When I started this blog in November 2004, the Ukraine presidential election was the farthest issue from my mind. But within days of attempts to focus my writing on the Bush democracy doctrine I was slammed by news -- news suppressed in the US mainstream media -- that some EU nations and the US in particular were acting through proxy individuals and organizations to influence the election. I was horrified by the implications.
On the one hand the US government was loudly proclaiming for the implementation of real democracy in developing nations; on the other, the government was using underhanded means to foment a phony "orange revolution" to put a US and EU-favored Ukrainian oligarch in power as a means to counter Russia's influence in Ukraine.
I warned readers that the contradiction would not stand and that meddling in Ukraine's democratic process would come back to bite US foreign relations. Two years later Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law sweeping authority to monitor the activities and finances of NGOs (nongovernmental organizations).
The new powers, which include the right to suspend NGOs should they "threaten Russia's sovereignty or independence", have been condemned by both domestic and international rights groups. The rules are widely seen as a Russian effort to prevent any Ukraine or Georgia-style revolution spearheaded by NGOs.With those words President Putin became the first leader of a major nation to publicly spotlight the role of ingos (international ngos) in 21st century international relations and their implications for a sovereign nation's defense policy. Whereupon officials in every repressive government the world over gleefully broke out the champagne. Russia had just handed them, on a silver platter, the moral authority to block human rights reforms favored by ingos -- and the excuse to brand even the most innocent ingos as gongos.
The FSB security service -- the main successor to the Soviet KGB -- has accused Western intelligence agents of using NGOs to foment revolution in the former Soviet Union. The authorities' new powers cover the activities of numerous charities in Russia as well as non-profit groups promoting human rights and democracy.
"We are for [ngo] funding being transparent ... we don't want them led by puppeteers from abroad," Putin. "NGOs must not be used by some states as an instrument of foreign policy on the territory of other states."(1)
What is a gongo? A gongo, according to foreign policy analyst Moisés Naím, is a government-organized nongovernmental organization. Isn't that definition a contradiction in terms? Why yes, it is.
Behind this contradictory and almost laughable tongue-twister lies an important and growing global trend that deserves more scrutiny: Governments are funding and controlling [ngos], often stealthily.I dispute that any gongo is "benign." A deliberate contradiction in terms, when carried out by a government, is never benign. But this does not take away from Naím's excellent argument that the world now needs a rating system for ngos to distinguish whether they are genuine or a gongo.
Some gongos are benign, others irrelevant. But many ... are dangerous. Some act as the thuggish arm of repressive governments. Others use the practices of democracy to subtly undermine democracy at home. Abroad, the gongos of repressive regimes lobby the United Nations and other international institutions, often posing as representatives of citizen groups with lofty aims when, in fact, they are nothing but agents of governments that fund them. Some governments embed their gongos deep in the societies of other countries and use them to advance their interests abroad.(2)
Gongos represent Me-Tooism in foreign relations ploys. Used to be that only the biggest governments acted globally behind the friendly mask of citizen movements; now any government can play the game, as witness gongos fronted by Burma and North Korea: the Myanmar Women's Affairs Federation and Chongryon, the General Association of [North] Korean residents in Japan.
One of the worst effects of gongos is the backlash against them, as can be seen in Putin's crackdown on ngos, both foreign and domestic. Fear of meddling by external governments, no matter how overblown, makes the perfect excuse for governments to crack down on democracy movements and other groups in their country that defend human rights.
Add to the proliferation of gongos that are fronts for rogue governments is what Naím terms "rogue aid" -- foreign aid programs mounted by oppressive governments. The example that Naím uses to introduce his essay on rogue aid is instructive on many levels and underscores the pressure on the World Bank and other multilateral lending agencies to keep lending to corrupt governments -- and with no strings attached:
My friend was visibly shaken. He had just learned that he had lost one of his clients to Chinese competitors. “It’s amazing,” he told me. “The Chinese have completely priced us out of the market. We can’t compete with what they are able to offer.”1) Putin warning over 'puppet' NGOs, BBC, January 31, 2006
Of course, manufacturing jobs are lost to China every day. But my friend is not in manufacturing. He works at the World Bank.
His story begins in Nigeria. The Nigerian government operates three railways, which are notoriously corrupt and inefficient. They are also falling apart. The World Bank proposed a project based on the common-sense observation that there was no point in loaning the Nigerians money without also tackling the corruption that had crippled the railways. After months of negotiation, the bank and Nigeria’s government agreed on a $5 million project that would allow private companies to come in and help clean up the railways. But, just as the deal was about to be signed, the Chinese government offered Nigeria $9 billion to rebuild the entire rail network—no bids, no conditions, and no need to reform. That was when my friend packed his suitcase and went to the airport.
It is not an isolated case. In recent years, a variety of wealthy, nondemocratic regimes have begun to undermine development policy through their own activist aid programs. Call it rogue aid. It is development assistance that is nondemocratic in origin and nontransparent in practice; its effect is typically to stifle real progress while hurting average citizens.
China has backed such deals throughout Africa; its funding of infrastructure there has boomed from $700 million in 2003 to between $2 and $3 billion for each of the past two years. Indeed, it is a worldwide strategy. In Indonesia, Beijing agreed to expand the country’s electrical grid. Too bad the deal calls for building plants that use a highly polluting, coal-based Chinese technology. No international agency would have signed off on such an environmentally unfriendly deal. In the Philippines, the Asian Development Bank, which lends money at low interest rates to poor countries, had agreed to fund Manila’s new aqueduct. It too was suddenly told that its money was no longer needed. China was offering lower rates and fewer questions. [...]
China is not the first country to rely on aid as a tool to advance its interests abroad. The Soviet Union and the United States spent decades giving “development aid” to dictators in exchange for their allegiance. Even today, American largesse to Egypt and Pakistan is rooted in geopolitical calculations. But, beginning in the 1990s, this system slowly began to improve. With greater media scrutiny, many developed countries were shamed into curbing these practices.
Today, the projects of organizations like the World Bank are meticulously inspected by watchdog groups. Although the current system is far from perfect, it is certainly more transparent than when foreign aid routinely helped ruthless dictators stay in power. Nor is China the only regime offering rogue aid. President Hugo Chávez has not been shy in using his nation’s oil-fueled international reserves to recruit allies abroad.
Indeed, Venezuela’s ambassador to Nicaragua, explaining his country’s large aid packages to the region, bluntly announced in early January, “We want to infect Latin America with our model.”
Thus, hopes for Cuba’s opening as a result of Fidel Castro’s demise and the island’s bankruptcy will likely be dashed by the roughly $2 billion in rogue aid that Chávez supplies to Cuba every year. Worse, his generosity ultimately harms Cubans who, because of these artificial lifelines, will be forced to wait even longer for the indispensable reforms that will bring their society opportunities for true prosperity.
Iranian aid to Hamas in Palestine or Hezbollah in Lebanon is equally damaging to the people there. Clearly, this financial support has boosted Iran’s influence in the region. Far less clear is whether average Palestinians and Lebanese will ever be better off thanks to Iran’s generosity.
The same can be said of Saudi Arabia’s massive overseas educational aid program. Are Pakistani boys whose parents cannot afford to send them to school well served by attending Saudi-sponsored religious schools that fail to equip them with the skills needed to get a job? They are surely better off going to any school than being in the streets. But why should these be the only two options? Why can’t the Saudis fund education, the Chinese pay for infrastructure, and Chávez help Cuba’s economy without also hurting poor Pakistanis, Nigerians, or Cubans?
Because their goal is not to help other countries develop. Rather, they are motivated by a desire to further their own national interests, advance an ideological agenda, or sometimes line their own pockets. Rogue aid providers couldn’t care less about the long-term well-being of the population of the countries they “aid.”
What we have here—in states like China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela—are regimes that have the cash and the will to reshape the world into a place very different from where the rest of us want to live.
Although they are not acting in concert, they collectively represent a threat to healthy, sustainable development. Worse, they are effectively pricing responsible and well-meaning aid organizations out of the market in the very places where they are needed most. If they continue to succeed in pushing their alternative development model, they will succeed in underwriting a world that is more corrupt, chaotic, and authoritarian. That is in no one’s interests, except the rogues.(3)
2) Democracy's Dangerous Imposters by Moisés Naím, The Washington Post, April 21, 2007
3) Rogue Aid by Moisés Naím, Foreign Policy March/April 2007 issue.