above. While governments are very careful about financial propriety and the need for an annual report, NGOs engaged in advocacy are not called upon to explain and justify their agendas, tactics, or political objectives. As a result, in areas in which the NGOs and their allies play a dominant role, as in the interaction between human rights issues and international politics, there is a risk that sensitive policy decisions are made without proper checks and balances.

  Betselem is an example of an organization that has used government funding for overly political campaigns[153]despite the organization's honesty about its political aims and objectives that include changing internal Israeli public opinion[154]Betselem has chosen the route of international advocacy and alliances with other politicized groups, most of whom are not open about their political and ideological objectives. Its reports are regularly cited by a host of other, far less candid organizations, usually without context, and are presented as apolitical and unbiased human rights reporting[155]Betselem's regularly make their way to the UN and have been used as evidence in UN resolutions[156]

  These examples highlight the problems created when NGOs become a major "foreign policy making service provider."


  International development NGOs are welcome allies in humanitarian conflicts from the point of view of combatants, not because of their humanitarian principles, but because the fighting parties can use NGO intervention for political leverage against the other side. The NGOs are absorbed into the conflict, particularly in the Middle East.

  There is a very important distinction between development NGOs that maintain strict political neutrality, and the increasing number that engage directly in monitoring and advocacy, attempting to change conditions to fit a political agenda. Prime facie, the interventions of human rights and humanitarian NGOs help establish common ground and facilitate dialogue. However, in contrast to their apolitical declarations, there is an increasing phenomenon of distorting the label of human rights to strongly political interests. This has generated negative outcomes and has even served to contribute to violence, as Rieff predicts[157]

  Using their enormous power and influence, NGOs are able to impose narrow perceptions and ideologies on the international diplomatic and journalistic communities, particularly with respect to their interpretations of international law. Instead of the conflict resolution process that humanitarian relief NGOs claim to be supplying, they often become parties to the disputes, and actually exacerbate tension and violence.

  The goal of improving the condition of fellow humans has moved many people and governments to donate considerable sums in the hope that they can contribute to a better world. However, a mixture of lack of accountability and a "halo effect" that human rights NGOs have managed to erect around themselves has obscured the insidious phenomenon of the politicization of human rights. The local NGOs are influencing the international NGOs, who in turn inform the attitudes of their funders, including government agencies.

  In summarizing a major conference on the role of NGOs held by the US Institute for Peace in December 1994, Pamela Aall notes that the international community has ceded a great deal of power and authority to NGOs in restoring civil society and building peace during and after conflict. However, she also warns that this power can be used to affect the course of the conflicts themselves. As a result, "their work in relief and development affects not only the social and economic well-being of their target groups, but also the larger political situation."[158]

  As a result, there is an urgent need to reconsider the relationship between NGOs and government in terms of stricter funding accountability and more scrutiny in what type of organizations win access to closed UN sessions. The international press also has a responsibility to start a public debate and to be more discriminatory in the press releases that it accepts. In the Middle East, NGOs have the opportunity to play a useful role responding to the dual humanitarian crises; Palestinian poverty and hardship, and Israel's exposure to terrorism. Until now, they have failed on both counts, but if NGOs invested their resources in a truly apolitical way, providing transparency and accountability, perhaps they could have a positive impact. Until these conditions are created, the NGO community, including governments and other sources of funding, should acknowledge the limitations of their work, by increasing their frame of reference to all the factors in conflict, or be more open about their partisan agendas.

  In this context, Aall notes that NGOs are often faced with "Many challenging theological and psychological questions . . . Until these questions are resolved, the cycle of atrocities will continue."[159]

Professor Gerald Steinberg, Editor, and Simon Lassman, Managing Editor

NGO Monitor

November 2003

146   A public opinion poll in Germany in the 1997 quoted on the AEI website discovered that the German public had more confidence in the NGO Greenpeace running the country than the German government. Back

147   Rabkin, pp 60-1. Back

148   Anderson, p 343. Back

149   Rieff, David "The Precarious Triumph of Human Rights", New York Times Magazine, August 8, 1999. Back

150   One example is the tragic death of Rachel Corrie, an American aid worker who placed herself in front of a bulldozer destroying the house of a known suicide bomber. Back

151   Rieff, Bed for the Night, Introduction. Back

152   cf. James Ferguson, "The anti-politics machine, development, depoliticization and bureaucratic power in Lesotho", (New York, Cambridge University Press, 1989). Back

153   Funders include the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs in Switzerland, Norwegian Foreign Ministry and the Commission of the European Communities. Back

154   Betselem Website, Back

155 Back

156 Back

157   Rieff, Introduction. Back

158   Aall, p 436. Back

159   Aall, p 434. Back

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