The Brussels we are often presented with is a rather depressing image; a dystopian bureaucracy riddled with over-paid civil servants and wasteful spending. It is a Daily Mail-esqe atrocity within the miserable “non-country” of Belgium. Just the other day, the far-right French politician Marianne LePen predicted that, like its Eastern counterpart, the EU would unravel very quickly akin to the Soviet Union’s collapse twenty years ago.
One of my jobs in the EU-lobby office of Oxfam only strengthens this impending sense of failure. As I browse the inbox of the office’s ‘general’ account, I am constantly reminded of the great evil we are committing by working with “the €U”. Anonymous emails flood in complaining that “they are appalled their money is supporting Brussels fat-cats” and that they don’t want to “support those rotten institutions”; that they are “misled” as to where the money is going.
In August I co-wrote a blogpost highlighting a very similar idea about the salaries of charity bosses. I said that the 21st Century NGO is far different from how the public perceives it and that it would be more helpful to look at charities such as Oxfam and ActionAid as ‘non-for-profit businesses’. Like any business, you have to work with governments to get the policies which will most suit your goals and ambitions.
For anyone who is concerned with real development, the European Union epitomizes what a regional organisation can achieve. The EU-28 is, by far, the largest donor of international aid, a leader in climate change action and a peace broker in war-torn areas such as the OPT and Somalia. If you take away the public face of in-fighting and often confusing decision-making processes, you find a Europe Union which is increasingly happy with this ‘soft power’ touch.
As a media and communications intern with little knowledge of the EU before joining a month ago, my education has been swift and eye opening. The on-going biofuels battle bears witness to this. The EU has the incredible power to limit how much of the environmentally damaging, land-rights violating fuel comes into the market. If biofuels are diverting so much food from the poorest in the world, it is the NGO’s responsibility to work hard to ensure that policy-makers place the lowest possible cap on them, ergo putting a halt to entirely preventable poverty.
To claim that NGO’s are misleading the public is misguided and to make the accusation that they are propping up the EU is ignorant at best.
Policy causes poverty, but if done well it can also alleviate it.
NGOs budgets are limited and by circumventing the causes of poverty, they are able to save both money – and lives – now and in the future. If NGOs didn’t have a presence in such an important arena, as well as others including Geneva, New York and Washington D.C, we would, in fact, be letting down those we endeavour to empower.
As an intern, you are able to experience the invisible face of development. NGOs work hard to highlight the work they do on the ground as well as the campaigns they support. In Brussels, you will see very little of that; we do not directly hold demonstrations neither do we send activists to the developing world. Rather we strive to give the EU the ‘positive’ face that is often ignored by the European press.