An activist from Amnesty International Thailand holds a banner during a rally to urge the Philippines to stop "War on Drugs" in front of Philippines' embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, April 25, 2017. REUTERS/Chaiwat Subprasom - RTS13RV0
An activist from Amnesty International Thailand holds a banner during a rally to urge the Philippines to stop its 'war on drugs,' in front of Philippine Embassy in Bangkok on April 25, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Chaiwat Subprasom

Annual remuneration of Kenneth Roth, director of Human Rights Watch: US$610 000.

Departure package of Irene Khan, secretary general of Amnesty International after she was dismissed by the board after nine years of service and one year prior to the end of her contract: $850,000.

Annual remuneration of the director of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: $852,000.

Annual remuneration of David Miliband, former British foreign secretary and current director of the International Rescue Committee: $760,000.

Annual remuneration of the director of the Audubon Society dedicated to the protection of birds: $695,000.

While these levels of remuneration primarily apply to American NGOs, though certainly not to all of them, they are indicative of an environment that is in essence unregulated, not to say unsupervised.

Non-governmental organizations first emerged in the 18th and 19th centuries when men of goodwill undertook to create charitable associations that sought to alleviate the lot of the poor. These associations emerged mostly in Anglo-Saxon societies and played a significant role in fighting against slavery and promoting the birth of trade unions.

The creation of the United Nations in 1945 led governments to establish, in parallel, a new  legal framework. This would permit not-for-profit organizations dedicated to social activities with no government affiliation to be created, as distinct from those set up either by the UN or directly by governments. Thus the concept of the NGO was given form.

Seventy years later, NGOs have become a significant component of society.

According to current estimates there are at present some 10 million NGOs throughout the world. Most are inconsequential, with insignificant financial resources. Others have multibillion-dollar budgets and are major players in the realms in which they operate.

In India, they number some 3.3 million. In the United Kingdom, where they come under the name of “charities,” they employ some 750,000 full-time staff members and some 2.2 million volunteers.

In Europe they number some 4,000. But it is the United States with some 1.5 million NGOs, amounting to one NGO per 209 inhabitants, which disburse some $30 billion a year, that sets the tone.

The types of NGO

The ecosphere of American NGOs is actually made up of four very different constituents. 

The first includes what can be dubbed “sham NGOs.” These are entities that have the legal structure of an NGO but are, for all practical purposes, US government entities.

Among these, the one that stands out is the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Created in 1983 by an act of Congress with the legal structure of an NGO, its mission was to take over from the Central Intelligence Agency the task of financing, throughout the world, organizations or media sources that, in the context of the Cold War, were supportive of the causes promoted by Washington.

Today, with an annual budget of $185 million allocated by the US Congress, the NED, through a multitude of donations that average $50,000 each, provides support to groups that aim to promote “democracy” throughout the world.

This includes Uighur and Tibetan groups as well as dissident movements in Hong Kong.

While Ukraine is a major focus of NED funding, there is, significantly, no record of any group in Israel or the Arab Gulf states benefiting from its support.

Not part of this group of NGOs but close to it are those whose operations depend almost exclusively on government donations, such at the US Committee for Refugees and Migrants. With a budget of $56 million, of which $50.4 million is contributed directly by the US government, the USCRM is, except in name, a branch of the US government.

This second group comprises the majority of NGOs. Their purposes are many and include the likes of cancer research, assistance to children, the upkeep of national monuments, veterans associations, the promotion of biblical studies, the defense of primates, diabetes research, shelter for lost cats and so on.  

But the heavy hitters belong to the third group. These are the humanitarian NGOs that operate in the field. The multiplication of crisis situations throughout the world and the mediatization of their humanitarian consequences has brought about a change of perceptions especially among industrialized western democracies regarding the need  for intervention.

With government mechanisms often constrained by their bureaucratic procedures, humanitarian NGOs have demonstrated that when emergency intervention was required, they were often both cheaper and faster than state intervention.

Conversely, governments have often also come to realize that channeling aid through NGOs rather than directly  has, in addition to the advantage of efficiency and speed, that of plausible deniability. Thus channeling aid to Afghan or Syrian refugees through NGOs rather than providing it directly carries, for donor governments, a cosmetic advantage in the sense that it does not smack of political intervention.   

Top-tier management costs top dollar

The end result is that some humanitarian NGOs are now the size of multinationals, with budgets amounting to billions of dollars. Obviously, running such organizations is beyond the capacity of the well-meaning amateur and there is no substitute for professional managers and the remunerations they normally command.

This necessity to hire professionals at current market prices explains in part why  remuneration levels of humanitarian NGOs have gone through the roof and are on par with those provided by the private sector.

Thus the annual salary of the director of the American Red Cross amounts to some $700,000 and reflects the responsibility of a position that entails the management of a budget of some $3.665 billion and the supervision of a staff of 19,345 employees. 

Overall, however, there is within the realm of humanitarian NGOs an unevenness of remuneration that reflects both the free-for-all environment in which they operate and the required skills that often pertain more to political connections than to administrative experience.

While the remuneration packages of humanitarian NGOs are as a rule substantial, they do not necessarily reflect the organization’s operational budget. Thus while the director of the American Joint Distribution Committee, which has a budget of $284 million, has a remuneration of $920,000, the director of the Catholic Relief Service, with a budget of $991 million, which is three times as large, receives only one-third of the remuneration, namely $306,000.

Ultimately these remuneration levels do not reflect only the management skill of the recipients but also their personal standing and political connections; a situation that might explain the level of remuneration of former British foreign secretary David Miliband as head of the International Rescue Committee, whose professional background hardly features outstanding management skills.

The rise of ‘advocates’

But whatever their foibles, humanitarian NGOs make a difference, and often a substantive one, to the victims whose plight they seek to alleviate. Which is not necessarily the case of the more raucous among the NGOs, the fourth group made up of the self-styled human-rights “advocates.”

Advocating for human rights was one of the first vocations of the early NGOs when they embarked on their endeavor to seek the abolition of slavery. Over the subsequent years, “advocacy” went into decline, only to be resurrected by the Anglo-Saxon world in the 1960s. 

Promoting human rights consists in essence in identifying their violations and publicly denouncing them, with the ultimate aim of ensuring that the ills they represent are redressed. This entails that two further conditions be met.

First, to have any potential effect, the denunciation must be widely publicized. Thus the advocates are for all practical purposes totally dependent on the media to ensure that their voices be heard.

But even if this condition is met, nothing ensures that the perpetrator of a human-rights violation, real or alleged, is liable to succumb to the publicization of an alleged violation and change his ways. Thus, when push comes to shove, the more serious a human-rights violation, and the more it is the end-result of a government policy, the less are the chances of the perpetrator succumbing to outside pressure and changing his ways.

Ultimately, the success of the “advocates” is inversely proportional to the seriousness of the transgression they denounce or the nature of the environment in which it occurs.

Proceeding on the assumption that no system is perfect, it is in the realm of the possible that, because of a procedural error, a genuine refugee is denied asylum in the likes of Germany, Switzerland or the UK. However, when and if this this occurs, it is more than probable that the failing will be redressed if brought to light by an advocacy group.

Conversely, no amount of hollering will ever induce regimes like those prevailing in Iran or in North Korea to change their ways.

The two big players

The upshot of what can be termed human-rights advocacy in our times are in essence two organizations: Amnesty International (AI) and Human Rights Watch (HRW).

AI was created in Britain in 1961 and initially focused on so-called “prisoners of conscience,” that is, individuals held in detention for expressing their beliefs. Over the decades it morphed into a transnational operation, albeit with a dominant Anglo-Saxon affiliation, with some 70 local country sections throughout the world and  a global budget of some $290 million.

As the organization grew, it slowly drifted from its initial emphasis on political prisoners to a much wider vision of what constitute “human rights” and what were their alleged “violations.”

The end result is that AI today has expanded its scope and  is involved in the promotion of the right to abortion (it contributed €137,000 to the campaign in Ireland to overturn its anti-abortion legislation), in environmental issues, defending the right to wear face coverings in countries where veils that totally mask women’s faces are prohibited by law, and opposing anti-terrorist legislation – an overall agenda that marks the organization as a left-of-center political party.

The direct competitor of AI is Human Rights Watch, created in 1978 as an outcropping of Helsinki Watch. With a yearly budget of some $89 million, the New York–based organization is in fact a duplicate of AI with the distinction that it operates less through local country chapters and more through its American headquarters. 

In the cutthroat world of human-rights advocacy, the loudest bird gets the worm, and as both organizations appeal in part to the same donor base, the need to be seen to  outperform its competitor is a perennial concern. The end result is that, for all practical purposes, the two organizations are in a race as to which of the two is the most vocal defender of human rights; this, in turn, raises two issues.The first is accuracy.

Currently there is no independent entity that monitors the two organizations for accuracy in their pronouncements. Likewise, the media that disseminate their assertions have neither the means nor the time to verify their accuracy.

Given the wide exposure given to these pronouncements and the fact that they are generally accepted at face value, the potential for inaccuracy, sloppy research or exaggeration while undefined is real.

Thus, at the end stage of the Vietnamese boat-people crisis there were in camps in Southeast Asia some 98,000 Vietnamese who did not qualify for refugee status and who were due to be repatriated under an amnesty program that exempted them from prosecution by the country of origin for illegal departure.

With the repatriation proceeding, HRW demanded that the UN Refugee Agency suspend it on the grounds that the returnees risked persecution upon return. With no evidence presented for this contention, the UN ignored the admonition and proceeded with the repatriation. Had it not done so, one of the most tragic humanitarian crisis of the Cold War would have been prolonged for no good purpose.

AI then joined the fray when a group slated for repatriation set fire to their barracks in Malaysia to try to delay their return. Rather than rebuild the barracks, the UN gave the Vietnamese tarpaulins and told them to make do. This in turn prompted AI to condemn the UN publicly for not providing decent shelter for the Vietnamese. That they had deliberately set fire to their barracks was of course carefully omitted.

Follow the money

The second issue relates to the drive for funding. This includes the claim, made by both organizations, that to preserve their independence, neither accepts “government funding,” which might entail the donor having a political agenda. This contention skirts the fact that donors, other than governments, might also have political agendas.

Thus both organizations proved amenable to accepting a donation of $100 million each from speculator George Soros; nor did it deter HRW from accepting in 2008 a donation from a Dutch NGO that in turn had received the funds from the Dutch government. 

But claims of “independence” come a poor second to what is the primary and overpowering precondition to the continued existence of “advocates”: visibility.

In terms of visibility it is difficult to outclass either HRW or AI. Hardly a week goes by  without pronouncements by one or the other, or both, making, somewhere throughout the world, a splash in the media. Thus if decibels are the benchmark, both organizations can claim to be a roaring success.

However, there is a chasm between sounding an alarm and ensuring that the resulting din translates into practical results. Ultimately, judged on decibels produced, the advocates can claim an outstanding record. How these same decibels translate into tangible results, that is, how many humanitarian crises have been mitigated by the advocates, is at best a question mark.

On paper, the one distinguishing feature of the NGO galaxy is its non-governmental dimension. While this might have been the case at the inception of the movement, the distinction today between government and non-government is far less clear-cut.

Thus some NGOs are, for all practical purposes, government actors. Others, especially in the area of humanitarian assistance, are so heavily reliant on government contracts that their very existence is dependent on state funding. Thus many survive only as tools of government policies. 

Ultimately, the NGO ecosystem includes the genuine, the fronts, the self-serving, the useful, the irrelevant, the well-meaning and the absurd. But whatever label they go under, collectively they are a force to be reckoned with. Not only do they have an impact on public opinion, but their interactions with the political world can be, on a case-by-case basis, a substantial multiplier of the influence they exert.

As such, they can’t be discounted, as they undoubtedly are one of the many actors in the global political arena – for the better, for the worse, sometimes for both and sometimes for neither.

Alexander Casella

Alexander Casella PhD has taught and worked as a journalist for the likes of Le Monde, The Times, The New York Times, Die Zeit, The Guardian, and Swiss radio and TV, writing primarily on China and Vietnam. In 1973 he joined the UNHCR, serving, among others, as head of the East Asia Section and director for Asia and Oceania. He then served 18 years as representative in Geneva of the International Center for Migration Policy Development.