Commentary

The Uncivil Civil Society

By Thomas R. DeGregori
October 7, 2002

Recently we have witnessed the rapid rise of “civil society” in the form of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) — groups that claim to be the voice of the poor and powerless. 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. More often than not, however, such groups are not helping the poor but, in fact, hurting them.

For instance, one African country now faces opposition to its efforts to build a dam to provide electric power, and that’s a state in which only 4 percent of the population has access to the grid. European and North American NGOs have thus far been able to use their propaganda machines to holdup the 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 put it, the “local” opponents are “less than 10” and all are on the payroll of Northern NGOs. A reporter chimed in that the “less than” was correct but the “10” was generous.

The NGOs send their hired hands as the “legitimate” representatives of their people on propaganda and fundraising tours to meet “civil society” supporters and the media in developed countries. This is the twin of the NGO-organized road show of virtually the same cast of characters sent around the world that purport to represent American farmers and scientists in their opposition to genetically modified crops — GM foods. However, not one professional scientist that 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 actions.

Like the multi-nationals that they criticize, the Green, anti-globalization, and environmental NGOs are revenue-maximizing organizations. They make their money by marketing fear — no matter the human cost. Fear and fundraising are their full-time jobs. We must not confuse NGO ventriloquism with the authentic voices of Third World concerns. The NGO people are no less unbiased or representative of their country than would be the local hires of an American based multi-national corporation, and they should not be treated differently.

In Southern Africa, drought, famine, disease and death stalk the land. The false fears and anti-GM food campaigns pushed by some NGOs have hindered the relief efforts of the World Food Program (WFP). Roughly 80 percent of WFP food in Southern Africa is U.S. donated corn. There is no way that the U.S. maize could be certified as GM-free, nor is there any food-safety reason why it should be. The fear of African leaders in the region is less one of food safety than it is that some of the donated grain would end up being planted, making future exports to Europe when the rains return difficult to certify as being GM-free. The EU is using the NGO scare campaign to require GM or GM-free labeling of all grains as a means of protectionism for its agriculture industry, which it already subsidizes at the rate of $1 billion a day.

The fear of African leaders in the region is less one of food safety than it is that some of the donated grain would end up being planted, making future exports to Europe difficult to certify as being GM-free.

Thus far, we have not heard any of the anti-GM food NGOs, some of whose annual budgets exceed $100 million, offer to provide food aid — nor has GM food critic Prince Charles with his billion dollar-a-year organic food business. 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. Yet it is the conventional farmers who are regularly trashed by those who feed none but themselves but somehow claim a higher moral authority and delude themselves and others into believing that they are “activists” on behalf of the poor.

It is not that they are biting the hand that is feeding them because they are not in need. But they are biting the hand that is attempting to feed those most in need. It is difficult not to believe that defense of their ideology is more important to them than 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 professor of Economics at the University of Houston and the author of the new books, Bountiful Harvest (Cato Institute, 2002), upon which this article is based, and The Environment, Our Natural Resources and Modern Technology (Iowa State University Press, 2002).