New Internationalist

The big charity bonanza

Issue 383

Big international non-governmental organizations (bingos) are not just a mouthful – they’re a handful, growing into clumsy but powerful giants. David Ransom is not sure they’re a good idea.

Paul Lowe / Panos Pictures
Somalia – the humanitarian imperative on display in 1992. A US Marine stands guard as a media circus descends on starving children. Paul Lowe / Panos Pictures

If giving to charity were a mark of virtue then we’d be living in uniquely virtuous times. More money is being donated to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) – ‘nonprofits’ in the US – than ever before. Vast areas of humanitarian or environmental endeavour are now identified in the public mind more with NGOs than with political parties or government programmes.

It’s taken a while to get to this point. Charities persisted through the sorrows of ancient plagues and misfortunes, through industrial capitalism and evangelical colonialism, until they reached – in the rich world at least – some sort of interim settlement in the middle of the last century. It was their continuing mission, they argued then, to be different from lumbering state bureaucracies or predatory transnational corporations; to be small, nimble, people-friendly and responsive; to take risks, innovate, expose, challenge, advocate, change minds; to fill gaps and show what could be done. Eventually – because, say, cancer would have been cured, poverty eradicated or the environment rendered secure – they would put themselves out of business.

Well, we’ve changed centuries, even millennia, but few indeed are the charities that have deliberately put themselves out of business. On the contrary, a few – almost all in the rich world, and particularly in the US – have gone global and grown so vast as to acquire an identity all of their own: ‘bingos’. It’s as if we’d regressed to the days of the grand imperial charities of Victorian Britain, or the foundations of the American robber barons like Carnegie and Rockefeller.

Quite what bingos are trying to achieve today is, however, far from obvious. The perverse fact remains that no-one with any choice in the matter ever seems to wish to become an object of charity. Rather, most of us go to great lengths to avoid what still feels like humiliation. Why should this be so? Of course, if people are starving, sick or struck by a natural disaster, they are unlikely to have had much choice – or ‘agency’ – in the matter. Few people starve if they live in anything even remotely resembling a democracy. The suffering caused by preventable illness or curable disease is just that – preventable. A tsunami about to strike the concrete of Seattle or Tokyo, with some warning, threatens a catastrophe of an altogether different nature from a tsunami about to hit the fragile homes of Banda Aceh or Galle with no warning at all. Or, come to that, a hurricane that strikes impoverished areas of New Orleans with perfectly adequate warning.

So if people are overtaken by avoidable starvation, preventable illness or predictable disaster, chances are something else has happened first – human agency has been removed from them. And, while charities may not have removed it, they do play a part in preventing people from getting it back. They may not mean to, but they do.

Surplus cash

After all, on its own, the mere fact that more money is being donated to charity doesn’t mean that we live in a more generous world. It might equally well mean that fewer and fewer people have accumulated more and more surplus cash at the expense of an increasing number of people who are then, quite possibly as a direct result, faced with destitution. From the point of view of the donors, the great advantage of charities – over taxation, say – is that they are invariably prohibited by law from being accountable to their ‘beneficiaries’, which makes them accountable to no-one but their donors. The inescapable effect is to remove human agency from the people who are supposed to benefit from their work.

Origin of species

The term ‘non-governmental organization’ was first coined by the UN in 1948. Selected ‘tax-exempt’ (charitable) international organizations were granted consultative status by its Economic and Social Council. Big international NGOs were given a ‘general’ status, the others a ‘special’ one. There were just 40 in total at the time. Their offspring now include some exotic sub-species of international NGO, like ringos (religious), gringos (government-related), bringos (business-related) and pingos (public-interest). More commonplace domestic species of NGO include quangos (quasi-autonomous).

Then again, since charities cannot benefit everyone equally, as of right, they must make themselves expert in discrimination – between the appealing and the unappealing, the hapless and the hopeless, the deserving and the undeserving. The people who work for them must submit to the insidious corruption that comes with being forever besieged by supplicants, or from sharing the same secret prayer for the next headline calamity to fill the charitable coffers. In such circumstances, the ‘humanitarian imperative’ can circle like a vulture, preoccupied with symptoms rather than causes, waiting upon conclusive evidence of final human despair.

Context matters, and currently it is also ambiguous. On the one hand, the worst natural disaster in living memory prompted the largest worldwide response in charitable history, in the form of the Asian tsunami appeal. A reported 80 per cent of the people of Britain donated to it, and a similar response seems to have occurred worldwide.1 Not long afterwards, an international alliance of bingos had world leaders courting the Make Poverty History campaign at the G8 gathering in Scotland. Half the world’s population were said to have watched the Live8 concerts. Here, surely, was the humanitarian face of globalization in full view.

On the other hand, it is hard to know quite what our governments were thinking of – other than their own political skins – when it took the huge popular response to the charitable appeal, rather than the tsunami itself, to bounce them into making their own pledges of assistance. And how could Make Poverty History have led anyone to believe in all seriousness that the G8 – a monument to concentrated wealth and power – might somehow bring poverty and injustice to an end? If Band Aid did so little good for Africans, exactly what was the point of repeating it – albeit with ‘political’ rather than ‘charitable’ intent – in the form of Live8 almost precisely 20 years on?

Corporate culture

Bingos must surely take some responsibility for the down- as well as the upside. But most are unlikely to do so. They have become powerful, self-righteous institutions, focused intently on the positive. Their revenues and assets now run into hundreds of millions, even billions, of dollars. They employ thousands of staff in dozens of countries. Their chief executive officers receive ‘commensurate remuneration’. Harold Decker, President of the American Red Cross, took severance pay of over a million dollars; Steven E Sanderson, Chief Executive Officer of the Wildlife Conservation Society, receives an annual salary of over half a million dollars.2 Sophisticated ‘instruments’ familiar to Wall Street, like hedge funds, are now required to maximize their billowing financial assets. Authoritarian hierarchies prevail. Efficiency and professionalism outrank commitment and insight in avowedly ‘corporate’ cultures. Branding is everything. Image is priceless. Growth is good. Bit by bit, the interests of the institution merge with those of its ‘stakeholders’ and ‘customers’ – so that all can expand quite happily together, in size or number as appropriate.

The ‘humanitarian imperative’ can circle like a vulture, preoccupied with symptoms rather than causes, waiting upon conclusive evidence of final human despair

The process has been an accelerating one, particularly in the past decade. The number of bingos with representation at the UN more than trebled between 1992 and 2004.3 In Britain, the proportion of total donations that went to the biggest charities rose from 41 to 45 per cent, or approaching half, between 1998 and 2004.4 Smaller ones are now feeling the pinch, even facing extinction, because many donors – particularly corporate ones – switched to the bigger and better profile of the tsunami appeal.1 In Australia just one organization, World Vision, accounted for over 40 per cent of all funds raised from the public for international development in 2003.5

What’s new is not just that bingos are getting more businesslike. They’re occupying new territory. Some of the NGOs that helped to get environmental concerns on to political agendas, like the World Wildlife Fund, now wield enormous influence of their own. Perhaps the fact that they feel less beholden to humanitarian than to environmental – and sometimes misanthropic – ‘imperatives’ may help to explain why they have pioneered sweetheart deals with transnational corporations (see The stain in sustainability).

Aubrey Wade  / Panos Pictures
A member of the Clandestine Instigational Rebel Clown Army tries a ticklish alternative in Edinburgh. Aubrey Wade / Panos Pictures

Meanwhile, the global spread of neoliberal orthodoxy, and privatization in particular, has created more fresh territory for bingos to explore. In Bangladesh, foreign aid has shaped a ‘franchise state’ in which large areas of public service are now run by bingos. In Cambodia virtually the entire health service – such as it is – has been ‘contracted out’ to them. Whether this is a result of the ‘failed state’ of Cambodia, or the state of Cambodia has failed as a result, is a moot point.6

This is the more familiar, unpleasant face of globalization. And from the point of view of the beholder, many bingos now resemble the predatory transnational corporations they have often quite consciously come to ape. They are also entering contested territory and walking straight into the political firing line.

Earlier this year, prior to the G8 gathering, the Left-leaning New Statesman in Britain ran a cover story stating baldly ‘Why Oxfam is Failing Africa’.7 The cover story on the more Left-prone Red Pepper announced a ‘New Scramble for Africa’.8 Both argued that Oxfam – by far the biggest ‘development’ bingo in Britain – had tried to align the Make Poverty History campaign with Tony Blair’s corporate-friendly ‘New Labour’ Government. Elsewhere on the Left, bingos have been accused of fostering ‘a new type of cultural and economic imperialism’,9 or resembling ‘Trojan horses for global neoliberalism’.10

Less predictable has been the assault from the neoliberal Right. A few months ago a venomous article appeared in the US quarterly magazine, The National Interest. Its target was the once sacrosanct International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) – the guardian of the Geneva Conventions on the conduct of war, and one of the grandest of all the world’s bingos. Under the title ‘Double-Red-Crossed’, the article stridently complained that in return for an annual contribution of $200 million from the US Government, the ICRC ‘has consistently opposed American policy [in Guantánamo Bay specifically] during a war in which American civilians are the enemy’s preferred target’.11

Earlier, in June 2003, the Institute for Public Affairs in Australia co-sponsored with the American Enterprise Institute a conference entitled ‘Non-Governmental Organizations: The Growing Power of an Unelected Few’. The conference led to the launch of the ‘NGO Watch’ website, which mocks Watch-style NGOs and scans the virtual horizon in a rather desultory way for any evidence of ‘interference’ in the sacred workings of free markets.12 But make no mistake – these ideologues are not on the political fringes, but right at the heart of the US and Australian administrations.

It does not necessarily follow that the more money a bingo has, the better for the people or cause it claims to serve

It would be relatively easy for bingos to believe this makes them right in the Middle, at the helm of some sort of ‘Third Force’, deftly navigating a non-political, non-governmental ‘Third Way’. Unfortunately, this may also be non-existent. In fact, it is rapidly turning into an abyss – the deepening divisions engendered by corporate globalization have seen to that. Try keeping a foot on both sides and you’re liable to fall straight into it.

How much would that really matter? For bingos camped out happily enough on the safe side of corporate globalization it is, of course, not an issue. But for the others, in which many millions of donors and beneficiaries still have some faith, it matters a great deal. And for them there is – there has to be – the possibility of a sharp change of direction. There are at least three fresh destinations clearly visible on the map.

The first is cultural. There is no absolute requirement for bingos to be organized along old-fashioned, hierarchical, authoritarian, corporate – not to say Stalinist – lines. The justification for this usually begins – and ends – with size: there is no other known way of running such enormous organizations. Very well, let them invent one; or, if they can’t, break themselves up into smaller pieces. In this way the talent, imagination and idealism of the people who work for them might be put to better use – and the corporate arrogance that leads to such things as ‘disaster tourism’ (see Tsunami business) might more easily be avoided. Bingos would then be closer to the organizational forms of the ‘social movements’ that lie at the heart of the movement for global justice, with whom they need to work if they are to be of any use at all.

The second is financial. It does not necessarily follow that the more money a bingo has, the better for the people or cause it claims to serve. Some sort of reassessment of the real costs to the ‘beneficiaries’ of charitable or nonprofit status is long overdue. The tax gains conveyed by this status are tax losses to someone else, and are also enjoyed by such things as private schools in Britain, private hospitals in the US and all sorts of barefaced scams almost anywhere (see Thunderbolts from the sewer). Some bingos, like Amnesty International, do not have charitable status and, arguably, are a good deal healthier without it. As Mark Curtis suggests (see page 9), others might do well to consider following suit. While they’re at it, they might also care to revisit the real long-term costs and consequences of corporate sponsorship and government contracts.

Major players

The third is political. Like it or not, bingos have become major players on the political stage. Without the dead weight of corporate culture and charitable status, they would be liberated to perform a more constructive role. Avoidable starvation, preventable illness and predictable disaster are supremely political events. They result in good measure from people being forced to consume the poisonous brew of free-market economics and fake democracy that is concocted by corporate globalization and neoliberal politics. The brew is homemade in the rich countries, where almost all bingos live. Quite possibly, the application of an antidote at home would mean their own eventual demise. But then, wasn’t that supposed to be the point? •

  1. The Independent, 3 August 2005.
  2. American Institute of Philanthropy, www.charitywatch.org
  3. www.un.org
  4. The Charity Commission, www.charity-commission.gov.uk
  5. Australian Council for International Development, www.acfid.asn.au
  6. Catherine Barton, Aid and Development: A Cambodian Case Study, thesis, Cambridge University, 2005.
  7. New Statesman, 30 May 2005.
  8. Red Pepper, July 2005.
  9. James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer, Globalization Unmasked: Imperialism in the 21st Century, Zed Books, London, 2001.
  10. Socialist Register, 2004.
  11. Lee A Casey and David B Rivkin in The National Interest, No 79, Spring 2005.
  12. www.ngowatch.org

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