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Quangos: Democracy Activists or American Spies?

The case against NGO workers in Egypt brought to light some deep anti-American sentiment in the Egyptian government and public, but it also sheds light on a gray area of US foreign policy. “Quangos”, as the Brits call them — quasi non-governmental organizations — operate partly as non-affiliated promoters of democracy and freedom abroad. But they receive US government funding and are closely linked to political leaders in both parties. The ‘wall of separation’ between the quangos and actual government policy is somewhat fictional, and the whole relationship is deeply suspect in countries with morbidly suspicious political cultures. The latest crisis in Egypt is a sign of just how very careless the US political establishment has grown as it makes use of these groups to achieve political ends in foreign countries.

Tension between Washington and Cairo has eased somewhat now that the accused Americans are on their way home, but within Egypt there is still anger at the role US based organizations have played in local politics, and Egyptian officials are being accused of caving to Washington in releasing the Americans. Elsewhere, quango employees have not been so successful in getting out of danger when a government perceives them as American spies: Alan Gross, formerly of USAID, is serving 15 years in a Cuban prison; a delegation led by Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy was unable to secure his release last week.

Quangos have done good work abroad, and Via Meadia admires the devotion of quango employees and other Americans who put themselves at risk in order to help courageous democracy activists around the world promote freedom and democracy. But there are costs. As the executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy told Yahoo News on Wednesday, “They [democracy activists in the Arab world] don’t want Americans and Western Europeans to tell them how to run their transition. But they want help in lessons learned and experiences.” In the words of Ben Barber, the former lead writer of the USAID newspaper who was also interviewed by Yahoo News, “No matter how crappy it is, the country does not want to be treated like a basket-case.”

One takeaway from this is that the US should be much, much more cautious about these organizations. More and more countries (with, frankly, more and more reason) regard quangos not as innocent civil society actors but as direct tools of US foreign policy operating outside the traditional restraints of diplomatic institutions. They and their employees will increasingly be seen as fair game for retaliation. And the very fact that these organizations are so closely connected to the DC establishment (one of the US citizens trapped in Egypt is the son of the transportation secretary) means that Washington is in a tough position if anything happens to these groups or their representatives.

Via Meadia suggests that both the mandate and the funding of these organizations be reviewed; they need to be either more fully separated from US policy — and perhaps government funding — or more restricted in terms of what they do and where they do it.  To the extent these organizations are funded entirely by the US government, it would not be unreasonable for foreign governments to require that any activities they undertake on foreign soil ought to be governed by a government-to-government agreement.

On the whole, Via Meadia believes that less would be more in this case: a clearer separation between NGOs and the government makes a lot of sense. The existence of the quangos muddies the water for genuine civil society groups; it is easy for foreigners to denounce all western civil society groups as government agencies when some “NGOs” receive most or all of their funding from foreign governments.

The operation of rich country NGOs in poor developing countries is much more problematic than many Americans (or Europeans) understand. Western groups with their ample sources of funds easily overshadow local organizations and, with the best will in the world, sometimes hurt rather than help the causes they support. Ironically, secular western civil society groups today face many of the problems that missionaries did in the 19th century.  Like the missionaries, they have come to enlighten the peoples sitting in darkness. Like the missionaries, they sometimes do not understand the complexities of the societies with which they are engaged. Like the missionaries, they sometimes look like the arrogant adjuncts of imperial power rather than disinterested philanthropists working for justice and truth.

If you add to these problems the additional complication that some “NGO” groups actually are paid contractors directly funded by foreign governments and operating under government mandates of various kinds, it is easy to see why crises like the one in Egypt can flair up.

Secular missionaries preaching the gospels of democracy and free enterprise are doing good work, and it is important that these messages be heard. But as Christian missionaries have come to understand, it is not enough to be right.  You must be right in the right way; you must learn to bear the message in a way that respects the pride and the values of those with whom you hope to share the light. Christian missions had their greatest success when the missionaries were not backed up by gunboats, and when there was a clear separation between missionary groups and imperial power. Democracy activists need to spend more time studying mission history. There are some rich lessons there that need to be learned.


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  • Cunctator

    It is a real problem when quangos actually become an extension of US policy, as happened in the leadup to the Orange Revolution. A single incident (and the events in Kiev were not unprecedented), whatever the cause, stains the entire NGO community.

  • Pedro Marquez

    Ben Barber: Qaddafi stooge, all-around blowhard.

  • Kris

    “No matter how crappy it is, the country does not want to be treated like a basket-case.”

    TPLAC (Unfortunately does not have the later laugh-line.)

  • ebt

    “Quango” was originally an acronym for “quasi-autonomous national government organization”, denoting the kind of thing that in Canada we call a “Crown corporation”, which is created by the government and generally pursues ends determined by the government, but isn’t directly controlled by or actually part of the government and has some autonomy in its operations.

    Since “NGO” denotes a different thing, arguably the acronym “quango” ought not to be applied to it. On the other hand, an acronym exists to be used, and if you find it useful, go for it. The original sense may not be all that useful in the USA.

  • korby

    A few observations: Your two references to USAID create the impression that it is one of the ‘quangos’ you’re discussing. But it’s not–USAID is a federal agency. Alan Gross, according to Wikipedia, was working for the firm DAI on a USAID-funded contract when he was arrested. So he was not really “formerly of USAID,” any more than a Boeing employee could considered to be “of the Department of Defense.” The more important point is that in this case DAI, as a USAID contractor, would have been implementing a program designed and overseen by USAID (i.e., US Gov’t) personnel. In that sense, such organizations are indeed “direct tools of US foreign policy,” but when they are operating under contract to the US Government they have no latitude to advance any program or agenda but the one they are hired for. It is problematic that the US uses contractors to implement foreign policy, but since the State Department and USAID are not staffed to directly carry out all the programs Congress funds, it’s probably unavoidable.

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