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.

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The media of Aristotle

A classic dilemma in ethics is whether it is acceptable to sacrifice the few to save the many. In today’s media landscape, it is often more about serving the interests of the few while ignoring those of the many.

In 2016 we have more or less unlimited access to information and news. Ironically though, this makes it harder than ever before to discern what is true and what isn’t. We are overloaded with information and give up.

For more than a hundred years we have had journalists and editors to do quality control of stories that enter the public sphere. They have checked facts and figures for us and presented us with their findings. Whenever they failed to do so, someone else usually found out and loudly lambasted them for their mistakes. This has created an unconscious belief that anything published in papers, radio or TV must be authentic. Even for stories that are not fact but opinion based, the belief has come to be that there’s no smoke without a fire.

No quality(control)
These beliefs are now being tested. In a world that’s being taken over by social media, this element of quality control has suddenly been removed. Anybody can publish a story. Once it’s out there being posted and re-posted around the world; and suddenly nobody knows where it originated. If you repeat something enough times, people are bound to believe it. In other words – If it has gone viral, it must be true right?

Traditional media are struggling. Not many want to pay for something the can get for free online. So they end up with two choices. One, they can follow the tabloids and online media into sensationalism and misleading headlines. Two, they can stay true to the code and “seek the truth and report it”. The latter option is a lot more troublesome, it requires research, hard work and time; and the benefits might not be immediate or financial. That is why so many, even those branding themselves as serious media, is treading a slippery slope and focusing on content that can bring in immediate advertising revenue.

Sharpen the knife
In other words, it is getting increasingly harder, even for well-educated and well-read people to figure out what is up and down. When we are constantly bombarded with new information, there’s no time to critically assess and contemplate what we see and hear. Anything can become true if it is repeated enough times.

More than ever we need media that we can trust to tell us the truth; not to spin it in a way which only serves to make money. In other words we need someone to pick up the Knife of Aristotle and make sure it is still sharp and able to cut.

“The ultimate goal of the media would be it carrying out its function well. Media carrying out its function well is found in what it can achieve precisely through it having those traits which make it good”

This post was written as my contribution to an essay competition organised by The Knife of Aristotle.

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