Memorandum submitted by the NGO Monitor
THE POLITICIZATION OF THE DEVELOPMENT AGENDA
NGO MONITOR MISSION
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 authorityIn
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.
PART 1: POLITICIZATION
OF NGO AGENDAS
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
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
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
(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
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.
PART 2: "THE
NGO INFORMATION CHAIN"
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 RightsIsrael (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
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"
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."
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
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
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.
PART 3: GOVERNMENTAL
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 themselvesIn
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 campaignsdespite
the organization's honesty about its political aims and objectives
that include changing internal Israeli public opinionBetselem
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 reportingBetselem's
regularly make their way to the UN and have been used as evidence
in UN resolutions
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
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
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."
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."
Professor Gerald Steinberg, Editor, and Simon
Lassman, Managing Editor
146 A public opinion poll in Germany in the 1997 quoted
on the AEI website www.aei.org discovered that the German public
had more confidence in the NGO Greenpeace running the country
than the German government. Back
Rabkin, pp 60-1. Back
Anderson, p 343. Back
Rieff, David "The Precarious Triumph of Human Rights",
New York Times Magazine, August 8, 1999. Back
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
Rieff, Bed for the Night, Introduction. Back
cf. James Ferguson, "The anti-politics machine, development,
depoliticization and bureaucratic power in Lesotho", (New
York, Cambridge University Press, 1989). Back
Funders include the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs in Switzerland,
Norwegian Foreign Ministry and the Commission of the European
Betselem Website, www.betselem.org. Back
Rieff, Introduction. Back
Aall, p 436. Back
Aall, p 434. Back