Tim Wilson in The Australian highlights the issue of AusAid-funded political activity. The problem being that public funds go to NGOs for service delivery, who then undertake political and advocacy activities in parallel.
NGOs are frequently political players that contribute to party political campaigns on politically-contentious issues:
NGOs are within their rights to lobby for the government to increase government aid spending. But that right is diminished when they are also recipients.
Similarly, the Australian Conservation Foundation receives taxpayer aid funding to run programs to promote grassroots engagement on climate change-based policy.
As a recipient of aid funding the ACF was also involved in the Say Yes! Coalition with Greenpeace and GetUp! to provide political support for the Gillard government’s introduction of the carbon tax.
This messy conflation of service delivery and political activity is a real problem for the independence of NGOs – something we should be encouraging – and for the transparent monitoring of how a government uses public money to promote its own political agenda.
Sadly, part of the problem is Falk’s Iron Law of NGOs: no NGO is content making concrete contributions to a concrete single issue. Eventually every successful service NGO wants to change the world, starts hiring activists, creates an advocacy unit, and embraces a wider range of political causes. Amnesty International is a prime example, as is Oxfam.
What’s worse is that these newly-partisan versions of their old selves trade on the reputation they generated when they were focused on a single service or issue.
But set aside these big players. One area that is ripe for an audit on this issue is the field of community and arts grants, both State and Local. Boy on a Bike has made admirable noise about this.
Inevitably many grants for artistic, festival and event projects end up being used for primarily left-leaning purposes. I haven’t finalised the data on it yet, but it is one of my many research projects currently underway. The intuition comes from my reviews of NSW Arts grants and the (predictable) grant activity of Leichhardt and Marrickville Councils.
One need only look at the NSW Writers’ Festival, Premier’s Literary Awards and similar to see the types of issues involved. Throw in the unrelated spending on funded research centres set up within Universities and it is clear there is a substantial political slush fund maintained by taxpayers.
Unfortunately for me I probably shouldn’t be writing about it till I spend hours I don’t have, reading through reports I don’t want to.
This plugs into the recent report from UK’s The Institute of Economic Affairs: Sock Puppets: How the Government Lobbies Itself and Why, which highlights just how many charities actually receive money from the UK government.
The issues are summarised in two UK Telegraph blog posts here and here.
In the UK more than 1/3 of charities take money directly from the government. If you add Lottery funds, it is more than half.
Which means the problem I highlighted is even more pressing in the UK. Supposedly independent NGOs are a service delivery arm of the government that then in turn lobbies that government – and the broader community – on issues of political significance.
We are looking at the slow move from NGOs to GONGOs (government organised NGOs), with all the problems of politicisation, influence and opaque political funding.
This is a big, slow-burning issue.