The American Spectator is a great admirer of the Gatestone Institute, founded and ably presided over by Nina Rosenwald. This is the premier “thinking man’s think tank,” where American principles are applied to world problems. There is no greater friend to pro-democracy movements and religious minorities around the globe. In October, TAS was in attendance when Dr. Gerald Steinberg, founder of NGO-Monitor, was the featured speaker at a Gatestone event. His organization, based in Israel, monitors the work of NGOs, “non-governmental organizations.”
Dr. Steinberg was kind enough to sit down for an interview, so our readers could have a window into his valuable work.
TAS: Do you think the public assumes NGOs to be altruistic, giving them a natural advantage over government and business?
DGS: Groups that claim a human rights agenda, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have an automatic advantage among most journalists, diplomats, and academics. In what we call the NGO “halo effect,” their claims of idealistic altruism and even expertise are taken at face value. Their “reports,” allegations, and even legal opinions are repeated, without question, often with complimentary labels such as “highly respected human rights organization.” In reality, most of these NGOs, from global to local (such as the Israeli group B’Tselem), are not neutral and lack the expertise, particularly in armed conflict, that they claim. Similarly, their statements on international law are “aspirational” — they confuse their private desires with reality.
TAS: Why should governments and journalists trust your work as honest oversight? Won’t they dismiss you as being another agenda-driven NGO like the rest? [In the US, for example, the so-called fact checkers like Politifact are becoming less trusted, for that very reason.]
DGS: Until NGO Monitor was founded, there were no checks and balances on powerful and politicized NGOs, no mechanisms to examine their claims or challenge their influence. To provide that service, we place a high priority on credibility. At the most basic level, NGO Monitor is a research institute. Every publication is fully sourced — we include the links, texts and images related to the organizations on which we report. Of course, people with ideological agendas will come up with reasons to attack our work, but anyone with an open mind will be able to check all of our reports and decide for themselves.
TAS: What percentage of so-called NGOs are really fronts for governments? What is a particularly pernicious example of that phenomenon?
DGS: Among dictatorships and non-democratic countries, the establishment of government-funded NGOs (GONGOs) is routine — in the days of Gaddafi, Libya ran a number of these. They were even accredited by the UN and gave out bogus “human rights” prizes. Hamas has a pseudo-NGO that was also voted in by the UN committee.
In democracies, and particularly in Europe, the tendency is to use foreign government funded NGOs (FONGOs) to promote interests and goals in a manner entirely inconsistent with the concept of a non-governmental organization. Groups like Oxfam International receive major funding from European governments under the label of “humanitarian aid” and similar frameworks. And dozens of Israeli and Palestinian NGOs are largely funded by European governments, in order to influence and even manipulate Israeli politics.
The U.S. government does less of policy outsourcing to NGOs, with the notable (and problematic) exceptions of the National Endowment for Democracies (NED), the State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), and the International Republican Institute (IRI).
TAS: How much are NGO members and field workers influenced by others in the field, just from fraternizing at conferences and conventions? Is that kind of “closed culture” and recirculation of rhetoric as serious a problem as real bad-faith saboteurs?
DGS: NGOs are in many ways a 21st century religion, with their own myths, texts, and high priests. The myths are derived from the claim to be “non-governmental” and to promote human rights, and many NGO officials see themselves as better than governments. Generally it is a closed culture, even secretive, and lacking basic democratic structures. NGO officials tend to reflect a post-colonial ideology that is anti-democratic, anti-capitalist, and anti-Western. So-called “victims of colonialism,” including Palestinians, are treated as righteous and incapable of committing war crimes. And like a religion, none of these principles of faith is subject to criticism or questioning. Different perspectives are classified as dangerous (“McCarthy”-like) enemy attacks.
This makes it easy to infiltrate NGOs and use them to attack democracies, with a particular focus on Israel. People with an obsessive anti-Israel agenda use their positions to promote personal hatreds.
TAS: Are there criminal coverups within the NGO community like the UN child molesting ring, or is it an ethical environment?
DGS: The recent revelations that NGOs covered-up sexual assaults against female volunteers who had worked with refugees recall similar incidents plaguing NGOs that work in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. And they point to a wider problem. As in any organization with access to millions of dollars and little or no oversight (adult supervision), NGOs are subject to criminality and abuse: A former head of Amnesty, Irene Khan, for example, and her staff, left the organization with a massive payoff. Human Rights Watch hired an obsessive collector of Nazi memorabilia to be its “senior military analyst,” and then paid him off to keep him from talking about his activities. The Palestinian NGO, LAW, was eventually shut down after a corruption scandal, but the European government funders took no visible action to prevent similar behavior. The decision making secrecy remains and they have no system to identify when people involved in the funding process for NGOs benefit from the grants they award. Similarly, the extreme secrecy of the Open Society Initiative (run by George Soros) and the New Israel Fund (the largest private source of funds for Israeli NGOs) in terms of the grant process and monitoring mechanisms, if any, is prone to failure.
TAS: What reforms can be made in prevailing NGO structures to lessen some of the abuses and corruption?
DGS: The first requirement is transparency, and as noted, both the NGOs and their funders/enablers are severely lacking in this dimension. NGOs should not be immune to systems of checks and balances — indeed, they should welcome such mechanisms.
TAS: Is NGO behavior toward Israel and/or the United States particularly scandalous or are they equal-opportunity troublemakers?
DGS: Due to the combination of post-colonial ideology and the power of the Islamic bloc in international frameworks like the UN, as well as the money they provide, Israel is routinely singled out. And the U.S. is not far behind as a target. In 2009, Human Rights Watch went to Saudi Arabia, not to campaign for human rights, but to raise money to bash Israel. They also endorsed the Gaddafi family as “human rights reformers,” as part of this alliance of interests.
TAS: Finally, if you had a chance to tell all Americans about just one NGO which is respected as one thing but should really be reviled as something else entirely, which would it be and why?
DGS: Human Rights Watch is probably the largest and most recognizable NGO, and sadly it also plays a central role in the processes by which national and international legal structures and principles are being abused as part of political warfare. HRW is a morally bankrupt organization with many problems, as explained by its founder, Robert Bernstein, in a prominent 2009 op-ed in the New York Times.
The tens of millions of dollars HRW spends annually (a large portion from George Soros after other donors pulled out) buys the organization a great deal of influence with direct access to the international media, diplomats, political leaders, and UN bodies. With this PR, they are able to hide the documented obsession with attacking Israel, and systematic neglect of the real human rights disasters in the Middle East. Their credibility and reputation were tarnished by a series of scandals, as noted, and by including activist “researchers” with no credentials. Still, many journalists and policy makers are ignorant of these failures or choose to ignore them, continuing to take HRW’s self-promotion at face value.
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