Australia scrutinizes influence of nongovernmental groups

The government has hired a conservative think tank to evaluate NGOs' growing clout.

Spurred by conservative rumblings over the growing clout of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the Australian government is taking a closer look at such groups' activities at home and abroad.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister John Howard offered to investigate all aid agencies working in Indonesia using Australian government funding, following complaints by President Megawati Sukarnoputri. And in a move that critics see as politically motivated, his government has hired a conservative think tank to investigate NGO influence on some government agencies.

The investigation by the Melbourne-based Institute of Public Affairs could potentially cut off some charities from further government access, funding, or tax breaks, experts say.

"NGOs are becoming very influential today - they sit on various committees and are seen to influence governments and big business. As global players they need to be more transparent," says Mike Nahan, executive director of the IPA.

IPA is not the only group scrutinizing NGOs. In June, IPA joined with two organizations in the United States - the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), known to be close to the Bush administration, and the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies - to launch www.NGOWatch.org. The site will monitor the operations of international NGOs and their relations with corporations and government.

The cyber watchdog is being set up at a time when NGOs are gaining credibility on the world stage for attempting to reform world markets and politics to make them more humane. A study released by the United Nations and SustainAbility, a consulting firm, concludes the groups such as Oxfam International, Greenpeace, and the World Wildlife Fund have become more receptive to market-based solutions to global problems - and in turn, corporations are more keen to work with NGOs.

Still, some NGOs have become focal points for controversy. An Australian aid agency working in Indonesia found itself in hot water after allegations that it has been active in the pro- independence movement in the provinces of Aceh and Papua.

Union Aid Abroad (UAA), which gets more than half of its funds from the Australian government, says that it favors a referendum in the region, but denies that any funds have been put toward motivating political change.

"Our political views are voiced in Australia alone," says Ken Davis the spokesman for UAA.

The IPA's Mr. Nahan accuses international NGOs of helping to lead Papua New Guinea to bankruptcy by forcing out mining industries there. IPA also claims that British Petroleum sold out its shareholders by bowing to the concerns of aid and development agencies.

Many companies now insist on working with NGO officials to be aware of issues that might cause protests or boycotts of their products by consumers and shareholders.

It's that type of influence, coupled with vocal opposition to the Iraq war by some groups, that has prompted the backlash from US and Australian conservatives.

"This leads to constraining or changing the workings of large corporations - something that would raise the antennas of right-wing governments who are antiregulation," says Richard Dennis, an NGO expert at the Australian Institute in Canberra.

The executive director of the Australian Council For Overseas Aid, Graham Tupper, says he is surprised that IPA was given the contract to do the NGO study because of the think tank's reputation for "hatred" towards NGOs.

"Why didn't the government tender the contract in the normal way and give it to the group most qualified?" he asks.

The Australian government's allocation for NGOs has fallen 17.2 percent since the 1995-96 budget (the time the current government came to power), according to new figures from the Australian People for Health Education and Development Abroad.

As less than 5 percent of last year's US$1.15 billion aid budget was allocated to nonprofit charities - about US$12.81 million less than four years ago, NGOs say they are getting fewer contracts, forced out by companies like GRM International and Melbourne-based ACIL Australia.

They have even been warned that they are also likely to miss out on some reconstructive contracts in Iraq.

"Why should NGOs like Oxfam, which were adamantly against the war in Iraq, be given money to work there?" asks Nahan. "They would in fact be a liability there as they would have to deal with the military, whose presence they so despise."

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