Think tanks have attacked environmental groups and other non-government organisations (NGOs) that are critical or corporations or governments as lacking transparency and accountability. For example the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) in Australia and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in the US have set up projects ostensibly to monitor NGOs. This monitoring serves varous purposes:
In 2001 IPA began a monthly newsletter, NGO Watch Digest, for subscribing corporations in which it offered information about activist non-government organisations (NGOs) that were supposedly targeting businesses. The NGO Project was headed up by IPA senior fellow Gary Johns (pictured), who had previously been IPA's spokesman on indigenous issues attacking Aboriginal rights on behalf of mining companies (although Rio Tinto withdrew its funding because it wanted to maintain good relations with aboriginal communities).
The newsletter was terminated in 2002 as there apparently weren't enough subscribers.
In 2003 the IPA proposed to the Prime Minister's Business Community Parnership that it undertake a study "of the relationship between Australian Government Departments and Non-Government Organisations (NGOs), and develop a ‘trial protocol’ for public disclosure of NGO standing with Government." It was paid $50,000 for this study which was published under the title 'The protocol: managing relations with NGOs', by Johns and John Roskam, in 2004. As part of the study the IPA was provided with information about the relationships between NGOs and seven federal government departments and one agency. Relationships included correspondence, lobbying, submissions, membership of advisory committees, funding, and provision of privileged information.
The report argued that government departments were listening too much to groups such as environmental goups that "purport to represent universal interests" but in fact only represent organised public opinion rather than broader public opinion and therefore giving NGOs too much influence "constitutes a challenge to representative systems and traditional political accountability".
NGOs, it claims, "are granted privileges that are not available to members of the public". Such relationships and consultations should be made public and the NGOs held accountable in terms of their governance, capacity and finances. Ironically, the IPAs own relationship with the government, in this case, was subject to some secrecy.
Johns states elsewhere:
Some NGOs are being given representative status by governments on the basis that they represent broad interests, such as consumers or environmentalists, when in reality they express the interest of a few activists. Moreover, some of these organizations are directed and driven from abroad, with few local members. Some NGOs are given standing on the basis of their expertise, even though they undertake no research, do not subject their statements to independent peer review, have little technical expertise in the topics upon which they make pronouncements, and base their utterances more on emotion than evidence. Their activities are sometimes driven more by fund-raising than advancing the public good... Unlike corporations and unions, NGOs are neither directly accountable to market forces nor regulated by the state.
Johns argues that environmental NGOs often receive public funding as charities even though they are politically active and undertake very little practical conservation work.
And although the IPA says it was a coincidence, federal government treasurer Peter Costello proposed draft legislation in 2003 "that threatened to remove tax exemption status from NGOs if they were deemed to be more involved in political lobbying and advocacy than in community work - a move widely condemned as a bid by the Government to silence its most strident critics."
NGOWatch was launched after a seminar by American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies. It later became a part of Global Governance Watch, also a project of the AEI and the Federalist Society. It aims to monitor the activities of NGOs and the impact they have on public policy, which is of concern to their corporate donors.
NGOWatch's initital website stated:
NGO officials are widely cited in the media and relied upon in congressional testimony; corporations regularly consult with NGOs prior to major investments. NGOs also use their growing influence inside international organizations to push for the establishment of globalized standards and international legal norms. Yet this growing local and global role has in large part been unchecked and unregulated. Coupled with sparse (or reluctant) practices of public disclosure and a spate of high-profile NGO scandals in the last decade, calls for greater transparency in NGO operations have been resounding. Who funds NGOs? How effective are their programs? How do they influence governments and international organizations? What are their agendas? And to whom are they accountable?
Apparently the AEI doesn't see the irony of its own position as an NGO with major influence on government policy and minimal accountability to government or the public.
Apart from a website, NGO Watch also sponsors conferences. For example Science and Technology in the Balance? Food Security, Precaution, and the Pesticide Debate, held in 2009, which attacked EU proposals for regulating pesticides and the use of the precautionary principle.
Another conference, Is Corporate Responsibility Serious Business? was held in 2006. Speaker Elaine Steinberg claimed:
Corporate social responsibility (CSR), as commonly understood, undermines everybody’s freedom and prevents business itself from operating properly... Some businesses have wrongly given in to the demands of CSR advocates, believing they could benefit from appeasement. However this is a self-defeating policy, as appeasement will likely lead to increasing demand by CSR advocates.