News Decoder

Journalists and NGOs often rely on each other to inform the world. But beware vested interests. It’s best to follow the money trail to see the full picture.

NGOs,follow the money

A sign that counter-protesters lit on fire burns after supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump held pro-Trump marches, Washington, DC, 14 November 2020 (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

A number of my friends from developing-world nations had a good chuckle at my expense before the November U.S. election after the International Crisis Group issued a warning about violence around the voting.

One from Kenya sarcastically offered to arrange for peacekeepers and targeted sanctions. All I could do was laugh because, indeed, the worm had turned.

The United States, a beacon of democracy, was being chided for fomenting election violence on its own soil? While the United States has certainly been accused of stirring up election trouble on foreign soil, the criticism from ICG, as it is known, was a first.

For anyone who has spent time on a foreign desk or worked in the developing world as a newsperson, aid worker or diplomat, that kind of zinger from the ICG is a regular feature before nearly any election where there is a whiff of mischief or mayhem. I saw it in Kenya, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Congo and points in between.

ICG’s on-the-ground experts produce reports on global conflicts that often include calls for national leaders to refrain from armed conflict, election fraud and other dangerous national activities.

NGOs and journalists can have a symbiotic relationship.

As a non-governmental organization (NGO) involved in international affairs, ICG carries a certain authority because its leaders are almost always senior officials from western governments, such as former Australian Foreign Secretary Gareth Evans or Mark Malloch-Brown, who served as United Nations Deputy Secretary-General.

For journalists covering conflict-ridden countries, an ICG report is typically a welcome advent. The documents are often full of intriguing details and reporting from staffers who have access to information or areas off-limits for most journalists. The reports — supplemented by commentary from an ICG expert — can add heft to correspondents’ stories.

Journalists require outside commentary to add perspective to their reporting, and third-party, independent quotes are crucial. Capable journalists have many such sources at their fingertips, but the pithier and more quotable sources are always favorites, as are those who respond quickly. The ones who rush to get their names into print run the risk of becoming known as “Rent-a-Quote.”

I know of few journalists who have resisted, from time to time, resorting to such overly serviceable sources.

Any NGO that advocates publicly needs to offer quotable experts and must publish reports that generate news or can be used as talking points for journalists. That’s because NGOs are often “non-profit, non-partisan” and rely on fundraising to pay for operations, advocacy and advertising. Visibility is at a premium, and what better way to get it free than being featured in a story?

So, it’s easy to see why NGOs and journalists can have a symbiotic relationship. One has expertise or newsworthy information, while the other has a platform and an insatiable appetite for news and expertise.

‘Follow the money.’

That’s where the rub is.

Good journalists obey the dictum “follow the money.” That axiom holds that the money trail leads invariably to the underlying interest of a company, person, nation or not-for-profit.

Wait, not-for-profit groups can be influenced by money? Surely not!

That’s what many people think when they read about “an independent, non-partisan, not-for-profit” organization, watchdog or interest group. We take it on faith that these groups are all of the above yet forget the older law about money and influence: He who has the gold, rules.

It is true that many organizations work independently of their funders, but none can escape the fact that an unhappy donor will end up looking elsewhere. No donor who is, say, against abortion would join a group that favors a woman’s right to choose.

At most advocacy organizations, birds of a feather flock together.

Always ask, ‘Who is paying their bills?’

Good journalists know who funds NGOs they cite and what the organizations’ political leanings are, and they tell their readers as much. In the case of the International Crisis Group, a quick bit of research shows that billionaire George Soros was one of the original funders and that nearly half of its funds come from government contributions.

A fair-handed news organization would identify ICG as a “left-leaning conflict monitoring group funded by western governments such as the U.S., UK and Australia, philanthropic foundations and companies.” That’s easy to understand, and a reader can judge the ICG’s perspective. It is not unfair to say that ICG has a distinctly western outlook. To some in the developing world, it smacks of colonialism.

A special note: To those on the political right, George Soros is what the Koch Brothers are to those on the U.S. left — a shorthand reference to demonize any opposing group as bought-and-paid-for stooges of evil billionaires. If you see “Soros-funded” or “Koch Brothers-funded” as a reference, that usually gives you a good idea of the political bent of the publication.

Climate coverage is fraught with such references. Environmental activist groups that advocate for solar and wind power will play the Koch card, to which opponents favoring fossil fuels will respond with a Soros card.

That’s a diversion. Few journalists ask who funds environmental groups, but many receive funding from clean energy interests. That does not necessarily undercut what the groups say, but it is a reminder that some people will profit if fossil fuel production is replaced.

When reading statements from organizations that describe themselves as non-profit, non-partisan and independent, we should always ask ourselves, “Who is paying their bills?”

By following the money, we can sort fact from opinion and gain a well-rounded understanding of issues.

Three questions to consider:

  1. Why did some of the author’s friends chuckle after the International Crisis Group published its report ahead of the U.S. presidential election?
  2. Why do journalists and NGOs often have a symbiotic relationship?
  3. Do you know who owns your favorite news publisher?
Alistair Lyon author news decoder-150x150

Bryson Hull is vice president of communications and media at the HBW Resources consulting firm. He spent 17 years in journalism, reporting on politics, business and wars in nearly 20 countries across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and North America. He has also taught journalism and public speaking at Loyola University-Chicago.

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PoliticsConflictEven NGOs can have political leanings. So, follow the money.