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D'Cruz's opposition to NGOs is not concerned with their effectiveness

By James Ensor - posted Monday, 28 April 2003


Never let facts get in the way of a campaign to malign and discredit aid agencies and NGOs. Such is the case with Institute of Public Affairs campaigner Don D'Cruz.

D'Cruz exposes Oxfam's links with the "insurgent" Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO). FRELIMO was and remains the long standing democratically elected Government of Mozambique and would hardly take kindly to such grossly demeaning inaccuracy. Similarly, Oxfam's work, with the financial support of the Australian government, in providing humanitarian assistance to victims of conflict in rebel held areas of Eritrea and Tigray through the Relief Society of Tigray and the Eritrean Relief Association is grossly and deliberately misrepresented by D'Cruz.

In tactically choosing to attempt to undermine the substantial public credibility of NGOs through a hostile and emotive public campaign, the IPA has no concern about whether NGO programs do any good in their own terms, even at the level of direct relief of poverty. The paramount goal of the IPA campaign is to remove any perceived impediments to extremist free market ideology; impediments which in their eyes include human rights, environmental protection and corporate social responsibility.

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The origins of the IPA's campaign against NGOs lie in the 1998 attempt by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to establish a Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) to deregulate global private foreign direct investment which was in part halted by an international education and information campaign led by NGOs.

The demise of the MAI palpably fuelled the antagonism of extremist free-market advocacy groups towards NGOs. This was exemplified in Australia by the reaction of the IPA to NGOs "willing to engage in the most egregious distortion and blatant propagandizing to mount scare campaigns in what is clearly a power-grab".

Former Keating government minister Gary Johns has subsequently been responsible for much of the IPA's NGO campaign. The substance of the IPA based drive against NGOs was foreshadowed in Johns's inaugural paper for the IPA in 1997, Whither Labor? This was an analysis of why the Keating government lost office in 1996 and Johns, then a government minister, lost his seat of Petrie in the House of Representatives.

Johns' diagnosis of Labor's defeat was that the ALP's appeasement of minority interest groups that "together monopolised public discourse" eventually foundered. Perplexingly, and overlooking any fundamental virtue that many see NGOs have in informing, stimulating and otherwise facilitating public debate and pressuring for greater transparency and accountability, Johns argues that NGOs depoliticise life - making it "less amenable to public dispute". Johns's recurrent use of emotive terms such as "cashed-up NGOs", a "dictatorship of the articulate" and a "tyranny of the minorities" suggests that a significant level of anger and resentment drives him.

The IPA's campaign to end public support for NGOs is consistent with its position on other policy matters, such as the very narrow view of the legitimate roles of trade unions and charitable organizations, opposition to a bill of rights, denial of notions of corporate social responsibility, attacks on regulatory approaches to address global warming, opposition to tougher corporate and product disclosure requirements and rejection of any need for a reconciliation process with Aboriginal people.

Having told The Age (7 July 2001) that in the public mind negative messages are remembered and positive ones forgotten, the IPA's D'Cruz is clearly aware of the strategic efficacy of negative campaigns. However, in his analysis of Iraq's needs, D'Cruz is right on two counts.

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First, Iraqis should play a key role in rebuilding what has been destroyed. Any outside agency - whether they be private contractors or NGOs - should be facilitating this. This is exactly why Oxfam is now planning large scale emergency water and sanitation infrastructure work in southern Iraq in conjunction with UNICEF and Iraqi authorities. With five million Iraqis now without access to clean water and 500,000 tonnes of raw sewage pumped daily into the Tigris River - Iraq's main source of fresh water - the need for this work is urgent.

Second, D'Cruz is right that Iraq does not need "Western political activists pushing Western activist agendas". This includes political activists like D'Cruz already imposing a vision of a reconstructed Iraq instead of leaving it to the democratically expressed views of Iraqis themselves to determine their own future.

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About the Author

James Ensor is Director of Public Policy at Oxfam Australia.

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