Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa is reportedly under pressure not to sign the Private Voluntary Organisations Bill. But what do others say about NGOs?
What is the main purpose of civil society? A space free from politics? Mediating institutions independent of the state? A rival object of loyalty and affiliation to Ideology and Party? While thinkers as far back as de Tocqueville, have quibbled over the question, all have agreed on civil society’s importance. At its best, it builds social trust and cohesion. Offering a source of meaning to citizens in letting them help their fellow countrymen. Traditionally, civil society – the nexus of institutions from community groups to non-governmental organizations, labour unions to religious institutions – stopped at the borders of the nation. After all, people tend to know their own circumstances best. And before modern communication technology, they were less able – and inclined – to concern themselves with the affairs of far-away lands, writes Colin Stevens.
But increasingly, NGOs seem devoted to just that – the affairs of far-away lands. Alas, many of these lands, they do not understand half as well as they think. Nonetheless, Western governments and NGOs increasingly feed off each other in fuelling their overseas adventures. A symbiotic relationship whereby NGOs provide the groundwork that legitimises more concrete – if counter-productive – government action.
Indeed, the US government often relies on supposedly independent NGOs as ‘objective’ sources of information, when shaping policy. One of the most influential is the prestigious NGO Freedom House. By the end of 2019, Freedom House raised US$48 million – 94% from the coffers of Uncle Sam. Its chairman of the board was the Secretary of Homeland Security under George Bush. And its current president, a lifelong American diplomat.
One might not regard an outfit with such incestuous links to the US government as a natural port of call for journalists seeking an“independent non-governmental organization.” Yet that is exactly how the press treats it. And to some effect. Freedom House has represented the American foreign policy establishment since the US achieved hegemony in the mid-20th century. Indeed, the organization, founded during WWII, could count Eleanor Roosevelt among its leaders. And after successfully pushing for entry into World War II, it went on to forthrightly and successfully advocate for embarking upon the Cold War. But while its website takes great pains to stress these facts, it is more recalcitrant about its recent track record.
In fact, the Freedom House website fails to mention Iraq even once, despite its ex-Chairman R. James Woolsey, Jr. being the former head of the CIA. The same man who in the wake of 9-11, Paul Wolfowitz sent to the UK to find evidence that Saddam Hussein was behind the assault on the Twin Towers. The same man, who told The Guardian’s David Rose in October that year, that only Iraq had the capability to produce airborne anthrax spores (precipitating a next-day article fallaciously headlined Iraq Behind U.S. Anthrax Outbreaks, which ‘informed’ readers of the “growing mass of evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved, possibly indirectly, with the 11 September hijackers”). And the very same man who in 2003 called Iraq a “war for freedom”, burnishing his claim with the credibility derived from his former role at the CIA but also from his then-current one as Chairman of Freedom House.
That such a figure headed up the preeminent foreign policy NGO, speaks volumes. And yet this is how the International Civil Society of the 21st-century functions. Western NGOs can always be counted on to satisfy policy-makers’ perennial lust for clumsy intervention overseas. Even as the domestic civil societies of Western nations fray at the seams.
Continued next page