I felt like Outraged of N7 when I read recently in Third Sector (9 July) that NGO Watch, a joint project of the American Enterprise Institute and the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies, had said: "The extraordinary growth of advocacy NGOs in liberal democracies has the potential to undermine the sovereignty of constitutional democracies, as well as the effectiveness of credible NGOs."
It strikes me that there is more than a touch of irony when an organisation with "close links to the Bush administration" (a government that gained power by not winning the majority vote) criticises NGOs for "undermining democracy". It would be laughable if it weren't potentially so serious.
NGO Watch's concerns about these British-based groups, like Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, and Oxfam UK suggests two things to me.
Firstly, that the groups, in causing "concern", have been effective.
They have amplified the voices of those whose views previously went unheard.
Secondly, it shows that the UK voluntary sector's influence is being recognised internationally.
One of the major differences between not-for-profit activity here and in the US seems to be the nature of the voluntary sector's relationship with government. It is integral here in the delivery of services and, increasingly over the past 10 years, in policy formulation and advocacy.
It has a relationship with government which is both constructive and challenging.
Both government and charities can see that there is a healthy synergy between advocacy and campaigning, and providing public services. In the US, however, the voluntary sector appears to be much more closely related to philanthropic tradition and not a partner with government.
I can remember when contracting first took off in the UK: there were debates about voluntary organisations "selling their souls to the devil" and "mission drift" through chasing project or contract funding. Maybe there was a bit of that, but what has emerged is the recognition that you strengthen constitutional democracy by giving people the tools with which to engage with the democratic political process. And the most important tool the voluntary sector provides is a voice for the disenfranchised.