We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Not great and not very good

I believe it was the Victorians that set the tone. It was during the age of the ‘Great Philanthropist’ that charities first established their status in the public mind as selfless doers of great good in the world. Understandable really that, in an era before welfare benefits, they were the pious prickers of the public conscience; the saviours of last resort for the needy and woebegone, the kindly benefactors of the benighted poor.

Over the years they have glacially established their reputations as the standard-bearers of humanity and decency to the point where, today, membership of or subscription to charitable organisations is quite the highest badge of virtue. Contributing to their coffers, especially publicly, has come to be seen as the ultimate act of redemption for sins real or imagined.

Perhaps because of this, nobody seems to have noticed that some of these organisations (many world famous) have gradually shifted the focus of their energies to the point where they now energetically pursue policies that are diametrically opposite from those stated.

Take, for example, the British charity Oxfam, set up some 50 years ago by a group of young, idealistic Oxford intellectuals with a brief to help ‘feed the starving’. How very odd then to hear of this kind of thing:

The scientists complained that humanitarian groups such as Oxfam, Christian Aid and Save The Children, backed by EU funds, had frightened African governments into rejecting food aid. They said the groups had also alarmed starving populations. “Some groups have told people that genetically modified products are dangerous and could cause cancer,” said the executive director of industry body Africabio, Prof Jocelyn Webster. Webster and Prof James Ochanda, head of biochemistry at the University of Kenya, led the African delegation.

The scientific delegation said that genetically modified crops boosted yields and could make Africa less dependent on foreign food aid.

Seems that Oxfam’s mission to aleviate starvation has mysteriously morphed into an assidious campaign to cause starvation. And how about the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmarment (CND)? Not actually a registered charity but definitely one of those organisations that is generally accredited with being among the ‘great and the good’. Certainly they have established their reputation as working for a better, safer world.

So how do they square that with campaigns such as this one?

CND is opposed to war in Iraq whether or not there is a second UN resolution. The historic march on 15 February shows the British public’s opposition to the war, and CND is actively campaigning for Tony Blair to say NO to Bush, and NO to British involvement in the war on Iraq.

One of the most pointed reasons for the proposed invasion of Iraq is in order to prevent their homicidal government from obtaining and/or deploying nuclear weapons. That being that case, one would think that an organisation such as CND would be all for it. But, they’re dead set against it. This begs the question of exactly what is on their agenda because the prevention of nuclear proliferation clearly isn’t.

And what about Greenpeace, world-famous peddlars of panic and middle-class neuroses? One would think that, for all the noise they make and all the lobbying power they possess, they might actually do a bit of good for mankind. Well, actually no:

“Green Party members in the European Parliament recently proposed that storms and hurricanes be named after Global Climate Coalition members like Ford, General Motors and Exxon, who deny that carbon emissions contribute to climate change. The Greens said the new names would change headlines to read, for example: “Exxon Kills 20 in Miami.” Parliament rejected the measure.” [Source: San Francisco Chronicle, August 31, 2, 1998.] What if we attribute malaria deaths to the banning of DDT? The headlines could read “Rachel Carson and the Environmental Defense Fund kill 2 million worldwide annually.”

The story, from 1998, refers to the successful campaign by Greenpeace among others to ban the pesticide DDT, the absence of which has left millions of people in developing countries defenceless against malaria. What is ‘green’ about that? What is ‘peaceful’ about that?

I have no wish to cast aspersions, even for a second, on the hundreds of charitable organisations that operate in this country alone and that quietly and unassumingly beaver away at the good works they were founded to pursue and without so much as a photon of the limelight. But, as regards their more illustrious cousins, such as those mentioned above, I submit that a thorough review of their much-revered status is a very long time overdue.

[My thanks to David Deutsch for both the inspiration and the links.]

16 comments to Not great and not very good

  • Ryan Waxx

    Its because they are morphing into simple leftist-advocacy organizations. Its the same disease that leads major “champions” of women’s rights and gay rights to support palestine and afganistan.

    And its also why they involve themselves with things rather unrelated to their purpose.

    Another reason is funding. Unless they are tied up with the major issues of the day, their funding gets donated to someone else.

    Its getting about time that “charities” and NGO’s get looked at with the same skeptical eye as other interest groups.

  • Alan

    “Another reason is funding. Unless they are tied up with the major issues of the day, their funding gets donated to someone else.”

    Very true – most of the larger charities (and Greenpeace is a good example) have turned into major “businesses”. Without large sums of money flowing in, they can’t afford to carry out the charitable part of their remit and pay salaries to their staff (especially the people at the top).

    In the case of Greenpeace, you could argue that they don’t really perform many (any?) charitable acts at all. Their main strength appears to be in publicity stunts, vandalism and lobbying governments for policy change. Hardly a charity in my view.

  • Charities of any size are afflicted with the same sort of institutional dynamics as any other large organization. The persons who swarm to the top of such an organization will have internalized as overriding priorities the perpetuation and expansion of the institution, of its prestige, and above all of its funding. He will never, ever take a position that, whatever other effect it might have on anyone, would negatively affect the future of the institution, or his status in it.

    Public Choice Rides Again!

  • Charities are state licensed pustules on the dying corpse of Britain’s civil society.

    Unless, you know personally that the money goes to a good cause, usually local, don’t give at all.

    Oh, and aren’t those in your face direct debit prompting charity hawkers very very annoying!

  • Dale Amon

    I used to proudly carry my Amnesty International bumper sticker – 15 years ago. Now, I’d hardly be willing to give them the time of day and often hassle their fund raisers when asked on the street.

    Greenpeace was another good example. It was a marvelous organization when founded. I might note that one of those key founders was actually not anti-nuclear: he felt that was a less bad way to make energy. I read an article some years back of how he lamented the way the organization was taken over by people with other agendas.

    About the only good one left, (and lord only knows since I have not checked recently) is the Nature Conservancy. They quietly save the environment one bit at a time. By BUYING the land and donating it to trusts or others to look after for the long term.

    I too want to save the wild places and species. What I don’t want is the government forcing it or placing limitations on property rights or outright stealing property, which is the commonest way of “saving the environment”.

  • Sandy P.

    Isn’t the head of oxfam paid gobs of money? What about the poor??

    Vegard had a good *rant* on this awhile back.

    In the 20s they’re idealistic and join, but by the time they’re 40, they’ve got a mortgage and kids to worry about, that’s why they always have to come up with new areas in interfere with.

  • T. Hartin

    Sadly, even the Nature Cconservancy is getting into the left-wing lobbying business. They (or at least some of their local chapters) have been getting involved in various campaigns for extreme zoning restrictions and other government driven land use mandates.

  • It may very well be that Oxfam has morphed into some kind of left-wing puppet, acting against its ostensible reason for being, but this thread and the article on which it is based do not establish that case.

    Is it not possible that the people of Oxfam legitimately believe that genetically modified food is actually a form of poison? Would we be so critical of them, for instance, if they came out against a diet of junk food? The question here is whether their objections are based on any factual evidence and a prudent skepticism toward new “scientific” developments, or are simply groundless and superstitious (to the detriment of the starving people they are supposed to be helping).

    Suppose that McDonalds announced that it would donate three happy meals a day to millions of starving people in Africa, but only in cooperation with Oxfam. Would we applaud or condemn the arrangement? Would we shame Oxfam into accepting the deal because even junk food is better than no food? Or would we criticize them for caving in to corporate interests and not holding out for more nutritious and healthful alternatives, setting the desperate and trusting Africans on the road to heart disease, obseity, cancer, diabetes, etc.?

    I guess what I am saying here is that it is a big leap from observing that Oxfam recommends against genetically engineered food, and slamming the organization for being an instrument of some nefarious political agenda. If you want to draw the latter conclusion, I for one would appreciate seeing more facts and reasonable dot-connection in support of the case.

  • Scott Pedersen

    All of these charities are in a bind; if they succeed at their stated objective they go out of business. If every nation discarded all of their nuclear weapons tomorrow, the people at CND would be out of a job. Large charities are corporations, and as such, they seek survival and growth. It should come as no surprise when they switch from problem solving to fear mongering, things are more profitable that way.

  • [quote]It may very well be that Oxfam has morphed into some kind of left-wing puppet, acting against its ostensible reason for being, but this thread and the article on which it is based do not establish that case.[/quote]


    Maybe this article can establish the case for you?

    James Ochanda, a scientist with the University of Nairobi, was quoted by BNA as saying:

    “In Europe biotechnology seems to be more about ideology than about rational choice. For us, biotech is an important tool to fight hunger and malnutrition. European environmental groups opposed to biotechnology in developing countries such as in Africa argue that there is plenty of food to go around in the world, and it is only a matter of better distribution. This is unacceptable. This creates dependence. We want to break away from dependence.”

    As another African scientist, Lucas Sese of Kenya, put it, “EU scientists will be the first to tell you that the moratorium is not based on science.”

  • S. Weasel

    Or would we criticize them for caving in to corporate interests and not holding out for more nutritious and healthful alternatives, setting the desperate and trusting Africans on the road to heart disease, obseity, cancer, diabetes, etc.?

    Eh? Would you approve of giving Africans a meal consisting of a piece of beef, a salad with dressing, a bread roll and a potato? That’s a disassembled Happy Meal.

    Sorry for being off-topic, but the Big Mac=poison thing is far weirder than genetically-modified=poison. GM, at the least, has some question marks over it.

  • Jeremy

    I’m reminded of a line from the Simpsons

    “I’m so hungry, I could eat at Arby’s”

    I think starving Africans would love to deal with the problems of obesity caused by Big Macs.

    Still, I think some of this is actually economics. The last thing Europe wants is an Africa that is self-sufficient agriculturely. Or worse, is an exporter. Given how close it is to Africa, Europe could be flooded with food.

  • Can someone explain to this American what Europe’s fascination and disgust with genetically altered crops are? I’m from rural Illinois and we have some of the biggest biotech labs around here (DeKalb and University of Illinois) and I haven’t heard one peep from anyone about the negatives of bioteched corn.

  • Has anyone here read ‘The Lords of Hunger’? A book of around ten years ago I’m curious about on the topic of famine charities.

    I’d be grateful if anyone could sum it up in a couple of sentences. Is it fair? Worth reading?

  • Rick DItmars

    Gregg Easterbrook has a great review of environmental lobbyist’s scare tactics at:


  • back40

    Your points are well taken David but there is another approach to “the saviours of last resort for the needy and woebegone”; mutual aid societies. When we consider how such organizations function as well as their structure there is a marked contrast with charities. Rather than a central administration there are distributed self managed entities. The degeneration of charities as well as their failure to deliver a significant percentage of their resources as actual aid to the needy can be seen as a likely result of their structure.

    I think this insight clarifies some of what may seem to be moral questions about those who run charities. They may have had good intentions but they blundered in their choice of organizational structure. Central administration is out of touch with the people they claim to serve, inefficient in use of resources and has a destructive relationship with power, tending to become ever more focused on the needs of the organization rather than the purposes for which the organization was created.

    There may be some despicable characters in these organizations now but it is the structure of these organizations which attracts them and rewards them. It is a variety of government failure, organizational failure. They have a structure inappropriate to their task.

    Governments might be able to improve this situation by identifying and assisting entities with better structures, such as mutual aid societies. Intellectuals and journalists can help by informing the public about the good and bad points of different organizations. Private efforts can help establish local organizations. Grameen banking comes to mind, an effort which is both hugely helpful as well as profitable.