OPINION: Silencing the voices of dissent (Nov 2003)

Rethinking Bretton Woods | Mon, Nov 3, 2003

In this article written for the newsletter of the British organization BOND, with whose permission it is here reproduced,  Aldo Caliari looks at why some ‘actors’ on the international scene consider NGOs a threat.

Silencing the voices of dissent

Earlier this summer the US-based American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a think tank funded by corporations and right wing foundations (though it is unwilling to reveal its donor list), convened a one-day forum to address "the threat" posed by the increasing influence of NGOs over governments. Only days earlier, Andrew Natsios, head of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) had placed tougher constraints on contacts between USAID-funded NGOs and the press, publicly complaining that US NGOs providing humanitarian assistance in Iraq and Afghanistan were not making it sufficiently clear that they were "arms of the US Government."

The AEI event and the behavior of Mr. Natsios are part of a larger ideological challenge to the growing relevance of civil society organisations. More than 40 Bush Administration officials attended the AEI event, and 20 former AEI fellows currently work for the Administration, as the President proudly acknowledged at a speech given at AEI in February. In light of these factors, an intensified effort to delegitimize independent NGOs on the part of the Administration seems likely. The statements by participants at the AEI forum provide some guidance on what types of NGO behavior are considered to be a threat to the "sovereignty of constitutional democracies":

  • Supporting corporate accountability/ responsibility causes: one of the presenters at the AEI forum has even written a book whose thesis is that international NGOs are "pursuing a new and pervasive form of conflict against multi-national corporations" which he terms "biz-war." The underlying message is that there is something intrinsically wrong with NGOs that call for greater regulation and public scrutiny of the actions of Enron and similar companies, or that mobilize shareholders to demand minimum corporate standards on human rights and environmental protection.
  • Advocating rules of global governance and compliance with international law, instead of what another speaker called "a world based on the sovereignty of democratic nation states." The shocking assumption here seems to be that the rights of almost two hundred sovereign nation states can be respected and their global co-operation ensured without any framework of international legal principles or global institutions. Ironically, it is hard to reconcile this view with neo-conservative support for free trade agreements (which increasingly constrain the decisions of sovereign governments and lead to 'de facto' global governance). But the subtext is clear: it is the constraints that international law or global governance would place on the US and its transnational corporate complex that are considered a problem.  
  • Having too much influence on decision-makers. The underlying assumption, in the words of one AEI speaker, is that "NGOs are using the multilateral system to try to regulate corporations and governments".  There are obviously different perspectives on this point: In the eyes of the NGOs, it is corporate representatives who relentlessly increase their access to governments and shape their positions. AEI itself is an example of a neo-conservative corporate interest group with disproportionate influence on the Bush Administration. 

Behind all the rhetoric, one message comes through loud and clear. NGOs are not being defined as threats because of their lack of transparency and accountability, as AEI misleadingly suggests at some point. They are being attacked for supporting their particular goals that conflict with the Administration's agenda. No questions are raised about the possible lack of accountability or transparency in groups like AEI which advocate corporate deregulation or others that do not advocate improved global governance. Those who lead the attack on NGOs represent a very distinct political agenda, to which independent-minded NGOs are perceived as an obstacle to be removed. Given this circumstance, pressure on NGOs comes as no surprise. As is clear from the writings and speeches of neo-conservative and Administration leaders, this agenda demands global American hegemony for the US in political, military and economic terms.

In order to exert this hegemony, Newt Gingrich argues that "the United States needs to communicate effectively"¦ the rise of a global anti-American network of activists and nations-including left-wing non-governmental organisations, elite media, and most of the elite academics around the world (including in the United States) further increases the country's need for a comprehensive communication and information strategy."(1)

The suppression of dissenting messages in the US and abroad, of which the crackdown on NGOs is an expression, appears to be a central element in this strategy.

Aldo Caliari is a staff researcher at the Center of Concern, a US-based organisation that does research, advocacy and public education on issues of international economic and social policy from a faith-based perspective.