GENTECH archive


NGOs Don't Speak for the Hungry

NGOs Don't Speak for the Hungry 

- Thomas R. DeGregori, 'Health Facts and Fears' from American Council on
Science and Health, August 26, 2002

In recent years we have witnessed the rapid rise of what is called "civil
society" in the form of a multiplicity of NGOs (Non-Governmental
Organizations) who claim to be the voice of the poor and powerless who can
not speak for themselves. From the demonstrations in Seattle to the
streets of Genoa - where the cry was "you are the G-8, we are 6 billion" -
organizations dominated by wealthy white male Northern Europeans and North
Americans have carried the twin banners of the poor and the environment of
planet Earth in battle against the evils of globalization, multi-national
corporations, and modern technology and biotechnology. They even have a
website, G6B for "global six billion."

The media seems to have largely bought into the agenda and terminology of
the anti-globalization, environmental, and green NGOs. A "hunger
activist," according to the media, is someone who promotes a particular
anti-technology ideology, not someone who has actually helped people in
need gain access to food in the most effective way possible, by growing
more of it themselves. We must clearly distinguish between those
organizations that for decades have selflessly worked around the globe to
improve the lot of those in need and the NGOs, whose main goals seem to be
raising money, garnering publicity for ideological causes, and trying to
force undemocratic public policy changes.

Organizations with "food" or "rural advancement" in their name have raised
and spent hundreds of millions of dollars for advocacy and have spent
virtually nothing directly helping those in need. Still, they savagely
attack people like scientist Norman Borlaug and international agricultural
research institutions that are responsible for the world being able to
feed six billion and feed them better than ever before. Scientists did
this by bringing about an agricultural revolution that close to tripled
food production while population was doubling. All this was done with only
a slight increase in the amount of land under cultivation, from 1.4
billion hectares to 1.5 billion hectares. The "Green Revolution" which
many of these NGOs have long opposed, is regularly deemed to have been a
"failure" by activists who have no feasible alternative strategy to feed a
globe of six billion people (a population expected to grow to nine billion
before leveling-off around 2040).

Visiting Asia and Africa Reveals Holes in NGO Propaganda 
Since May, I have made three trips to Asia and one to Africa with
stopovers in London, and I have seen the dark side of "civil society," as
NGOs sometimes style themselves. My trip to Africa in June marked the
fortieth anniversary of my first trip to Africa. I have lived, traveled,
and been involved in development more times and in more areas of Africa,
Asia, and elsewhere in the Third World than I can count. On all my
overseas trips, I meet and work with friends and associates from all over
the Third World.

The African country that I visited faces opposition to its efforts to
build a dam that would provide new electric power in a country in which
only 4% of the population currently has access to the grid. European and
North American NGOs have thus far been able to use their very effective
propaganda machines to hold up World Bank and other international funding
for the dam. They claim to be operating on behalf of local NGOs and the
local people. As an editor friend of mine put it, the local opponents are
in fact "less than ten," and all are on the payroll of Northern NGOs.
Another journalist chimed in that the "less than" was correct but the
"ten" was generous.

There was no question that the so-called "local NGO" was fully funded from
outside the country, since its members are regularly flown to Scandinavia
for meetings and taken on global tours and presented to the media and to
supporters of the NGO as leaders of an indigenous grassroots movement and
accepted as such without any questions being asked. The media gives them
equal or greater credence than the democratically elected government of
their country. We must not confuse this NGO ventriloquism with the
authentic voices of Third World concerns. They are no more unbiased or
representative of their country than would be the local hires of an
American multi-national corporation, and their word should not be treated
with any greater deference.

The bottom line is that those in affluent countries for whom electricity
comes as easily as flipping a switch are making it very difficult for a
poor country to increase its electric supply, in turn making it harder for
hospitals to function, harder to preserve vaccines, and harder to keep
food from spoiling. Unfortunately, this is one of several countries in
Africa and Asia where NGOs based in affluent countries are fighting the
efforts of poor countries to build dams for hydro-power and irrigation.

It has become an all-too-common practice for the NGOs to create and fully
fund affiliates for a variety of causes and then bring their hired hands
on propaganda and fundraising tours in the developed world, depicting them
as the "legitimate" representatives of their people. This practice
resembles the NGO roadshow sent around the world purporting to represent
American farmers and scientists who oppose foodcrops that are
genetically-modified (gm, or more properly transgenic).

Scientists Overwhelmingly Support Genetically-Modified Foods 
It is important to note that over the last decades scientist have lined up
literally by the thousands to take controversial stands on public policy
issues such as nuclear testing or global warming. Yet not a single
scientist of any professional stature who has made a significant
contribution to advancing scientific understanding has in any way
supported the dire warnings about the dangers of gm food that are the
basis for so much NGO fundraising and disruptive protests. An anti-gm food
petition that has been vigorously promoted for several years has barely
more than 300 signatories. while a pro-gm food petition has over 3,000
including nineteen Nobel Prize winners. These names should be weighed
together with the many professional scientific societies and national
academies of science that have studied the issue and proclaimed the safety
of gm foods. Reading media accounts, one would never surmise this massive
disparity in the between scientific support for gm foods and the very
small number of scientists opposed.

Across Asia, I have worked in tightly-packed villages surrounded by rice
paddies where rice provided the main source of calories (sometimes as much
as 70% or more), with the few fruit trees and perhaps a kitchen garden
next to the house providing vital nutrients and a modicum of dietary
variety. In some of these countries, vitamin deficiency, particularly
vitamin A deficiency, causes children to go blind or makes them more
likely to die from diseases such as diarrhea or measles.

In an Asian country that I visited this summer, papaya ring spot virus
(PRSV) was killing the villager's trees. The truly superb scientists with
whom I was meeting all knew about the successful genetically-engineered
papaya tree with a viral gene that expresses an enzyme that stimulates the
tree's natural immune system to protect it against the virus - but the
constant, massive NGO anti- genetic modification campaign had effectively
intimidated them into rejecting that solution, even though senior
government officials with whom I discussed the matter made it clear that
there was no government policy against genetic modification. In other
words, the NGO scare campaign had brought about paralysis, while poor
peasant families were suffering a critical loss of basic nutrition.

One distinguished scientist indicated that he was preparing an op-ed
article supporting gm food but added that fighting the NGOs'
misinformation is an uphill battle, since he has to get back to doing his
real job - science - while the NGOs have nothing better to do with their
time than continue refining the art of the propaganda campaign.

NGOs Want Money, Fame, and Power 
Like the multi-nationals that they criticize, the green, anti-
globalization, and environmental NGOs are revenue-maximizing
organizations. They obtain their revenue by successfully marketing fear,
no matter what the human cost may be. Fear and fundraising are their
full-time occupations. Ironically, in the country facing the tree virus,
one of the most vocal "local" NGOs receives its funding from the United
States government, via a foundation set up to support local initiatives.

In Southern Africa, where drought, famine, disease, and death stalk the
land, the NGO-spawned false fears, particularly the anti-gm food campaign,
have greatly hindered relief efforts undertaken by the World Food program
and the United States government. There was simply no way to meet
NGO-driven demands that donated maize be certified gm-free - nor is there
any legitimate food safety reason that it should be. This obstacle has
been made worse by the European Union, which has used the NGO scare
campaign as reason to require gm or gm-free labeling of all grains. It is
no coincidence that this rule serves as protectionism for EU agriculture,
already subsidized at a rate of over a billion dollars a day, against gm

African leaders are less frightened about the safety of gm imports than
about the possibility that some of the donated grain would end up being
planted, making future exports to Europe difficult to certify as gm-free.

Thus far, we have not heard any of the anti-gm food NGOs, some of whose
annual budgets are well in excess of $100 million, offer to provide food
aid, nor gm food critic Prince Charles - who has a billion-dollar-a -year
organic food business. The only time when NGOs are silent is when you ask
them how many people they have helped to feed. The fact is that it is
conventional farmers - using the latest in technology, including
biotechnology - who feed the world and provide the surpluses that feed the
victims of famine (U.S. agriculture alone provides about 60% of the
world's food aid). Yet it is the conventional farmers who are regularly
denounced by individuals who feed none but themselves, activists who
somehow claim a higher moral authority and delude themselves and others
that they are "activists" on behalf of the poor. In attacking science and
agriculture, the activists are not just biting the hand feeds them but
biting the hand that attempts to feed those most in need.

NGOs Willing to Sacrifice Human Wellbeing 
Given that the above is but a small sample of the paralysis in development
engendered by the green, anti-globalization, and environmental NGOs
throughout the Third World, it is difficult not to believe that they care
more about defending their ideology than about electricity for the poor,
life enhancing nutrition for Asian children, and famine-alleviating food
provision for those in Africa on the brink of starvation. This may sound
harsh, but can anyone come up with a better explanation?
Thomas R. DeGregori is an ACSH Director and professor of economics at the
University of Houston and author of the new book The Environment, Our
Natural Resources, and Modern Technology (Iowa State Press), which
includes a section that examines the funding of NGOs.