The Right Coast

December 26, 2003
The Ford Foundation -- And The Carnival Of The NGOs
By Maimon Schwarzschild

The Ford Foundation may now receive some long-overdue scrutiny for its funding of Palestinian (and other Arab) extremist groups, as the Wall Street Journal reports today (registration required). Ford heavily supported the groups that turned the UN's "anti-racism" conference in Durban in 2001 into an anti-semitic hate rally, for example. (The Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported on this in a fascinating series in October.)

There is a broader problem, though. There is now a very extensive network of "NGO"s -- non-governmental organizations -- involved in trying to influence international relations. The NGO world is almost all on the political left, much of it "hard left" by any measure. The NGOs have been given formal standing at the UN and in other international organiztions. Many NGOs, including some of the most zealously leftist of them, are quite lavishly funded: directly by the European Union in many cases, as well as indirectly with a boost from US tax law, as today's Wall Street Journal piece points out. The sheer number of organizations is impressive, if not breathtaking: there are now hundreds, probably thousands, of active NGOs on the international circuit.

When you talk to people involved in international issues, many of them mention quite matter-of-factly that NGOs are active in lobbying foreign governments, especially "third world" ones, and systematically urging these governments to take a "harder" left-wing and anti-American policy line on a wide array of issues, ranging from trade to the war in Iraq.

The NGO phenomenon has received very little scrutiny -- certainly very little critical scrutiny -- from scholars or journalists. (The JTA report on the Ford Foundation in Durban was highly exceptional, and therefore all the more important.) There are obvious legal questions, including whether American citizens on the staffs of NGOs are breaking American laws by lobbying foreign governments to oppose American foreign policy. (It is a criminal offence under the Logan Act for an American to lobby a foreign government "in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States".)

But mainly, who are these groups? How many are there? What is the range of their agendas, and is it true that they are tilted ideologically to the left or the far left? Which are the biggest and most influential? What are they up to? Where is their funding coming from? How much formal and informal interchange is there among them? And how successful are they at influencing international relations? There is a good book to be written about this -- preferably by someone sceptical but sober. The JTA report is a good start, and a good model.