April 21, 2007

Close Enough For Non-Government Government Work

Moises Naim warns readers of the Washington Post to beware of a special type of non-governmental organization (NGO) that has begun to proliferate in international circles. The new and pernicious government-organized NGO, which Naim calls gongos, not only operate as laughable oxymorons but also undermines international efforts to isolate oppressive regimes:

Some gongos are benign, others irrelevant. But many, including those I mentioned, are dangerous. Some act as the thuggish arm of repressive governments. Others use the practices of democracy to subtly undermine democracy at home. Abroad, the gongos of repressive regimes lobby the United Nations and other international institutions, often posing as representatives of citizen groups with lofty aims when, in fact, they are nothing but agents of the governments that fund them. Some governments embed their gongos deep in the societies of other countries and use them to advance their interests abroad.

That is the case, for example, of Chongryon, a vast group of pro-North Korean "civil society" organizations active in Japan. It is the de facto representative of the North Korean regime. Japanese authorities have accused several of its member organizations of smuggling weapons technology, trafficking in pharmaceutical products, and funneling hundreds of millions of dollars, as well as orchestrating a massive propaganda operation on Pyongyang's behalf.

For decades, "civil society" groups in a variety of countries have stridently defended Cuba's human rights record at U.N. conferences and have regularly joined the efforts aimed at watering down resolutions concerning Cuba's well-documented violations. Bolivarian Circles, citizen groups that support Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, are sprouting throughout Latin America, the United States and Canada. Their funding? Take a guess. Iran, Saudi Arabia and other wealthy governments in the Middle East are known to be generous -- and often the sole -- benefactors of NGOs that advance their religious agenda worldwide.

We used to have another name for gongos: front groups, or spy rings. Americans found out how these groups operate when the Nazi-sponsored German-American Bund offered friendship, cultural exchange, and peaceful coexistence while espousing the fuehrerprinzip during the 1930s. The FBI considered them a front group with the potential, and perhaps the track record, of seeking intel for the Nazis during the run-up to the war.

Gongos cause problems domestically as well. Naim points out examples in Kyrgyzstan that acted to undermine democracy activists in order to boost former president Askar Akayev, who left office just ahead of the torches and pitchforks in 2005. In Myanmar, formerly Burma, the Myanmar Womens Affairs Federation exists to give the ruling junta an excuse to keep freedom activist Aung San Suu Kyi imprisoned. Naim even belongs to an American gongo, the National Endowment for Democracy, which boosts non-governmental efforts to promote democracy and freedom abroad, which has been banned in places like Russia.

Naim says the gongo industry needs a ratings system in order to keep the malicious isolated from the benign. He proposes in general terms some sort of market response which would penalize those which act on behalf of oppressive regimes, but incentivize those which act out of principle and good intentions. I'm not so sure that will work. It sounds good, but I fail to see how such a certifying authority would have any impact on the Myanmar WAF, or on the Kyrgyzstan ANNO. Their governments will continue to fund them as long as they fulfill the government agendas, although the Kyrgyzstan ANNO is probably out of business now that the government has changed. A rating system will not convince Putin to allow NED to operate in Russia against Putin's interests, even if it had the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.

The best we can do is to expose these front groups for what they are, and keep funds from flowing to them. Moises Naim can do that by continuing to write about these shadowy groups and keep sunlight on them. Ratings systems, like any self-nominating system, will only serve to limit those who have no reason to be limited in the first place.


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