Last week, Professor Gerald Steinberg, founder and president of the Jerusalem-based research organization NGO Monitor, had "breaking news": The Danish government had formalized a decision to stop funding the Human Rights International Humanitarian Law Secretariat, an NGO framework established in 2013 at Birzeit University in Ramallah, with an annual budget of millions of euros, paid for by the governments of Sweden, Holland, Denmark and Switzerland.
Steinberg's research had revealed that of the 24 core NGOs funded by the Secretariat, six have ties to the Marxist-Leninist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) – which is on the EU's official list of terrorist organizations -- and 15 are involved in worldwide campaigns to destroy Israel by economic means.
Denmark's decision, according to Steinberg, came on the heels of votes in the Swiss Parliament calling on the government to cease funding "projects carried out by NGOs involved in racist, anti-Semitic or hate incitement actions." Denmark's decision also coincided with an investigation launched by The Netherlands into the Secretariat funding. "The Danish example is the most important," he said, "as it is the largest chunk that has been cut in one fell swoop, and Danes were among the Secretariat's founders."
Professor Gerald Steinberg, founder and president of the Jerusalem-based research organization NGO Monitor. (Image source: Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies)
Gatestone: Were those governments unaware of how their money was being spent? Is it not earmarked?
Gerald Steinberg: No, it is not earmarked; it gets distributed by the Secretariat, which supposedly is supervised by NIRAS, a Danish consulting firm for societal development. Nevertheless, it has been going to all kinds of groups whose names connote human rights and international law, but which are linked to terrorist organizations, antisemitism, and the campaign to suffocate Israel economically.
Gatestone: Why do European taxpayers, with their own economic woes, agree to finance such mechanisms in Ramallah or elsewhere?
GS: First of all, most parliament members, let alone average taxpayers, have no clue about how their money is being spent. During a parliamentary discussion in Spain a few months ago, some lawmakers who voted against continued funding to NGOs that promoted divesting from Israel said, "Why are we wasting this money when we have a huge unemployment problem?"
NGO funding – under the banner of "development" and "civil society" -- has been a major part of Western European foreign policy for the past two or three decades. In addition, many of the countries give money to NGO networks because they see that other countries are doing so. They figure that if others are doing it, it must be good for Europe. Moreover, much of the system is faith-based, in the sense that all a group has to say to garner the support of many European politicians is that its mission is to promote human rights. The words have a "halo effect," a term used in psychology to describe the tendency to favorably judge people, companies, groups, products, and so forth, based on the image of morality or some other positive factor. In the context of NGOs, groups that claim to promote values seen as universally good – such as peace, human rights, justice and coexistence – are automatically perceived as credible and above criticism or investigation.
Moreover, the money is not tracked; it is funneled into large and powerful mechanisms that serve as distributors for what are considered worthy causes. Take Christian Aid or Oxfam, for example. European governments, believing in the noble mission of "fighting poverty," give them massive budgets and let them decide how to allocate them. In most cases, the government ministers and directors-general of ministries responsible for signing off on pledges do not have the time, the resources or the inclination to follow up, particularly as they accept and trust that the "positively motivated organizations" receiving money will use it for good.
Another key factor is that many of the annual reports submitted by NGO-funding networks are extremely short and vague. Such reports will say something like: "We help NGOs in the following 45 countries in the pursuit of opportunities and fairness." A perfect example is the governmental Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), which has a huge budget and signs off on funding for all kinds of radical groups, such as the politicized NGO Breaking the Silence. SIDA issues an annual report whose details are murky. The Palestinian desk of the organization knows exactly where the money is going, but packages it in such a way that its activities are not revealed. That is precisely where NGO Monitor enters – to expose what should have been transparent in the first place.
Gatestone: Is a lack of transparency really the problem, or is a political culture and agenda more powerful than facts?
GS: It is not that cut and dry. On the one hand, you have the Danish case, which went relatively smoothly. In May 2017, Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen came, saw for himself and paid attention to the evidence he was shown about the funding for a number of radical groups. In Switzerland, too, there was pressure on the government to do due diligence about its NGO funding. The evidence against the NGOs was so overwhelming that even many members of the government coalition joined opposition MPs in demanding a policy change.
On the other hand, you have cases like Germany and the European Union, where the officials involved in NGO funding avoid dealing with the evidence. Their first response to anybody providing them information on NGO terror links and antisemitism is to attack by saying, "Ah, that's a right-wing fiction." At the same time, the tight secrecy on all aspects of NGO funding in these countries continues, even in preventing members of parliament from examining the process.
In Europe, the images of Palestinian suffering, and the overall sympathy for Muslim victims in general, are so strong that it is very hard to cut through the myths and slogans surrounding them. This is true across the board, even in the British Conservative Party. It is so deeply embedded in the culture that any criticism, including of NGOs with links to terrorists, immediately becomes labeled "Islamophobic." Any time you even look into where money is going, you get hit with political correctness. This is why it is crucial to create visibility and generate concern.
Gatestone: Why is your main focus Europe, with little emphasis on North America?
GS: In the case of the United States – Canada a little bit less, but still more than in Europe -- transparency in government funding is an extremely important policy and practice. Congress is pretty careful about making sure that budgets for NGO-funding frameworks are scrutinized before they are approved. Although some proposals for problematic organizations have slipped through, there is at least genuine openness and debate about the whole mechanism; discussion is routine. In Europe, on the other hand, the first time that a parliamentary debate was even held on such funding was after NGO Monitor published a report.
Gatestone: To what do you attribute this difference?
GS: American culture is characterized by transparency and scrutiny. Also, in America, there is less naivety about NGOs than there is in Europe. After WWII and the Communist period, the concept of "civil society" – later called "NGOs" by the UN -- became holy in Europe. Civil society was supposed to be the antidote to manipulative democracy, like that of the Weimar Republic. But they forgot to ask what happens when civil society is itself the manipulating force. The answer is that there are no checks and balances imposed on it.
Gatestone: You refer to European "naivety," but are there other factors? Do you ever find for instance, an anti-Western -- or even pro-terrorist -- agenda?
GS: There is a spectrum. A small group of elites – some of them members of the European media, academia and political echelon -- are hard-core supporters of radicals and revolutionaries, or those who do not care whether certain individuals or organizations are involved in terrorism. The aim of this minority is to "carry on the post-colonialist revolution."
Then there is a large group in the middle, some of whom support and sympathize with these causes and alleged victims, but who are not activists themselves. They do not take a position that supports direct or indirect funding of terrorist groups, but tolerate it passively. They justify this inaction, saying "We support human rights. We think that what Israel is doing with settlements and occupation is terrible. We hate Donald Trump, who supports Israel. We worry about Muslim migrants." Of course, we worry about human rights, too, which is why we began doing our research in the first place.
Further down the spectrum are those for whom any form of terrorism is unacceptable. These are people who consider funding groups with ties to terrorism to be crossing a red line, and will not support it. It is this last category that seems to be growing.
Gatestone: NGO Monitor recently revealed that the United Nations will be allocating more than $1 billion for 2018-2022, to "support Palestine's path to independence." What role does the UN play in the NGO world?
GS: The NGO lobby at the UN plays a crucial role, because it is a multi-billion-dollar-a-year business. It is an industry, and it needs to be called just that. It was the Ford Foundation that provided the funding for the creation of the nexus between NGOs and the UN. The ability of NGOs to influence policies and to frame critical developments, particularly, but not exclusively, in the Middle East came from their being recognized in the UN as "experts." For instance, in the Human Rights Council, the NGOs do everything but vote. They participate in meetings. They circulate documents. They work closely with the people who write reports. This is why you hear the same phrases used in documents and speeches. Governments, even the Palestinian Authority, often rely on NGOs to do their legwork. It is the NGO position that reinforces the Palestinian narrative of victimization and other myths that are so rampant at the UN. Similarly, many NGOs erase the terror dimension of the Sri Lankan conflict, as well as in the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar, and ignore the nuance and complexity of Australia's migrant policies. There are standard memes on each issue that get repeated constantly. The right of governments to protect their sovereignty and to determine their interests independently is never even acknowledged, let alone taken into account, by the NGO industry.
Gatestone: Citing UN "inefficiency and overspending," U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley just announced a huge cut in the American operating budget for the world body. Is the NGO industry, as you call it, a significant part of this overspending?
GS: This goes back to why I have spent the last 15 years following the NGO money trail. As a graduate student in physics, the first third of my professional career was devoted to the issue nuclear proliferation -- Iraq and Iran, Libya, the US and the Soviet Union – hard power.
The second phase of my career, after the Cold War, was devoted to conflict resolution through diplomacy.
Then came the 2001 "United Nations World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance," held in Durban, South Africa. The conference, known as Durban I, featured an NGO Forum funded by the Ford Foundation, the EU and the Canadian government, which brought in 5,000 participants to accuse Israel of apartheid, deny the Holocaust, and call for an economic assault against Israel. The text of the final declaration was hatched in a pre-conference meeting in Teheran, also held under UN auspices; all the participants knew exactly what they were participating in.
For me, this was an awakening on two counts: that soft power can sometimes be more dangerous than hard power; and that money was powerful ammunition. I realized that these NGOs purporting to care about human rights were not organizations made up of good people working tirelessly for the betterment of society out of their parents' garages, or in apartments whose rent they could barely pay. On the contrary, they were receiving hundreds of millions of dollars to single out Israel for condemnation and delegitimization. Conference participants waved Hitler fliers, and copies of the anti-Semitic publication Protocols of the Elders of Zion were sold on the premises. This was while the Palestinians were blowing up buses, and slaughtering innocent Israelis in cafes and elsewhere. The NGO industry, however, was promoting the false Durban narrative of Israeli ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, and fabricating the "Jenin massacre." NGOs such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International were not portraying suicide-bombings – if they mentioned them at all -- as human-rights violations, but rather as expressions of Palestinian frustration, and the more attention these NGOs received for promoting this narrative and agenda, the more money they got. Tackling real human-rights issues, such as the treatment of Indigenous Peoples in Canada, the Dalit in India or the Roma in Europe were neglected by self-proclaimed human-rights stalwarts, because focusing on a hot media item like Israel and the Palestinians brings in funding.
Gatestone: Sixteen years have passed since that Durban conference, which ended three days before the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington. Since then, global terrorism, including in Europe, has increased, and NGOs supporting radical causes have mushroomed. Is the situation improving?
GS: The amount of money that goes into the radical NGO industry is slowly decreasing, as the Danish example illustrates. In most other Western European countries, the issue is finally being debated, and as a result, the money at least is not being increased. Now, because of the exposure of the process, which was clouded previously in secrecy, you are hearing about all kinds of NGOs you had not heard of before. And whenever they are exposed, or their funding is cut, they scream that it is due to a right-wing plot.
The Dutch Rights Forum, for example – an elite anti-American, anti-Western, anti-Israel network founded by former Dutch Prime Minister Andreas van Agt -- recently invested serious resources to launch an attack against NGO Monitor. And we have seen similar off-the-wall attacks from other radical venues trying to delegitimize research on radical NGOs. This means that we are having a significant impact.
Still, it is going to take a good five-to-ten years for the other state funders to wake up. We are still talking about well over a billion dollars a year going to the NGO industry, without proper vetting or due diligence, meaning that radical groups continue to get funded. It is a painfully slow process, but a necessary one – one that is moving in the right direction.
Ruthie Blum is the author of "To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the 'Arab Spring.'"