Environmental NGOs In The Global South: Saviors Of Humanity Or Predatory Special Interests?

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From Forbes

By Tilak Doshi 

On Friday, the Moscow Times announced the closure of Greenpeace Russia following the government authorities’ decision to label it “undesirable,” a designation that renders all its activities illegal. The Prosecutor-General’s Office claimed that the group “intervenes in Russia’s internal affairs,” financially supports “foreign agents,” and that its activities “pose a threat to the foundation of the constitutional system and security of the Russian Federation.” It also said that after the beginning of the war in Ukraine, “Greenpeace activists have been involved in anti-Russia propaganda, calling for the further economic isolation of our country, and an increase in sanctions” imposed on Moscow.

In response, Greenpeace Russia said “By destroying Greenpeace for being critical of environmental issues, the country loses one of its leading experts in solving environmental problems.” Over the past 30 years, the organization has played a role bringing to the attention of society and policy makers the myriad environmental problems in the country, from illegal deforestation to the pollution of lakes and rivers, waste management and recycling and so on. The organization argued that “We are doing everything possible to ensure that people in our country live in favorable environmental conditions…Can the protection of the country’s nature be contrary to its interests?”

It is no surprise that the green chattering classes of the West will cast this event as yet another example of Putin’s autocratic government riding roughshod over an organization that speaks on behalf of ordinary people in Russia. Alas were it that simple.

The Indian Experience With Greenpeace

In 2015, the Indian government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi cancelled the foreign funding of an estimated 10,000 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) for “not complying with tax codes”. The ban on Greenpeace India provoked much furore in the Western press (here and here). The Western mainstream media cast the actions of the government as reflecting the BJP party’s “intolerant nationalism”. Yet it did little to counter the country’s Intelligence Bureau’s charges that Greenpeace was a threat to national economic security, leading protests against nuclear and coal power plants, mining projects and GM foods. According to the Bureau’s report, Greenpeace alone was leading a “massive effort to take down India’s coal-fired power plant and coal mining activity.” According to Reuters that had seen an excerpt of the report, the cancellation, disruption or delay to various development projects had clipped gross domestic product growth by 2 to 3 percent a year.

Greenpeace India defended itself from the accusations, claiming that it stood for “sustainable development”. It said “We have a legitimate right to express our views in what is the world’s largest democracy. We believe that this report is designed to muzzle and silence civil society who raise their voices against injustices to people and the environment by asking uncomfortable questions about the current model of growth.”

A good example of Greenpeace’s notions of “sustainable development” relates to the case of the village of Dharnai in India’s poorest state (Bihar) severely lacking access to electricity. Greenpeace activists set up a solar-powered microgrid for the village in 2014 with much publicity. Problems emerged immediately with the load put on the solar “grid,” as households began hooking up appliances such as television sets, electric water heaters, irons, and air conditioners. At the official opening of the solar power system, the villagers protested with banners saying, “we want real electricity, not fake electricity.” “Real” meant power from the central grid generated mostly using coal. “Fake’ referred to intermittent and dilute solar power. In great irony, embarrassed state officials facing the press at the gala opening of the Greenpeace-promoted solar showpiece ensured that the village was soon connected to the coal-fired power grid.

According to a report published last week, state-run Coal India Ltd has developed 52 coal mining projects, including 13 new coal blocks in a plan to attain the one billion tonne coal production target by the fiscal year 2025–26. As a result of aggressive coal mining developments over the past few years, India has maintained relatively stable electricity prices despite the surge in global energy prices after the Ukraine war. Greenpeace would have had it otherwise though claiming to represent the interests of India’s power-deprived citizens.

Western-Funded Environmental NGOs in the Third World

Greenpeace is headquartered in Amsterdam, has a large budget with contributions from rich foundations such as the Rockefeller Family Fund. It controls huge lobbying and litigation resources, often exceeding government finances available to many small developing countries. Well-funded NGOs such as Greenpeace represent large bureaucracies with interests in creating environmental scares to maximize income, salaries and perks of its staff and key executives. The classic example of Greenpeace raising cash via bogus alarmist reports relates to polar bears that are allegedly facing extinction.

Are Western-funded environmental NGOs such as Greenpeace operating in the Global South the moral arbiters of environmental issues affecting the poor and the marginalized? Are they the “global salvationists” giving succour to the “wretched of the earth”? Do they promote “sustainable development” in the face of predatory capitalists and their governmental supporters? As the late classical economist Deepak Lal asked in an opinion piece on the foreign-funded NGO ban, “what are we to make of their local representatives who seek to influence their countries’ public policy to the agenda of their foreign sponsors”?

Western environmental NGOs became a fixture in multilateral organizations, especially through the United Nations specialized agencies such as the International Labour Organization (ILO), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). They grew in influence over the 1990s via the UN’s Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) which gave them formal recognition as partner agencies in setting agendas affecting policies and programs concerning developing countries.

Their greatly expanded role gained momentum as the UN moved to produce “a global consensus” for a new “sustainable development” agenda for the 1990s and beyond. These NGOs became participants in the development and implementation of UN policies and programs, endorsed enthusiastically by the UN’s then-chief Kofi Annan. In a subversion of constitutional democracy, these self-selected NGOs were given a direct voice in UN deliberations and in World Bank activities under the presidency of James Wolfensohn.

The agenda of the Western environmental NGOs operating in the developing countries is, in no uncertain terms, a left wing one. It demands radical changes in individual and social behavior opposed to the norms of modern industrial civilization, individualism, private property, profits and market competition. Such preferred changes are in keeping with the concept of “sustainable development”, a nebulous concept dreamed up by the luxury beliefs of privileged intellectuals of the developed West. It espouses the politically correct values that stand in opposition to the interests of economic development and the world’s poor in whose name the Western NGOs claim to speak.

Perhaps the clearest example of the perversions of “sustainable development” is the crisis last year in Sri Lanka’s agricultural sector. Encouraged by environmental NGOs such as Greenpeace, the government had rushed to introduce organic farming and imposed a nationwide ban on the importation and use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. It effectively ordered the country’s 2 million farmers to “go organic”. The results were quick and horrific. Domestic rice production fell 20 percent in just the first six months. Long self-sufficient in rice production, the country was forced to import $450 million worth of rice and domestic prices surged by approximately 50 percent. The ban also devastated the nation’s tea crop, its primary export and source of foreign exchange.

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled to the Maldives, chased out after the economic collapse unleashed a popular uprising. The president was the poster child of the World Economic Forum until the disaster happened and the WEF scrubbed him off its website. The climate ideologues in charge of agricultural policy and “sustainable farming” in the developed countries such as Holland, the United Kingdom and New Zealand are busy emulating the horrific experiment that Sri Lanka underwent.

Beware of Good Intentions!

In his essays on theology, C. S. Lewis observed that:

“Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. They may be more likely to go to Heaven yet at the same time likelier to make a Hell of earth.”

The Western-funded environmental NGOs, the moral busybodies, may yet be the worst enemies of the poor and the marginal of the third world.

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Tilak Doshi

I have worked in the oil and gas sector as an economist in both private industry and in think tanks, in Asia, the Middle East and the US over the past 25 years.

I focus on global energy developments from the perspective of Asian countries that remain large markets for oil, gas and coal.

I have written extensively on the areas of economic development, environment and energy economics.

My publications include “Singapore in a Post-Kyoto World: Energy, Environment and the Economy” published by the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (2015). I won the 1984 Robert S. McNamara Research Fellow award of the World Bank and received my Ph.D. in Economics in 1992.