News analysis: Brown plan 'a step too far' for NGOs

The sector is uneasy about teaming up with government and corporates.

Gordon Brown
Gordon Brown

In 2000, a total of 189 world leaders signed up to eight Millennium Development Goals, including universal primary education, environmental sustainability and the elimination of extreme poverty and hunger.

But Gordon Brown has made the achievement of the goals by the target date of 2015 a personal mission. Under his premiership, the Department for International Development, whose strategic plan is dedicated to reaching the goals, has been given a 10 per cent budget increase, whereas other departments have struggled for funding.

DfID's internal structure also reflects the goals themselves: it has departments for education, gender equality and HIV/Aids. And when Brown became Prime Minister last July, he issued a call to action at the UN, challenging the world to speed up progress on the goals.

The goals came up again at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January, when Save the Children, Catholic coalition Caritas and U2 frontman Bono's campaign to fight poverty and aids in Africa, Data, were the only NGOs that signed a general statement of support for DfID's approach to the goals.

Corporate milestone

The next milestone was Business Call to Action earlier this month, an initiative in which major corporates were urged to invest more in developing countries in an effort to accelerate progress of the goals. The calls to action will be reviewed at a UN summit in New York in September.

"Brown's a guy who likes targets," says a source in one UK development charity. "There's nothing wrong with that. The goals are a milestone - he's seen them slipping and he wants to get them back on track."

NGOs are crucial to the success of Brown's strategy - hence the internal DfID document from February this year that recommended building on the support from Caritas and pressing various organisations, including Oxfam, WaterAid and Tearfund, to concentrate on particular areas and "policy asks", particularly in the context of the EU and the next G8 summit (Third Sector, 14 May).

Tom Sharman, policy coordinator at ActionAid, says the Government wants NGOs to help leverage public support for achieving the goals. "The Government is saying that if it is to go further it needs to see more public pressure," he says.

But DfID's blueprint for the NGOs inevitably raised the question that bedevils all charities that are funded by or have close contact with government: would it compromise their independence and alienate some of their public support? The NGOs willing to talk to Third Sector about the issue were adamant that their independence is paramount.

"The Government was asking us to come on board and say we support the summit," says a spokeswoman for ActionAid. "We appreciate why it was asking us, but we feel that, as aid agencies, we have to keep a critical distance. It was asking us to take a step too far."

The DfID document was also realistic about the difficulties of getting NGOs aligned with the multinational corporations of which many of them are critical. Anticipating the Business Call to Action earlier this month, it said NGOs would not be invited to the meeting with corporations, but that they should be encouraged to talk to the private sector about multi-stakeholder initiatives that could accelerate progress on the goals.

It pointed out that many NGOs were members of Core, a coalition of 130 groups that believe the voluntary approach to corporate accountability has failed and that regulation is necessary to ensure companies do not abuse human rights or the environment.

The document warned there were likely to be NGO policy briefings on the activities of the companies involved in the Business Call to Action, such as mining company Anglo American, retailer Wal-Mart, and soft drinks firm PepsiCo.

It said DfID had discussed ways to "mitigate the risks of negative publicity" with the UN Development Programme, which was jointly organising the call to action. The Overseas Development Institute, it said, was carrying out a reputation check on all the companies concerned to "prepare defensive lines for any risks" and to highlight the positive aspects of their behaviour.

The document was right about policy briefings. Last month, ActionAid added to the growing body of NGO research on corporates by releasing a critical report on Anglo Platinum, a platinum producer and part of the Anglo American group, which signed up to the call to action.

And on 6 May, the day of the call to action, ActionAid released a report criticising the ways it says corporates have become adept at legal tax avoidance in developing countries.

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