From the far corners of the darker world the rare photos come to us: African children at play amidst a background of shantytowns, AIDS endemics and ethnic genocide.
Old Iraqi men stand gaunt and lifeless on war-torn soil, lost in the haze of the unprovoked violence that bled through their streets.
North Korean refugees cross into the night, guard towers and iron fences laid black and solemn behind them in the distance to the border. Faces pale and ghostly, their figures like shadows on the snow, their eyes crying red with tears for those they had left behind to the famine and the mercy of the police patrols.
Slowly the pictures told the tales.
Beyond the spires and light of the first world, far past the skyline of New York and the quiet gardens of Versailles, a separate reality has long existed.
Only now has deprivation been given a face in the third world. Frailly now does this dark half of the earth voice its elegy.
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have been on the rise for decades across the globe, now flashing these images across televisions, magazines, Web sites and even park benches asking for “your donation.’’
There are now 37,000 NGOs worldwide, approximately one-fifth of those founded in the last decade.
The hearts and minds of common people here in Korea and around the world have been so moved as to pledge billions of dollars in the trust that they are helping those less fortunate.
Yet has that trust, in fact, been simply blind faith?
In an Environics International survey conducted in 2003, NGOs scored extremely high on the “trust index,’’ second only to the armed forces. (Big business and the government, on the other hand, scored very low.)
Likewise, a World Economic Forum survey in 2002 found that 76 percent of Koreans have confidence in NGOs. Yet NGO monitors are weary of such a vast and pervasive sentiment: “Sadly, few have questioned the basis on which NGOs top the popularity lists, or asked whether such a position is warranted or sustainable,’’ wrote Simon Zadeck, an NGO analyst, in Alliance magazine.
The criminal exposure of NGOs across the world for trespasses such as fraud, tax evasion, money laundering, smuggling and espionage has prevailed to go as far as the preeminent world organization, the United Nations.
In the wake of its latest scandal _ one of many _ investigations were launched into its Iraqi “Oil-for-Food’’ campaign in which Saddam Hussein defrauded the world for a total of $20 billion and was aided by officials from inside the U.N.; allegations of the incident have reached as far as Kofi Annan, the secretary-general himself.
Under immense pressure, Annan finally relented to investigations, having been quoted as saying, “I don’t think we need to have our reputation impugned.’’
Yet that’s exactly what many around the world today are attempting to do: Destroy the concept of nobility surrounding all U.N. efforts _ even from within the organization itself.
A book, recently written by Ken Cain, Heidi Postlewait and Andrew Thomson _ all three current or former U.N. employees _ and titled “Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures,’’ lays claim to the vast incidence of criminal transgression conspired from within peacekeeping missions around the world.
These instances include, though are not limited to, frequent intoxication of alcohol and illegal drug use by personnel in Cambodia; peacekeepers, sent by Bulgaria, who were discovered to be former prisoners and psychiatric ward patients, and the suppression of reports by Kofi Annan in 1994 which included information on an impending massacre in Rwanda. More than 800,000 people were murdered there in the years that followed.
The fantastic blindness of the public is, however, not limited to the corruption of the U.N., extending down to nearly any organization which claims altruism and charity.
NGO Watch, a U.S. based NGO in itself, has cited more than 160 NGOs for their lack of transparency and suspected misallocation of funds, and has dozens more under investigation.
Of wide historical note in Korea are the Reverend Moon Sun-myung’s pseudo-religious political organizations, most well known of which are the Unification Church and the Women’s Federation for World Peace International.
Having been in operation since the 1950s, Moon’s non-profit organizations, which now total 1,000, have been little more than a front for transferring funds through a transcontinental business empire with links to North Korea and Latin American conservative militia groups.
“In 1975, the Korean Cultural and Freedom Foundation, one of the main Moon-connected non-profits, lost its tax-exempt status when a New York State audit found that only 2.1 percent of the $1.2 million raised by the organization’s children’s relief fund was spent for designated purposes,’’ reported Harold Paine and Birgit Gratzer in “Reverend Moon and the United Nations: A Challenge for the NGO community.’’
Many of Moon’s estimated 180,000 supporters might be astounded to learn just where their children’s relief donations and others like it went.
A U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency document shows that Moon transferred a $3 million “birthday present’’ to Kim Jong-il in 1994 as well as having negotiated a business deal with Kim Il-sung years before for the construction of a “holy land’’ at the site of Moon’s birthplace in North Korea. In exchange, the report said Kim Il-Sung was paid “tens of millions of dollars.’’
U.S. Congressional reports have likewise stated that Moon has used his NGOs to grasp power in the American political system, which include attempts at controlling banks, suspected espionage in conjunction with the Korean CIA and the purchasing of Congressman, which came to be known as “Koreagate.’’
Moon currently owns the Washington Times newspaper, a circulative rightwing daily in the U.S. capital that vehemently attacks the left with ridiculous claims while bolstering Republican political candidates, most notably George Bush, Sr.
The paper, meanwhile, runs at a loss of $50-$100 million a year.
Moon himself has been arrested six times: three times in North Korea, twice in South Korea and once in the U.S. on charges of tax evasion. Yet every time U.S. investigators have tried to indict Moon’s NGOs on more punitive charges they’ve been held back: “When challenged, the Moon organization has invoked freedom of religion to shield its financial irregularities from oversight and scrutiny,’’ wrote Paine and Gratzer.
Moon’s organizations have come to exemplify the major critique facing NGOs today: the need for transparency and accountability.
Particularly in Korea, NGOs have largely been formed through a “top-down model,’’ which is to say they are run by the elite in advocacy of their agendas. This contrasts to the Western “bottom-up model,’’ by which NGOs have typically coalesced through grassroots civil participation.
“The main feature of Korean NGOs’ development is that activists in social movements and elite groups of experts are the important human resources although the level of civil participation on NGOs is very low compared with Western countries. It is related to the development of advocacy oriented NGOs rather than the service oriented organizations in Western countries,’’ wrote Dr. Kang Sang-wook of Seoul National University in “Who Initiates? The Growth of NGO and its Human Resources in Korea.’’
The fact that NGOs are run by a small elite community rather than at the grassroots level indicate their close ties with the Korean government and its aims. An official from the Red Cross said, “Most Korean NGOs have don’t have a solid public foundation. They’re funded by the government and therefore act in extension of its goals.’’
In 1992 the government led the fundraising and allocation of monies for the Central Association for the Promotion of Helping the Poor.
It was later revealed that the government had used these public donations to finance departments that should have been paid by governmental budgets. The government furthermore allocated these funds toward the promotion of its own image in the eyes of the people it was deceiving.
Not until 1997 were laws passed prohibiting the government’s direct involvement in fundraising and distribution, although the government still plays a large role today in financing NGOs across the nation.
The public faith in NGOs, now evidently long-abused, still stands strong but never vigilant. The world’s true aid lies not in handing money over to faceless NGOs, but perhaps rather in the people taking responsibility to investigate those institutions they choose to support. Will we, indeed, choose blindness forever?
Apr. 12, 2005
Jason Howell, Contributing Writer