Thanasis TriaridisUnorthodox thoughts on the role of non-governmental organizations
MON, 18 SEP 2000
Athens, September 18, 2000 - Following the war in Yugoslavia or, more accurately, its bombardment by NATO Forces in the spring of 1999, a heated discussion began in Greece concerning the purpose of Non-Governmental Organizations whose activities and interests are centered on Human Rights. Whom do they serve and where do they originate. Cited were the Non-Governmental Organizations in particular that are branches of corresponding Western NGOs (Amnesty International, Greenpeace, Greek Helsinki Monitor and, to a lesser degree, Doctors of the World and Doctors Without Borders). The fact that the NATO intervention in Yugoslavia used reports by international NGOs to show the extent of Serbian ethnic cleansing caused a substantial portion of, first, Greek journalists and then the Greek public to decide that: "NGOs are NATO hirelings; they're biased in their operations; they're not independent; they obey external orders; who pays them anyway? They're the mercenaries of humanitarianism; crutches of imperialism, linchpins of globalization and the New Order; and -attention!- besides all that, they're anti-Greek…" Soon under fire was the topic of Human Rights, which the above NGOs defend: "Let's stop all that retrace about Human Rights…What else are Human Rights but a device of (Bourgeois) Enlightenment to provide an ideological pedestal for Colonialism… The inhumanity of the Human Rights… NATO uses Human Rights as a tool… Don't talk about Human Rights because the next Kosovo will be Western Thrace…"
For five years now, I've been a member of DROM Network for the Gypsy Social Rights, a small Greek NGO that works on an entirely voluntary basis in the settlements of tent-dwelling Gypsies. It is not funded by anyone; it does not accept any European Program subsidies; and solely its volunteers decide its activities, at a public general meeting that takes place every 15 days in Thessaloniki. During these five years (1995-2000), we have worked closely with two of the aforementioned NGOs, the Greek Delegation of Doctors of the World and Greek Helsinki Monitor (and Minority Rights Group-Greece that cooperates with the latter), on all matters affecting the tent-dwelling Gypsies of Greece.
I can testify, therefore, that in every aspect of our collaboration, our sole influence was the common belief in the values pertaining to the protection of life, liberty and human dignity: inoculation of the population against all virogenic illnesses; the operation of health clinics in settlements; the proposal for and legislation on the universal inoculation of tent-dwelling Gypsies against Hepatitis B; denunciations of the violation of human and social rights of the tent-dwelling Gypsies; lawsuits against the persecution of tent-dwelling Gypsies; petitions for the protection of the population of tent-dwelling Gypsies; educational intervention by volunteers in the settlements; legislative proposals for self-governing settlements; joint publications, seminars and press conferences.
No. Never for one moment during the joint activities of our NGOs was there the slightest suggestion they are obeying orders from outside centers, that they are anyone's tools, or that their activities serve ulterior motives. On the contrary (and I only refer to my personal experience of the collaboration on behalf of tent-dwelling Gypsies), what I saw was dedication, impartiality and the perseverance of humanistic ideals, without prejudice and compromise. In short, I consider the NGO co-workers in these activities to be my friends. I believe that we shared the struggles and efforts for the interests of tent-dwelling Gypsies - and I consider this relationship sacred… And here, I'd like to point out something else: the contribution (among other things) of both the Doctors of the World and Greek Helsinki Monitor was decisive in the creation of a self-governing Gypsy housing settlement, now being completed in Thessaloniki. The first in Europe, it will house 2,000 Gypsies who live along the Gallicos River.
So, are NGOs saints? No. NGOs are creatures of western capitalistic society. They are part of western culture, a culture defined by the notions of power and influence. No. NGOs are not saints. But why should we demand saintliness as a necessity for existence? Naturally, those who fund NGOs do so for political reasons and not humanistic ones. Clearly, when the voluntary participation in NGOs is transformed into salaried positions, then the ethics of their activities are dangerously weakened. Of course, their role will be used by power, by all forms of power - political, military, economic (mostly the last).
But despite all this and other things that one could mention, others as well as myself believe that NGOs are the most essential global political enterprise of the past decades. That, in times of political alienation, they contribute a new means of social participation and action through the programmed support of universal human ethics. That in terms of ecology and rights, NGOs (and the more locally structured and operated, the better) are the sociopolitical vision for the 21st century - although this doesn't mean that we don't and won't have deviations, which we must resist without factionalization.
Besides, those who view NGOs as exponents of the New Order -what are their counterproposals? Perhaps political parties with their celebrated -but in practice overwhelmingly nonexistent- "sensitivities" on issues of human rights and ecology that are always tailored to political cost? Or the church with its neo-obscurantist rationale of depraved populism? Or else the "pluralistic" media demagoguery with professional journalists and professional "guests," who from a position of safety passionately attack the U.S, NATO and the New Order while they themselves have managed a psychiatric exemption from military service or serve in name only, while hanging out in the cafes of Athens? Then there are those who join with all the others in proclaiming Hellenism's "eternal struggle," but on the evening of the Imia incident were thinking about whose dirty hems to kiss in case of mobilization, in order to stay in Athens and "boost morale" with their brilliant quills. Those dismal accusers who request, or rather demand, "sainthood" from NGOs, while having served -with a view to profit- every kind of master and every populist aberration as long as it sells. Those who speak in general and abstract terms of the Kurds, but are indifferent to the Kurdish settlements in Greece and the terrible racism they suffer. Those who speak (and well they do) about the Gypsies in Kosovo, but are silent about Nea Kios, Aspropyrgos, Mytilini, Evosmos-Thessaloniki and Paralimni-Ioannina. If these are the alternative solutions to NGOs, it is clear (in my opinion) why the non-governmental bodies, the networks and the citizens unions will be the most essential form of politics in the decades to follow.
This, then, is the role of NGOs: to be the first to speak, to speak the truth even if they are characterized as "traitor puppets of foreigners, anti-Greek, anti-Turk, anti-Serb, anti-American." Perhaps if the Yugoslavian society had had strong NGOs to decry the ethnic cleansing of the Kosovars, they might have averted the bombing. In any case, they would have been more patriotic than Milosevic and Arkan, who brought more harm to their country than any of its enemies. And if anyone today saves the honor of the U.S. in the inhumane embargo of Iraq, it is (coincidentally) the American NGOs who have the guts to make the accusations.
In short, I feel that only the NGOs, whose independent, democratic structures are founded on Human Rights (as well as a respect for the environment), can make a stand against the geostrategic schemes of the New Order, against the wars provoked by the arms industry, against the construction and maintenance of nuclear power plants, against racism and the violence it causes, against nationalism and ethnic cleansing.