[Opinion] What are you hiding? NGOs, funding and websites
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Transparency, particularly regarding public funds, is an essential element of democracy, but for those in official positions with something to hide, the theory is often better than the practice.
This gap between words and deeds is especially apparent when it comes to the secrecy that surrounds large-scale foreign government (mostly European) funding provided to Israeli political advocacy NGOs (non-governmental organizations). The European Union’s refusal to provide any information or documentation on how decisions to fund these organizations are made is one manifestation of the problem.
In response, the Israeli Knesset passed the NGO Funding Transparency Law, which went into effect at the beginning of 2012. The law mandates that NGOs file quarterly reports about support received from foreign government bodies. This information is then posted on the website of the Registrar of Non-Profits, allowing all Israelis to access data on the influence of foreign governments on domestic political discourse.
Thanks to this added transparency, Israeli citizens know that 17 NGOs received a total of 40 grants from foreign government sources in the first part of 2012. We can also determine that a sizable majority of these grants are for projects related to the conflict, and that Norway was the largest donor to Israeli NGOs (over 3 million NIS in three months).
Parallel to the efforts of the Knesset and the Registrar of Non-Profits, more and more governments are publishing details about NGO funding on their own websites. There is room for improvement – the information is not always comprehensive – but many European and American government officials understand that secrecy is no longer tenable.
Another form of non transparency is “website scrubbing.” NGOs have removed material from their websites after NGO Monitor and others provided evidence of anti-Semitic or anti-human rights activities by these NGOs.
The purging of offensive material allows the NGO to project a false image of piety.
In order to avoid further embarrassment, the scrubbing is rarely accompanied by an apology – which one might expect from a group that claims to represent moral values and ideals. However, the net sum is a reduction of anti-Semitic and blatantly anti-Israel content on the web.
This was the case after an NGO Monitor exposé led European-government funders to press Badil, a Palestinian NGO supporting the “right of return,” to erase an anti-Semitic cartoon from its website. The caricature, which featured a Jewish man with a hooked nose and sidelocks garbed in traditional Hassidic attire and holding a bloody pitchfork, had won an award in a Badil poster contest.
More recently, the Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel (EAPPI), a World Council of Churches organization that supports anti-Israel boycotts and promotes a one-sided narrative of the conflict, performed a two-staged scrubbing of its website: On July 9, the Church of England considered a motion to support EAPPI. In advance of the vote, NGO Monitor circulated a fact sheet, noting, inter-aliya, that in Issue #6 of EAPPI’s Chain Reaction magazine (Summer 2007), EAPPI participants advocated for illegal and inflammatory activities “to end the occupation,” such as hacking government websites.
At some point in early July, EAPPI quietly removed Issue number six from its website.
(A copy of the magazine is on file with NGO Monitor.) But that left a telltale visual gap on EAPPI’s site between Issue 5 and Issue 7, highlighting the issue, so EAPPI subsequently deleted the entire Chain Reaction webpage.
By scrubbing its website, EAPPI tacitly acknowledges the document’s immoral taint. But for five years, EAPPI had endorsed its contents, and only acted because of public scrutiny surrounding the Church of England vote.
On other occasions, ostensibly unremarkable information about NGOs is deleted from websites, raising questions.
For instance, on June 28, NGO Monitor sent routine inquiries to the funders of a new Israeli “progressive think-tank,” Molad: The Center for the Renewal of Democracy, asking about the scope of their support. One funder, the New Israel Fund (NIF) responded without supplying substantive answers to our questions.
The other, the Anna Lindh Foundation, which is funded by the EU, failed to reply.
Instead, as research by NGO Monitor shows, it scrubbed key information from its website profile of Molad, including reference to Molad’s funders and a list of current projects.
For its part, Molad reveals very little about itself. As of this writing, Molad’s website has zero content on it. Molad has issued at least one policy paper, and apparently has shared it with the New York Times and perhaps other journalists.
But the document is unavailable online.
Government and NGO officials should not oppose transparency, which is the bedrock of democracy.
Whenever taxpayer-based funding is used for partisan political advocacy, the public has the right to know the sources of and processes behind this funding.
In contrast, these and many other attempts to scrub websites and hide information contribute to failed policies, engenders mistrust, and lead to embarrassment when the details are made public.