On this Blog, on 22 July 2004, I drew attention to the EU's new law, rejoicing under the title "The Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) Directive", which required, as of 21 July, impact assessments for every type project listed in the directive.
What I found most disturbing about this directive, and hence the reason for writing the Blog, was the fact that it gave gives special status to what are termed NGOs – Non-Governmental Organisations, more familiarly known as pressure groups. They have to be allowed actively to participate in the SEA process and public authorities are obliged to take their views into account.
I ventured the opinion that this might be good for Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, et al, but it is actually very bad for representative democracy. There is no similar provision for either local elected councils or even parliament to be consulted, so these bodies are effectively marginalised. Officials speak directly unto the people, and are effectively represented by the unelected NGOs.
This particular piece of legislation, however, is only one indication of how influential NGOs have become, and to what extent they are shaping and even controlling the political agenda. Another indication is their active role in the WTO talks currently in progress in Geneva, where they are highly active in promoting their views.
It is timely, therefore, that Tech Central Station should have produced on article by Alan Oxley, former Ambassador of Australia to the GATT (the predecessor of the WTO), entitled "Song of the Idle Rich", excerpts from which are reproduced here with the permission of TCS.
In his piece, Oxley examines the role of NGOs more closely. He notes that "among the more noticeable developments" since the failed Seattle WTO meeting has been "the significant increase in activity by the NGOs that have consistently opposed the WTO and the idea of development through free trade".
"Even more noticeable", he writes, "has been the emergence of NGOs claiming to speak as third world voices. Both Western and 'third world' NGOs actively agitated last year at Cancun to stall the WTO".
What Oxley then does is pick up on the work of independent Washington-based economic analyst Greg Rushford, who has revealed that these "third world" NGOs have received significant funding from US foundations.
With an element of understatement, he observes that the source of funding of the Western NGOs has not always been clear. In fact, their funding is notoriously opaque. Some of it comes from North American foundations, from organised labour and (paradoxically in Europe and Canada), official aid agencies.
Rushford, Oxley says, has found that all of the major "third world" groups - Martin Khor's Third World Network headquartered in Penang, Vandana Shiva's Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy in New Delhi, Waldon Bellow's Focus on the Global South in Bangkok and Yash Tandon's SEATINI in Zimbabwe - receive significant funding from US Foundations.
He gives other examples of Rushford's findings, all pointing to a shadowy network of financing that comes significant political strings, with such organisations as the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Development Foundation heavily involved.
With a US slant to the article, however, Oxley does not look at the European dimension, but it has long been known that a number of environmental NGOs receive money directly or indirectly from EU funds. The WWF, for instance, receives some finance through participation in EU-funded programmes, although it is highly reticent about declaring just how much it receives. But it is also obvious that, in much of its rhetoric, it and the EU commission are singing from the same hymn sheet.
Oxley rails against those who argue fair trade means rich countries cut trade barriers, not poor countries. He writes that they seem unconcerned that they are also giving gravitas to the position of the Western NGOs that poor countries should also have higher (and more expensive labour standards). These, he says, are recipes for continuing poverty in developing countries. The cashed-up foundations are calling the tune. "It is the song of the idle rich", he writes.
But, despite the merit of Oxley's work, he is only presenting half the picture. In that the NGOs are assuming a more authoritative voice in political affairs, yet are wholly without an electoral mandate, they represent an attack on the very fabric of democracy. Furthermore, in EU affairs, they seem to be being used as a Trojan Horse to undermine traditional representative structures in pursuit of the more general agenda of European political integration.
Altogether, they are a very dangerous development.