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We’re living in a time like no other. Never have so many people been interested in fomenting systemic change, while the tools to do so are simultaneously so weak.

In lieu of any material transformation possible through the traditional avenues of state and market, a “third sector,” as Benjamin Y. Fong and Melissa Naschek put it, has sprung up in recent decades to mend the gap. We know them as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), or nonprofits. 

Also called 501(c)(3) organizations, NGOs have sprung up for a reason: We need solutions to the pervasive problems of our day, climate change being at the top of the list. Yet neither our government nor corporations have stepped to the plate. 

This does not mean NGOs are inherently better, however. By allowing the public and private sectors to pass the buck on substantial climate policy, their prevalence is a distraction. 

In their paper, “NGOism: The Politics of the Third Sector,” Fong and Naschek argue that the chief function of nonprofits is to “amplify the influence of the private sector over social welfare institutions,” and that no matter how transformational they appear esthetically, they cannot fully challenge the government that sanctions them. 

Let’s address that name, to start. “Nonprofit” is patently a misnomer if CEOs of orgs in places like New York City regularly make six figures. NGO leadership is not making bank across the board by any means, but low pay for most nonprofit workers is routine. Some of that low-paying work can require advanced degrees and years of schooling that keep workers struggling and make hiring difficult.

Competency … or the lack thereof

The Center for Global Development, a global poverty research institute, surveyed the governing boards of the 15 largest humanitarian orgs that operate internationally. All but two were majority-white from the richest nations in the world, and 98% had never experienced the crises they were combatting firsthand. Twelve of the 15 had no board members with lived crisis experience, and only four had a majority of board members with “background[s] in humanitarian migration, advocacy, [and/or] development work.”

This isn’t to say that being rich, white or from a wealthy nation makes one devoid of empathy, but it does imply that people on the ground in dire situations worldwide are being severely underrepresented in these charitable causes, supposedly designed for them and their needs. The data also suggests that the boards are expert in fundraising, moving money around and little else. 

Climate Change – NGOs cannot fix it alone

On climate, the public sector and private sector are completely unreliable. The Paris Accords, which the United States rejoined under the Biden administration, has a section about damages endured by poor, at-risk nations, with language carefully crafted to let the wealthy and less-at-risk countries off the hook for “any liability or compensation” to assist recovery. 

As for the private sector, a market that expects constant growth with finite natural resources does not make for any long-term solutions here. Although Lloyd Alter successfully dispels the misleading “100 companies are responsible for 71% of carbon emission” headline that’s become a popular talking point on his Treehugger publication, he errs by placing the onus on consumers to mitigate emissions. 

If consumer-side activism was truly the solution, then climate change nonprofits would not have to exist because the climate crisis would be solved by everyone “voting with their dollar.”

According to an April 2021 Gallup poll, even most Republicans do not deny climate change anymore, so if “personal consumption choices” could make an impact, we would have seen it by now.

NGOs whose work involves climate change are only as reliable as they’d like to be. Many were helping relief efforts in the Caribbean post-Hurricane Dorian, but pulled out as the COVID-19 pandemic began, and those who stayed triaged their assistance.

The work done on loss and damages can be done by NGOs successfully if they are well-funded and consistent, but nonprofits can’t mitigate and slow down climate change. The rich governments of the world, not least including our own, have to take up that mantle. They’re the ones who do the polluting and allow corporations to pollute. 

Who funds the NGOs?

Our checks and balances for snuffing out fraud in politics or in business are – to put it insultingly simple – flawed, but they exist and can be nursed back to health. We have the Sherman Antitrust Act, the Federal Trade Commission and laws against malpractice in big business. We barely apply them as necessary, but the point is we can, in theory.

Nonprofits, on the other hand, are opaque with their money and how they use it, due in large part to their donors’ freedom of association guaranteed by the First Amendment. Just this month, the Supreme Court defended that right, declaring California’s “requirement that tax-exempt charities provide the state the identities of top financial donors” unconstitutional.

Government officials love NGOs because they can shift hard work to them, from immigration to voting rights to marijuana legalization. Corporations and the mega-billionaires who run them love to promote NGOs and charity generally because it allows them to look benevolent, all the while they skip out on paying taxes that could amount to more than their philanthropy. The lack of transparency is just icing on the cake.

In short, the public sector is unaccountable, but it should be. The private sector is unaccountable, but it should be. NGOs are unaccountable, and they can’t be, because ultimately they are a distraction from the first two. And with a climate crisis impending, we can’t afford distractions.

Anthony Langdon is the Opinion Editor for The Red & Black. He covers politics, culture, tech and more in his columns. He is an entertainment and media studies major (Grady) and English minor at UGA.

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