George Soros is giving $100 million to Human Rights Watch—with a challenge for the organization to find a matching $100 million from other donors. He’s been rewarded with ringing cheers for his disinterested munificence.
Soros told NPR that with the expansion of HRW prompted by his big new grant, "the people doing the investigations won’t necessarily be Americans…. The United States has lost the moral high ground…. And that has sort of endangered the credibility, the legitimacy of Americans being in the forefront of advocating human rights."
Soros the financier made his billions as a currency speculator; he could destroy a country’s reserves, hastening its social disintegration. Then Soros the philanthropist could finance HRW’s investigations into the abuses his operations might have helped to induce. He offers an arresting profile of liberal interventionism in our era, in which economic and political destabilization (mostly calibrated in concert with the US government) has easy recourse to the moral and political bludgeon of a human rights report, which is then used to ratchet up pressure for an imperial onslaught—whether by economic sanctions, covert sabotage, aerial bombing or a blend of all three. The role of human rights NGOs in legitimating NATO’s attack on the former Yugoslavia is a prime example.
Or take a look at Soros’s meddling in Georgia. His millions and the NGOs under his control played an active role in installing the unstable and decidedly authoritarian Mikheil Saakashvili. The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies quoted a former Georgian parliamentarian as saying that in the three months before the 2003 Rose Revolution, "Soros spent $42 million ramping up for the overthrow of Shevardnadze." Former Georgian Foreign Minister Salomé Zourabichvili was also quoted in the French journal Hérodote explaining, "The NGOs which gravitate around the Soros Foundation undeniably carried the revolution. However, one cannot end one’s analysis with the revolution and one clearly sees that, afterwards, the Soros Foundation and the NGOs were integrated into power." Consult Human Rights Watch’s rather muffled report on Georgia three years later, and you’ll find the statement that "U.S. backing of President Saakashvili’s government has led to a less critical attitude toward human rights abuses in the country."
With Soros’s extra money, HRW will be dangling big funds at its non-American recruits. Regarding the hefty salaries that will surely follow, it’s worth raising the experience of Eritrea, which immediately got into trouble with the NGO system after independence in 1991. Eritrea-based journalist Tom Mountain tells me, "For one, Eritrea won’t allow the NGOs to pay above civil service salaries. Why? NGOs come into a country and find the best and brightest and give them salaries ten or twenty times the local rate, buying their allegiance and often turning them against their country. Two, Eritrea has implemented a 10 percent overhead policy, and all the NGOs that couldn’t or wouldn’t comply with the documentation were kicked out, about the same time Eritrea kicked out the UN ‘peacekeepers’ here."
In other words, foundations, nonprofits, NGOs—call them what you will—can on occasion perform nobly, but overall their increasing power moves in step with the temper of our times: privatization of political action, overseen and manipulated by the rich and their executives. The tradition of voluntarism is extinguished by the professional, very well-paid do-good bureaucracy.
NGOs endowed by the rich are instinctively hostile to radical social change, at least in any terms a left-winger of the 1950s or ’60s would understand. The US environmental movement is now strategically supervised by the Pew Charitable Trusts, a top dispenser—which has neutralized the movement as a radical force. As for the role of Western NGOs in the third world, I recommend a glance at the great Indian journalist P. Sainath’s classic book Everybody Loves a Good Drought: "The majority of NGOs are, alas, deeply integrated with the establishment, with government and with the agenda of their funding bodies…. They also provide white collar employment. Nepal, next door, has over 10,000 NGOs—one for every 2,000 inhabitants."
The amazing career of "microcredit" as a strategy for "development" is also very instructive. Western NGOs and their rich donors ecstatically seized on the term, now vying with "sustainability" as their most cherished noun. For one thing, microloans have something bracingly austere about them: they are by definition small, and therefore eschew large ambitions, like organizing to force the government into serious action or, if necessary, overthrowing the government and enforcing macro-actions like land reform and economic redistribution.
The NGOs, many of them intertwined with corporate sponsors, have pretty much destroyed what began as a legitimate tool for poor village women to make their lives marginally better. Now giant multinational banks and corporate finance outfits have moved steadily toward capturing the microcredit sector. In 2006, Sainath reports, "the government of Andhra Pradesh passed a law, enthusiastically supported in the legislature, to curb the interest-gouging activities of some NGO/non-profits and other groups…. They were charging interest rates that effectively turned out to be between 24 and 36 per cent and even higher."
At the dawn of the twentieth century, Lenin and Martov were organizing their international Congresses and looking for grant money to this end. Martov, the Menshevik, told Lenin he must stop paying for the hotels and halls with money hijacked by Stalin from Georgian banks in Tblisi. Lenin reassured Martov, and then asked Stalin to knock over another bank, which he did—Europe’s record bank heist up till that time. It was one way, perhaps the only way, past the grip of cautious millionaires. Then as now.