The ethics of NGOs and what happens when it fails

Big NGOs like Greenpeace can have enormous impact on people’s perceptions of environmental issues. Their campaign against genetically modified foods is a good example. However, when they use that influence to further their own agenda, rather than the public good, it can have very serious consequences.

Credit: Olivier Hoslet/EPA/NewscomCredit: Olivier Hoslet/EPA/Newscom

Businesses all over the world are subjected to a multitude of legislation regulating their activities. This happens to ensure that human health and the environment are not harmed during their efforts to make money. Society tries to keep a lid on dubious claims about products and activities with the threat of litigation or fines. What happens however, when the dubious activities are carried out by non-profit organisations?

Protectors of civil society
NGOs have been instrumental in building up civil society in many countries, protecting rights and promoting progress. Accordingly, the regulations impacting these organisations are designed to facilitate and support, not to make judgement about their value or work. Under US law there is very little restriction on the freedom of expression and the US Government does not interfere with how NGOs accomplish their purposes. EU regulations state that NGOs are self-governing bodies, not subject to direction by public authorities.

So what happens when NGOs overstep ethical boundaries, and harm both human health and the environment, while carrying out their activities?

Greenpeace and GMOs
Greenpeace is one of the most influential environmental NGOs in the world. It has a code of ethics, which states that it is “committed to the highest possible standards of ethical, moral and legal business conduct”. The organisation is also a founding member of the International NGO Accountability Charter.

One of Greenpeace’s most prominent and longstanding campaigns is its efforts to get genetically modified (GM) crops banned worldwide. It claims that genetic engineering is a threat to the environment and human health. Additionally, its website states that GM crops should not be released into the environment since there’s not an adequate scientific understanding of their potential impact.

Greenpeace has been very successful in this campaign. In 2015 the EU introduced legislation with the aim of permitting individual member states and regions to ban cultivation of GM crops. More than half of the 28 members have opted to do so.

Ignoring the evidence
The problem is that Greenpeace is lying when it says the understanding of genetic engineering is extremely limited; and that we do not know the long term effects of releasing these organisms into the environment and into the market for food and animal feed.

The US Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine published a report earlier this year on the development, use and effects of genetically engineered organisms. They reviewed scientific evidence accumulated over the last two decades and examined almost 900 publications on the subject. The conclusion is clear: No substantiated evidence regarding the difference between GM crops and conventional crops.

The report stresses that the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are not products in themselves, but are outcomes of processes by which scientists are trying to achieve certain characteristics in new crop varieties, exactly like conventional plant breeders do. In other words, all plants and crops we eat have been genetically modified for thousands of years; ever since the first farmers began selecting and breeding the plants giving them the best yields and the desired taste.

Golden Rice
Greenpeace is ignoring these facts while very skilfully manipulating the media and playing on people’s fears of a new technology they don’t understand. In Europe and North America this might not be a problem, because we can afford to choose what we eat. In poorer parts of the world however, where they do not have this luxury, it might cost people their health and even their lives.

More than 100 Nobel Prize winners have recently signed an open letter asking Greenpeace to stop their efforts to block GM crops. They single out Golden Rice, a crop previously labelled as “environmentally irresponsible and risky to human health” by Greenpeace. Golden Rice contains an artificially inserted gene which boosts the level of vitamin A rich beta-carotene. The World Health Organisation estimates that a quarter of a billion people in developing nations suffer from vitamin A deficiency. This causes two million preventable deaths a year and half a million cases of childhood blindness. This is a problem that Golden Rice could help rectify.

With good intentions?
Is it acceptable to willfully ignore scientific evidence and promote your cause, even if it harms people’s lives, as long as you are a non-profit organisation? Is it OK to manipulate the truth, as long as your intentions are good? Or, should NGOs be regulated, held accountable and put under the same expectations for ethical behaviour as for-profit organisations? I say yes, because the harm you can do doesn’t depend on how much profit you make.


Not-so-green games for a blue planet

The organisers of the Rio Olympic Games promised to clean up Rio’s dangerously polluted waterways and provide sanitation for at least 80% of the inhabitants before 2016. As the games draw near, they admit that they have failed, but claim that there are no risks to athletes or to the general public.

Back in 2009 Rio de Janeiro won the rights to organise the 2016 Olympic and Paralympics games. During the bidding process, Rio branded its vision for the event as ”Green Games for a Blue Planet”. One of the major pledges made was the “cleaning and regeneration of Rio’s waterways and lakes, through government projects for major new water treatment and sewerage works”.

Photo credit: Silvia Izquierdo / AP  Photo credit: Silvia Izquierdo / AP

The pledge was necessary because Rio has neglected to prioritise public sanitation for decades. This lack of focus, combined with intense urbanisation, has now created a city of more than 6 million inhabitants, many of whom do not even have access to basic sanitation. Raw sewage, including animal carcasses and household items, ends up in the Guanabara Bay on whose shores the city is located. This creates severe pollution and human health issues. Testing done by the Associated Press (AP) last July revealed some disease-causing viruses measured at levels up to 1.7 million times more than what is considered hazardous in the US and Europe.

Water pollution in Rio de Janeiro is not a new issue. The Guanabara Bay Clean-Up Programme was launched in the early ‘90s by the state government. The aim was to improve environmental and sanitary conditions of the Rio metropolitan area. The programme has not made much progress. By 2008, only 32% of the total sewage was treated.

Broken Promises

A specific goal set in Rio’s bid book was to raise this level to 80% before 2016. This they have also failed to accomplish. The number currently stands at 49%. Despite the lack of action, and their acknowledgement of failure to meet own targets, Brazilian officials insist that there is no danger to the public including the sailors and surfers who are to compete in the bay. The German sailor Erik Heil, might disagree. Shortly after having sailed in an Olympic event test last August, he had to undergo treatment for a flesh eating bacteria. He is only one of the many athletes who have already fallen ill.

Despite having had decades to deal with the problem, little has been done. It seems to be very low on the list of current priorities. Brazil is facing a deluge of problems: From a massive economic recession and a president being impeached for corruption. Additionally, huge public protests occur over the brutal evictions of residents from their homes, in order to make way for stadiums and the Olympic City. Regardless of the magnitude of problems, the Brazilian government seems determined that nothing is going to steal its moment in the spotlight; even though this enormous PR exercise costs approximately US$11 billion. This money could instead have been spent on improving the lives of the poor and the environment of the city they live in.

The Brazilian government is not the only one to ignore the problems piling up on the eve of the games. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is also burying its head in the sand, trying to ignore anything which might compromise the success of the first ever Olympic Games to be held in South America. The IOC has, amongst other things, reneged on a promise it made in the wake of the AP test report: A promise to carry out viral testing of the venue waters. It now states that the organisers are to follow test procedures established by the World Health Organisation (WHO). These focus only on testing for bacteria. Something that makes the results look a lot less scary, since bacteria breaks down in salt water a lot faster that viruses do.

Sacrificing the Olympic Ideals

This refusal to deal with the problems isn’t because the IOC is without options. The Olympic Charter allows the IOC to withdraw the permission to host the games at any time if it has any concerns. The IOC seems determined to plough ahead though, even if it means running over its own Olympic Ideals in the process. Ideals which, among other things, state that the Olympic Movement is about “protecting the health of the athletes”.

Evidently it seems that the IOC is ignoring its own principles. Likewise, Brazil is failing to protect its own citizens and live up to its international obligations. The UN Sustainable Development Goals, which include commitment to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all, seems to have been willfully ignored. Why? To make sure Rio looks good on the world’s TV screens for a few days in August.

This piece was originally published as part of Politheor’s Special Report RIO 2016: Perspectives beyond the mega event.



Brexit: Move on and wish the continent good luck

Environmental organisations in the UK were unanimous in their support for a vote to stay before the Brexit referendum. They believed that the best protection of the environment on the British Isles were to be had by EU legislation. The question is whether we, now that the UK has decided to leave, should dry our eyes and congratulate our continental colleagues on having gotten rid of a serious obstacle?

Well, if we look at the bigger picture then the UK has actually done the rest of EU a huge favour. The UK government have several times lobbied for revisions of protective legislation and tried to influence key votes on environmental issues. Here are a couple of examples.

The Habitats Directive
Almost 25 years ago the EU adopted the Habitats Directive. This created the Natura 2000 network of protected sites. Sites which are designed to protect the most seriously threatened habitats and species across Europe; safeguarding them against potentially damaging development. The Natura 2000 network protects over 1000 animal and plant species and 200 habitat types of European importance.

Some of the protected habitat types are river corridors and wetlands like here in Snowdonia National Park in Wales; an area that hosts several important and rare species such as salmon, trout, lampreys, fresh water pearl mussels, otter and water voles.

Some of the protected habitat types are river corridors and wetlands like here in Snowdonia National Park in Wales; an area that hosts several important and rare species such as salmon, trout, lampreys, fresh water pearl mussels, otter and water voles.

In 2014 the new European Commissioner for environment, maritime affairs and fisheries was tasked with ”overhauling the existing environmental legislative framework to make it fit for purpose”. This included a request to carry out an in depth evaluation of the Birds and Habitats Directives. Since then environment ministers from several countries, including France and Germany, have written to commissioner Vella and urged him not to weaken nature protection legislation.

The environment ministers are not the only ones protesting the proposed revision of the directives. Several MEPs have also written to the Commission urging them to keep the legislation. The UK government though, have been supportive of Juncker’s efforts. This support has come in face of their own evidence. Chancellor George Osborne stated in 2011 that his government would “make sure that gold plating of EU rules on things like habitats aren’t placing ridiculous costs on British businesses”. This led to a review of the directives by the Department for Food and Rural Affairs. They published a report in 2012 which found that the directives were largely working well.

Disappearing bees
The UK government also seems to have little regard for bees and their importance for both biodiversity and the pollination of crops. Bee populations have dramatically declined in later years. Scientists strongly suspect that a type of pesticides called neonicotinoids is at least partly responsible for this. Neonicotinoids acts as a nerve agent on bees and other invertebrates. In 2012 the European Food Safety Authority reviewed the scientific evidence on the matter. This led EU to adopt the first ban on the use of these pesticides in 2013.


Photo credit:Edwyn Anderton, flickr

The UK government didn’t vote in favour of the ban and actively lobbied against it. In 2015 they proceeded to temporarily suspend the ban on the application of the National Farmers’ Union. This happened despite the fact that the government’s own Experts Committee on Pesticides refused to back the request. Over 500.000 people in the UK signed a petition to stop the suspension. This petition was ignored.

Looking at the bigger picture
These two examples are unfortunately not the only ones. So, is it time for the British environmental campaigners to look at the bigger picture and not be so sad about the UK leaving EU? In spite of the love we have for our wildlife here in the UK it is fairly bog standard. We have few endemic species or habitats found nowhere else. So if the UK is a bad influence in EU environmental matters, then maybe we should give the continent a cheery wave and wish them good luck. It’s going to be hard though..

This is a revised version of a piece originally published on the Politheor Policy Network before the Brexit referendum.