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NGO - friend or foe?

Those of us who work to defend human rights or the environment often find that our main impediments are the dominant institutions of the world - nations and corporations. Up to now our institutional allies have been NGOs - not-for-profit, nongovernmental organizations like the Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace International, Human Rights Watch, etc. In recent years, NGOs have become ever more numerous and influential - witness the successful effort in 1997 by more than 350 NGOs to forge a treaty banning landmines despite opposition from the United States.

Unfortunately, the very fact that they are so influential has opened the door to a new - and now rampant - form of exploitation: NGOs today aren't always what they appear to be. Consider:

* At the time of the Kyoto climate treaty negotiations in 1997, editors and journalists received copies of what looked like a reprint of an article from a scientific journal, from an NGO identified as the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine. Although the institute had published no peer-reviewed work in any field related to climate change, the Wall Street Journal published an article by the institute's lead researchers, under the headline "Science Has Spoken: Global Warming Is a Myth."

* An NGO called the Greening Earth Society has launched a major media campaign to persuade policymakers and the public that increasing C[O.sub.2] emissions is a good thing, because C[O.sub.2] is a natural part of the environment and will enhance plant growth. The Greening Earth Society turns out to be a front organization for the U.S. coal industry.

* Journalists reporting on the public scare about the health effects of the plant-growth enhancer Alar came to the general conclusion that the "hysteria" had been unwarranted, after reviewing statements from an NGO identified as the American Council on Science and Health. The council, which describes itself as a "public education group," receives almost all of its funding from food, drug, and chemical companies - including Uniroyal Chemical, the maker of Alar.

There are now hundreds of such groups trading on the good reputation NGOs have earned. They have names like the National Wetlands Coalition (which represents developers who would like to fill in more wetlands for building sites); People for the West! (funded and controlled by mining and logging companies); and Consumer Alert (an industry front group that fights product safety regulations). The roster of international NGOs is actually dominated by trade and industry groups; an extensive survey of 22 industrial and developing countries found that on average the number of people employed by trade and industry non-profits outnumbers those employed by environmental groups four to one.

It is time to demand that the sources of information disseminated through mass media (whether by TV, internet, print media, or postal service) be clearly identified. All issue ads, mass petitions, and other mass-media messages aimed at influencing public policies should be clearly identified as to who produced them and who paid for them. Absent that, such communications should be refused by publishers, producers, and the public. If we tell our children not to accept candy from strangers, we'd do well to remind ourselves why.
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Title Annotation:nongovernmental organizations
Publication:World Watch
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Mar 1, 1999
Words:522
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