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NGOs Don't Speak for the Hungry

August 26, 2002


By http://www.healthfactsandfears.com/contributors/tdegregori.html Thomas R. DeGregori

In recent years we have witnessed the rapid rise of what is called "civil society" in the form of a multiplicity of NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) who claim to be the voice of the poor and powerless who can not speak for themselves. From the demonstrations in Seattle to the streets of Genoa — where the cry was
"you are the G-8, we are 6 billion" — organizations dominated by wealthy white male Northern Europeans and North Americans have carried the twin banners of the poor and the environment of planet Earth in battle against the evils of globalization, multi-national corporations, and modern technology and biotechnology. They even have a website, G6B for "global six billion."

The media seems to have largely bought into the agenda and terminology of the anti-globalization, environmental, and green NGOs. A "hunger activist," according to the media, is someone who promotes a particular anti-technology ideology, not someone who has actually helped people in need gain access to food in the most effective way possible, by growing more of it themselves. We must clearly distinguish between those organizations that for decades have selflessly worked around the globe to improve the lot of those in need and the NGOs, whose main goals seem to be raising money, garnering publicity for ideological causes, and trying to force undemocratic public policy changes.

Organizations with "food" or "rural advancement" in their name have raised and spent hundreds of millions of dollars for advocacy and have spent virtually nothing directly helping those in need. Still, they savagely attack people like scientist Norman Borlaug and international agricultural research institutions that are responsible for the world being able to feed six billion and feed them better than ever before. Scientists did this by bringing about an agricultural revolution that close to tripled food production while population was doubling. All this was done with only a slight increase in the amount of land under cultivation, from 1.4 billion hectares to 1.5 billion hectares. The "Green Revolution" which many of these NGOs have long opposed, is regularly deemed to have been a "failure" by activists who have no feasible alternative strategy to feed a globe of six billion people (a population expected to grow to nine billion before leveling-off around 2040).

Visiting Asia and Africa Reveals Holes in NGO Propaganda

Since May, I have made three trips to Asia and one to Africa with stopovers in London, and I have seen the dark side of "civil society," as NGOs sometimes style themselves. My trip to Africa in June marked the fortieth anniversary of my first trip to Africa. I have lived, traveled, and been involved in development more times and in more areas of Africa, Asia, and elsewhere in the Third World than I can count. On all my overseas trips, I meet and work with friends and associates from all over the Third World.

The African country that I visited faces opposition to its efforts to build a dam that would provide new electric power in a country in which only 4% of the population currently has access to the grid. European and North American NGOs have thus far been able to use their very effective propaganda machines to hold up World Bank and other international funding for the dam. They claim to be operating on behalf of local NGOs and the local people. As an editor friend of mine put it, the local opponents are in fact "less than ten," and all are on the payroll of Northern NGOs. Another journalist chimed in that the "less than" was correct but the "ten" was generous.

There was no question that the so-called "local NGO" was fully funded from outside the country, since its members are regularly flown to Scandinavia for meetings and taken on global tours and presented to the media and to supporters of the NGO as leaders of an indigenous grassroots movement and accepted as such without any questions being asked. The media gives them equal or greater credence than the democratically elected government of their country. We must not confuse this NGO ventriloquism with the authentic voices of Third World concerns. They are no more unbiased or representative of their country than would be the local hires of an American multi-national corporation, and their word should not be treated with any greater deference.

The bottom line is that those in affluent countries for whom electricity comes as easily as flipping a switch are making it very difficult for a poor country to increase its electric supply, in turn making it harder for hospitals to function, harder to preserve vaccines, and harder to keep food from spoiling. Unfortunately, this is one of several countries in Africa and Asia where NGOs based in affluent countries are fighting the efforts of poor countries to build dams for hydro-power and irrigation.

It has become an all-too-common practice for the NGOs to create and fully fund affiliates for a variety of causes and then bring their hired hands on propaganda and fundraising tours in the developed world, depicting them as the "legitimate" representatives of their people. This practice resembles the NGO roadshow sent around the world purporting to represent American farmers and scientists who oppose foodcrops that are genetically-modified (gm, or more properly transgenic).

Scientists Overwhelmingly Support Genetically-Modified Foods

It is important to note that over the last decades scientist have lined up literally by the thousands to take controversial stands on public policy issues such as nuclear testing or global warming. Yet not a single scientist of any professional stature who has made a significant contribution to advancing scientific understanding has in any way supported the dire warnings about the dangers of gm food that are the basis for so much NGO fundraising and disruptive protests. An anti-GM food petition that has been vigorously promoted for several years
has barely more than 300 signatories. while a pro-GM food petition has over 3,000 including nineteen Nobel Prize winners. These names should be weighed together with the many professional scientific societies and national academies of science that have studied the issue and proclaimed the safety of GM foods. Reading media accounts, one would never surmise this massive disparity in the between scientific support for gm foods and the very small number of scientists opposed.

Across Asia, I have worked in tightly-packed villages surrounded by rice paddies where rice provided the main source of calories (sometimes as much as 70% or more), with the few fruit trees and perhaps a kitchen garden next to the house providing vital nutrients and a modicum of dietary variety. In some of these countries, vitamin deficiency, particularly vitamin A deficiency, causes children to go blind or makes them more likely to die from diseases such as diarrhea or measles.

In an Asian country that I visited this summer, papaya ring spot virus (PRSV) was killing the villager's trees. The truly superb scientists with whom I was meeting all knew about the successful genetically-engineered papaya tree with a viral gene that expresses an enzyme that stimulates the tree's natural immune system to protect it against the virus — but the constant, massive NGO anti-genetic modification campaign had effectively intimidated them into rejecting that solution, even though senior government officials with whom I discussed the matter made it clear that there was no government policy against genetic modification. In other words, the NGO scare campaign had brought about paralysis, while poor peasant families were suffering a critical loss of basic nutrition.

One distinguished scientist indicated that he was preparing an op-ed article supporting GM food but added that fighting the NGOs' misinformation is an uphill battle, since he has to get back to doing his real job — science — while the NGOs have nothing better to do with their time than continue refining the art of the propaganda campaign.

NGOs Want Money, Fame, and Power

Like the multi-nationals that they criticize, the green, anti-globalization, and environmental NGOs are revenue-maximizing organizations. They obtain their revenue by successfully marketing fear, no matter what the human cost may be. Fear and fundraising are their full-time occupations. Ironically, in the country facing the tree virus, one of the most vocal "local" NGOs receives its funding from the United States government, via a foundation set up to support local initiatives.

In Southern Africa, where drought, famine, disease, and death stalk the land, the NGO-spawned false fears, particularly the anti-GM food campaign, have greatly hindered relief efforts undertaken by the World Food program and the United States government. There was simply no way to meet NGO-driven demands that donated maize be certified GM-free — nor is there any legitimate food safety reason that it should be. This obstacle has been made worse by the European Union, which has used the NGO scare campaign as reason to require GM or GM-free labeling of all grains. It is no coincidence that this rule serves as protectionism for EU agriculture, already subsidized at a rate of over a billion dollars a day, against gm imports.

African leaders are less frightened about the safety of GM imports than about the possibility that some of the donated grain would end up being planted, making future exports to Europe difficult to certify as GM -free.

Thus far, we have not heard any of the anti- GM food NGOs, some of whose annual budgets are well in excess of $100 million, offer to provide food aid, nor GM food critic Prince Charles — who has a billion-dollar-a-year organic food business. The only time when NGOs are silent is when you ask them how many people they have helped to feed. The fact is that it is conventional farmers — using the latest in technology, including biotechnology — who feed the world and provide the surpluses that feed the victims of famine (U.S. agriculture alone provides about 60% of the world's food aid). Yet it is the conventional farmers who are regularly denounced by individuals who feed none but themselves, activists who somehow claim a higher moral authority and delude themselves and others that they are "activists" on behalf of the poor. In attacking science and agriculture, the activists are not just biting the hand feeds them but biting the hand that attempts to feed those most in need.

NGOs Willing to Sacrifice Human Wellbeing

Given that the above is but a small sample of the paralysis in development engendered by the green, anti-globalization, and environmental NGOs throughout the Third World, it is difficult not to believe that they care more about defending their ideology than about electricity for the poor, life enhancing nutrition for Asian children, and famine-alleviating food provision for those in Africa on the brink of starvation. This may sound harsh, but can anyone come up with a better explanation?

Thomas R. DeGregori is an ACSH Director and professor of economics at the University of Houston and author of the new book
The Environment, Our Natural Resources, and Modern Technology (Iowa State Press), which includes a section that examines the funding of NGOs.



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