The Greenpeace Conundrome

When I initially wrote this entry, the strength of response I got was surprising. Forget writing about Al-Qaeda, the credit crunch, Islam or why Darfur should not be classed as a genocide. If you really want to get your blog noticed, just try and take on Greenpeace.

I don’t object to critical comments, and am happy to publish them, but a lot of what was said showed a misunderstanding of what I had written. Naturally, the blame for this lies with the writer; therefore I realised that I needed to tighten up my writing a little, remove all flippant comments and eliminate anything ambiguous in what I am trying to say.

First of all, this entry wasn’t supposed to be about Greenpeace; it was using Greenpeace as a way of illustrating some fundamental problems in certain NGOs. Maybe it was wrong to use Greenpeace for this example, but I am going to stick with it, since most people can relate to the idea.

The Greenpeace Conundrome is a very simple concept whereby organisations exist because there is a problem in the world. If this particular problem ceased to exist, so would the organisation.

For example, if the world’s environment was in tip-top shape, there would be no need Greenpeace. Similarly, if Britain was no longer a member of the European Union, then there would be no need for the UK’s Independence Party (UKIP).

Now, I am not suggesting for one moment that workers with Greenpeace are sordidly sitting round a table, rubbing their hands and gleefully plotting how they can orchestrate the next oil spill. My flippant comment that Greenpeace workers want more oil spills was irresponsible. Of course they don’t. Most workers within the organisation are committed to fighting to clean up the environment. But the point remains – without these environmental catastrophes, and without people seeing on the TV poor seal ions coated in sticky tar fighting for breath, Greenpeace would be out of money and these people would be out of a job.

Now, here in Khartoum, I meet NGO and UN workers on a daily basis. The vast majority, I would say, are diligent and committed to the work that they are doing – but in many cases delude themselves that they doing the right thing. Other workers, I am ashamed to say, have no real idea what is going on in the country; you talk to them about Darfur, where they spend much of their time, and they don’t even understand how the conflict started. Still others, and this is a real tragedy, know full well the shady dealings going on within their own organisation – but doing nothing about these, because it would jeopardise their own privileged position in Sudan. I speak largely about the UN here.

I read an interesting interview with Richard Dawkins, author of the God Delusion, the other day, whilst I was thinking of rewriting this entry. For the record, I don’t have a great deal of time for the author – he sensationalises atheism to make a quick buck. Nevertheless, he made an interesting point, when asked why he always sounded so strident and hysterical? Well, he said, it is difficult to sound otherwise when writing critically about religion – because it is still considered very much above criticism.

The same might be true of NGOs in Africa. Africa needs our help, these NGOs are doing a great job, often in very difficult conditions for not so much money – how can you possibly criticise them?

One of the misunderstandings in my last entry was that I was criticising the people that work for the NGOs. I am not. I am criticising the way that NGOs, and in particular the UN, organises itself. The way that there is no co-ordinated effort to help this country. The way that the top people in many NGOs and the UN command a ridiculously high salary, disproportionate to the amount of work they are doing (I am not, here, talking about the diligent volunteer of previous paragraphs ago). Yet, if you confront them about the salary and what they are doing here, they will get all defensive and swear that Sudan needs them. Of course, Sudan remains a developing nation and still needs some help to repair the wounds of the past; but all I am saying is, instead of focussing on one’s own salary and privleged position within the country, perhaps there is a need for everyone to think: are we being as efficient with other people’s money as we possibly can be?

As an addendum, I’d like to dwell briefly on the UN, an organisation I remain fiercely critical of. Laying aside the inherent corruption within this organisation (which will fill the pages of another blog entry), I am highly sceptical that Sudan needs such a large force. There are 2,500 UN workers in Khartoum alone! The streets of Juba are chocka-block with four-wheel drive UN vehicles, racing through the streets at half past five to get to the nearest watering hole. You ask most people at the UN why the organisation is here and they can’t actually give a clear answer. But they are being paid four, five, six thousand dollars each month to stay here.

The UN is so entrenched within Sudan that it is unthinkable it will ever leave. The money people earn through the UN is ridiculous, for the amount of work that they have to do. And no one seems to question it’s presence here. It is all “oh, but we need the UN – there’s genocide going on here, and they’re the only people that can help!” A little like Danger Mouse.

Of course a UN presence is needed here, and there continue to be bad things going on here – but 2,500 personnel in Khartoum? One argument I have heard made quite a bit here, and one that I am inclined to subscribe to, is: without the UN, the government would have to shoulder much more of the responsibility for the Darfur crisis. And then we might really start to see steps taken towards peace.

See, there really was very little in this entry about Greenpeace.


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10 Responses to “The Greenpeace Conundrome”

  1. Andrew Says:

    I work for Greenpeace, and I want less oil spills.

    Actually, I want no oil spills. I want a world that’s not dependent on fossil fuels at all. That’s why I work for Greenpeace instead of making twice as much in the commercial world.

    And while you have met many more aid workers than I have. The ones I know want nothing more than for the wars, famine and disease to end.

    Let’s turn it around. As you say, if what is bad for your guidebook sales is good for the Sudan, then you still want what is good for your country.

    Why make blanket accusations about people who you have never met (like me), when in all likelihood most of us feel the same as you?

  2. blakerig Says:

    To respond, I don’t dispute that many aid workers, NGO workers and lobbyists are doing a really fine job and really trying to make a difference. I have great admiration for a lot of these people, who often work under extremely difficult conditions.

    My main complaint is with the institutional structures of such organisations – the unco-ordinated way in which they operate and the zealous way in which they spread their message. Often, fixing one problem in the world simply leads to another one in a different. It is all about priorities. Or butterflies.

    Whilst many aid workers are committed and diligent people, as I have said, I know a great many older hands who are paid an absolute fortune to head particular operations within their institution: do they really want to give these privileges up? The UN is the worst for this – with some of the head honchos in Khartoum swanning down to Kenya or Uganda for a round of golf on the weekend.

    Think of the carbon footprint on that.

    (But keep up the good work. I have a lot of admiration for Greenpeace, and have been on one or two marches myself. And I don’t seriously believe that those working in the organisation are actively campaigning for more oil spills – it was more that I was using Greenpeace to illustrate the principle of the thing).

  3. Michael Davies Says:

    I used to work for Greenpeace and now I work in development in Sudan, so I now have two reasons not to buy your guide book. No point in beating about the bush, you are just completely wrong in everything you say…

    1. Greenpeace certainly doesn’t want oil spills, climate change or anything else bad for the environment. I don’t know where you get this idea, but you probably just made it up as a journalistic affectation, believing it’s a clever contrarian thing to say, though without any substance. It’s a complete fabrication. It’s like saying any movement wants more of the opposite of what it wants – I wouldn’t dignify it with the word ‘cynical’ it’s just jaw dropping naivety.

    2. There is a subtle debate on aid effectiveness, but on the strength of this you aren’t part of it. There are many dilemmas and agency problems in the aid world – such as the tension between help and dependency (which incidentally applies to welfarism everywhere) – and there may even be people who are too young, deluded or greedy in the system to tackle these questions. But blanket condemnation is ridiculous. There are many NGOs doing incredibly inspiring work in the most difficult conditions. You don’t seem to know that donor coherence is a major strand of reform in the development world – through the Paris Principles and most recently the Accra conference… anything to say about that? Haven’t you noticed that more donors are making use of pooled funds for exactly this reason? Or did that not come up during discussions about whether to buy your guide book? Before you declare on NGOs and the development community more generally, I suggest you really go and see what they are doing.

    3. You might want to produce some evidence that people in the UN are leading the good life before you apply a casual smear to dozens of people in Sudan. In my experience they work incredibly hard especially at the top level. I’ve never heard of a golfing cult in the UN, but if some people take a weekend out of Sudan during their legitimate breaks or vacation, why do you think it is material how they spend their time? And who is paid ‘an absolute fortune’? No-one in the entire system in Sudan – UN, donor, ambassador or NGO – is paid more than the typical director on a UK council, far from it. For god sake, do some research on salaries if you want to make a gross and insulting generalisation.

    4. Finally, you’ve obviously had some deservedly harsh criticism for trying to find Al Qaeda in a search that appears to have lasted only a day – drawing heroic conclusions based on minimal research. Now you seem to want to describe all NGOs on the back of a day of door-to-door book peddling. Don’t you think it would be be better to listen bit, research a bit more, and think a bit more before drawing highly generalised conclusions about terrorism, about NGOs or about the UN?

    If you want to slag people off, at least take the time to develop a real critique. It is all much more complicated than you seem to realise – terrorism, development and multilateralism.

    Your approach is a little like me saying that all journalists are pompous, conceited, light-weight and lazy… I’d only be right some of the time.


  4. Michael Davies Says:

    Having removed some of the unfounded attacks in your original posting, it does reveal less of your ignorance and pettiness – it wasn’t ambiguous or flippant, it was just plain rubbish. But nevertheless, even your new less annoying post is still based on an empty non-idea.

    You are passing this off as if it is some sort of insight…

    “The Greenpeace Conundrome is a very simple concept whereby organisations exist because there is a problem in the world. If this particular problem ceased to exist, so would the organisation.”

    This, you suggest, is a way of “illustrating fundamental problems in certain NGOs”. So you think that certain NGOs (but maybe not Greenpeace) want the problems to persist so that they remain in business? Is that what you are actually saying? Name names… who are the ‘certain NGOs’ that think this way? Maybe they’d like to address this fatuous allegation directly.

    Have you paused to think that much the same can be said of many journalists, particularly in Sudan, who need a constant stream of crises, scandal, violence and failure to get in print, justify their presence and earn their income? Or are you simply a disinterested teller of the truth looking down on self-interested venal aid workers, environmentalists and UN staff from your lofty perch or impartiality? The ridiculous thing is that no-one is more subject to your ‘condumdrome’ than you are. Luckily for you, that doesn’t matter because the idea is entirely banal.

    If you have evidence of corruption within the UN, I suggest you inform UN security. I’m surprised that if you have evidence of corruption, you haven’t seized the journalistic opportunity to expose it. But perhaps that’s because it’s all made up or based on the cluster vague misconceptions that seem to comprise your understanding of the UN? Allegations please, not innuendo.

    Your problem in these posts is not analysis of the UN’s many problems and challenges in Sudan – which is a cause for serious discussion. You don’t even attempt this. But what I find disgraceful is the way you have framed this as selfish greedy behaviour on the part of UN or NGO staff with no real evidence – and don’t deny it… that is the central theme of your so-called ‘condundrone’.

    If you want a response to the ranting e-mail you sent to my personal e-mail address, then publish it here.

  5. blakerig Says:

    I am not going to name-and-shame NGOs. Nor am I going to embark upon a witch-hunt within the UN. I will not give the UN the excuse to paper over the cracks, by identifying some very obvious failures within it. The problem is the institution, not the individual people or departments.

    I am not going to say that NGOs conciously want the war and suffering to continue. But my comments point to a fairly important debate – which people are just not seeing, because of their pious devotion to aid in Africa. And maybe this is my fault for not explaining it clearly enough.

    Why is there no co-ordinated aid effort in Sudan? Why, for example, does Medicine San Frontiers not operate under a single umbrella? Why are donors in Europe and America seeing their money spread across a dozen or so organisations, when perhaps one would do, and work more effectively? Why is someone not even talking about this?

    All these questions are what should be addressed – not petty contemplation over what a particularly NGO is doing here or there. I was just trying to open the door a fraction.

  6. John Robertson Says:

    I wasn’t going to respond to your initial post as I figured there would be enough angry people to do it better than I can — and Michael Davies seems to have done a good job. However, your last reply is just too bizarre to ignore

    So you have evidence of high level UN corruption but aren’t going to use it or name and shame anyone? That’s a very strange thing for a journalist to say! Personally, as an NGO worker in Sudan, if you have evidence of corruption in the humanitarian sector I say please publish it. You would be doing us all a favour. However, if you don’t have the evidence then shut up about it and stop making unfounded allegations.

    I’m afraid the rest of your reply shows your complete level of ignorance about humanitarian work in Sudan. Have you heard of the UN Office for Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA)? Their role is to coordinate the humanitarian work of NGOs and the UN throughout Sudan. The clue is in their name. Now, are they doing a good job? Are they an efficient and ideal model? Perhaps not, but those are very different questions to “Why is there no co-ordinated aid effort in Sudan?” Do you know how many meetings I have to attend for coordination issues? (I suppose your next post will now be on how NGOs all waste time in endless meetings). Do you know anything about the role of camp coordinators in Darfur, or sector coordinators in the rest of Sudan?

    As for why there is more than one MSF – what did they say when you asked them? I get the impression you don’t actually talk to NGOs much – which is quite important if you’re going to write off the entire efforts of 13,000 humanitarian workers in Darfur alone. Perhaps one MSF might work more effectively than 4 or 5 (or however many), but do you really think MSF have not discussed this in extreme detail and come to a different conclusion.

    Yes – there are serious questions to ask about the efficiency and ways of working of the UN and NGOs. NGO workers ourselves are constantly asking these questions, and I’d welcome their discussion. However your post doesn’t contirbute anything to this debate – it’s a series of cheap shots, unfounded allegations and questions that show you know very little of NGOs here.

  7. blakerig Says:

    Clearly I have touched a raw nerve with some people out there. I am not going to retract my comments, nor am I going to justify them with hard evidence. I cannot work out a way of doing this right now without compromising my sources.

    The charge, though, that I am ignorent of humanitarian work within Sudan is unfounded.

    If, as you say, I misunderstand the co-ordinated effort of humanitarian work within Sudan, then I plead that this is not my fault. It should be communicated to the wider public. If you, or any other reader of this blog, would care to prepare a clear and concise explanation of how the co-ordinated aid effort in Sudan works, then I would be happy to publish it within this blog unabridged (as a guest appearance).

    There may very well be an attempt at a co-ordnated aid effort here, but if there is the discussions are very muted, and not thrown open to wider public debate.

    My hat off to Richard Dawkins on this one. Some things just cannot be criticised.

  8. Michael Davies Says:

    So you aren’t going to publish my last comment…

    Interesting editorial policy…comments that you don’t like don’t get published. If it’s a blog, why are you so uptight about comments? If your blog isn’t serious journalism (and I agree with that) then why do you tackle serious subjects and talk complete rubbish about them with fake authority and go on about being a journalist all the time? It’s up to you of course, but no more lectures please about your journalistic integrity. You’ve just bottled.

    I’ll look again at my contract, but I don’t think I owe you time to help you with the investigation that you should have done before mouthing off. I’m not going to tell you whether you are right or wrong – that is clear and unambiguous in the pages you sent. Read them carefully and you will be able to assure yourself one way or the other.



  9. Michael Davies Says:

    Okay… let’s try again: these are my points about your posting and follow up comments written in a style that I hope is less likely to hurt your feelings:

    1. You are not getting a reaction because you are making insightful criticisms, but because your postings betray very poor understanding and because they are written in a conceited tone, and therefore cause irritation.

    2. There is a large critical literature on aid effectiveness and institutions – and this is a subject widely discussed. There is a great deal being done to co-ordinate aid – eg. UN Workplan, Paris Principles, pooled funds, UNDAF, the JAM etc. and there are pros and cons, and costs for this sort of common approach. Information about this debate is easily acquired by anyone who wishes to write about these issues from an informed perspective and draw conclusions based on actual knowledge. It isn’t up to the UN or NGOs to inform you, it is up to you to find out. There is little to suggest you have attempted this on your blog.

    3. Your account of why you won’t expose supposed UN corruption, despite having evidence and sources is highly implausible. It is unlikely that the UN would retaliate against your sources. It is unethical to withhold information regarding criminal activity, and very unethical to make general accusations based on undisclosed specific supposed facts.

    4. I suspect you don’t in fact have any real evidence or credible sources and that you are defending an ill-advised remark made in your posting :the corruption I see within [the UN] almost daily is astonishing. You produced a different explanation in an e-mail to me, and no journalist would publicly discuss a half-cooked story for which they had already accumulated sources and evidence. I apologise if the word ‘fantasist’ was an unfair description for this or if you do in fact have credible evidence or sources.

    5. Allegations of UN corruption in Sudan are serious, potentially damaging in many ways, and would be taken up by the UN if there were any credible grounds. It is irresponsible to make sweeping accusations of corruption based on supposedly specific information and sources, without making clear the basis for the allegations.

  10. Andrew Says:

    Hey there,

    Thanks for the clarification. Very cool to read all the comments your post provoked.

    Agree that, “Are we being as efficient with other people’s money as we possibly can be?” is a good question to ask again again. My first job with Greenpeace was going door to door to raise money (as well as get petition signatures and involve people). It’s a really great experience because then you realize exactly where that money is coming from.

    This doesn’t get at the idea of effectiveness, of course. (Best effect for money spent.) But maybe an idea would be for people at the UN and NGOs to spend one day per year going door to door, or talking to people in the street.

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