Saturday, July 25, 2009

Thoughts on the Question of Diplomats Vs. NGOs

In this posting from a couple of days ago, I linked to this article which carries a quote from Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs Lieberman which struck me. He said in a press conference that NGO's "...were replacing diplomats as the engine for setting the international community's agenda." This comment was made as a criticism of the bias against Israel attributed to NGOs.

The question though is, is this a true statement, and if so, is it really a bad thing?

It's hard to be sure exactly if the statement is true. If one is to accept the allegations that the so called Jewish or Pro-Israel lobby in the US and other parts of the world are the drivers behind many western countries' foreign policy on the middle east, then perhaps one would also be willing to accept the argument that groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty act as lobbies for other groups or issues. The reverse is true as well, if one is to assume that NGOs set global policy, perhaps it is true that lobby groups, such as pro-Israeli or pro-Jewish (whatever that means) lobbies also influence policy.

This article, from a Canadian foreign policy newspaper discussing Canadian aid to Gaza points out that in Canada, much of the foreign policy vis a vis Israel is controlled by the Prime minister's office, as opposed to by experts and "desk officers" at the lower, working level, within the department of foreign affairs and international trade. In this case, it would seem that a number of pressures, including ideology would weigh on the Prime Minister in his crafting of this policy and that perhaps it is not NGOs setting agenda for debate, but rather the Prime Minister and his own worldview.

Similarly, taking the example of the Iraq war, much of the public was against the US led invasion of that country, yet it took place anyway. The agenda was not set by civil society or NGOs, but rather government which insisted the issue be discussed and that the invasion would take place.

So, Lieberman seems to be partially right, the global agenda is set by sources which can include NGOs or by diplomats, and often, it's a little of both. On many issues, when crafting a foreign policy a foreign ministry will not simply decide on a position in a vacuum. For example, when Canada develops its foreign policy on almost any issue, the department of foreign affairs and international trade will consult widely with other departments in the Canadian government. A variety of agencies will be asked for their position, depending on the topic, which could include the department of defense, the Canadian international development agency, various security agencies, and "stakeholders" amongst the public, including NGOs, who will be asked for their views on a given issue. Input on policy will come from a number of sources and only on the most pressing or high profile issues will the approach be "top-down."

In many cases, the political leadership will decide for example: "we need a free trade agreement with country X" or "we want to punish country Y for reasons A, B and C" but the details of all this: the content of the free trade agreement, the best method of punishing a country are decided based on wide consultation amongst government and experts in the public and finalized and implemented by bureaucrats.

Is it really so bad though, if NGOs are setting the agenda? Not really. In a democracy, foreign policy should be set according to the general will of the people in that country. It's true that elected officials often have a role in this policy, but the ones who really work, on a daily basis to put the details of policy in place and turn the general direction they are pointed in, into something more concrete, are unelected. Therefore it is important that various sectors of society have the chance to feed into a policy that elected officials are often unwilling to get into the "nuts and bolts" of.

This is somewhat reflected in the article the Israeli Consul General to NYC had published in YNet the other day. In it, he encourages those who would support Israel to take advantage of their ability to create their own media (blogs, twitter, facebook, you tube, etc.) to promote their message. The goal of this, of course, is to influence the public, not politicians, and so by influencing the public, it is hoped that politicians, civil society and major media outlets will pick up on these messages. The broader picture, of course, is the recognition that what ordinary people think, counts. NGOs make up part of that group of "ordinary people."

Similarly, NGOs, in many cases (not just the middle east) speak for those who otherwise have no voice. NGOs that do report of violations in dictatorships or otherwise closed states give a voice to those who cannot do it for themselves and take the place of the ordinary citizen who may call his elected official to voice an opinion. If we are to strive to make the global system fair then certainly the voices of millions who cannot speak for themselves must be heard, and NGOs are able to fill this role.

So, in sum, Mr. Lieberman, you are only partially correct that NGOs are the international agenda setters, but really, it's not such a bad thing that they are. If you don't like them, critique them on a factual basis and tear apart their arguments. It's the best way of dealing with them.

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