Kevin, thanks for refusing to engage with anything I’ve said and helping to prove my point about EWBers intentionally choosing to remain ignorant.
We shouldn’t discuss climate change on this thread, according to you, because it wasn’t mentioned in anything connected to this year’s conference and it isn’t one of the “core focus areas of EWB at present.” What a great attitude to have. We shouldn’t bother with getting into a substantive discussion of facts relating to things that EWB doesn’t officially happen to be narrowly focusing on at the moment. Blinkered vision is the way to go.
My foremost intention in detailing the seriousness of the climate crisis was to make sure that the stakes surrounding the issue were understood – so that this discussion stood within the relevant context. Since we’re talking about oil companies, the issue of climate change and its impacts on those who live in poverty (which is EWB’s area of focus) seems to me to be the proper context. No one is suggesting that EWB should try to “solve all of the world’s problems all at once.” It’s fine that EWB has a “niche.” But it seems to me that we need to be concerned with the context in which the work we focus on finds itself.
As an example of someone in the non-profit world who takes context seriously I would like to point to Paul Farmer and his organization, Partners in Health. I’ve sometimes heard leaders in EWB claim that this organization is quite like Partners in Health. Based on the narrow-mindedness and excuse-making observable in this thread, anyone even remotely familiar with Farmer’s writings and the work done by Partners in Health understands that such claims are an insult to Farmer. Farmer’s primary area of focus is, of course, health. But he doesn’t shy away from obtaining an intimate understanding of, and voicing opinions on, the various matters that affect his area of work, even when such matters are seemingly controversial. He has, for instance, openly condemned the role of Western governments (particularly the US, Canada, and France) in overthrowing Haiti’s democratically elected government in 2004. The vast majority of the other NGOs working in Haiti, on the other hand, took the path that EWB is walking and didn’t raise a concern about this matter, as they deemed it to not be strictly within their area of focus. This was no doubt a cowardly betrayal of the Haitian people, whom the NGOs profess to serve.
I should also point another fact to be learned from Farmer that’s been missing from this discussion: he seeks to gain an understanding of issues that are not within the strict bounds of his area of interest not only because he needs to be aware of the context of things, but also so that he can appreciate and learn from the complementarity between their work and the work of others.
Kevin, I find it remarkable that, on the one hand, you explicitly ignore the context of the issue at hand and, on the other, claim that due diligence was done in assuring that the right sponsors were chosen. Those two things contradict each other. Sean’s admission that he knows “very little about the oil sands and the issues around it” also stands in direct contrast with the claim that things were thought through properly when seeking money from corporate donors. Was there anyone on the conference team who thought it might be worthwhile to understand the issues relating to the oil sands or climate change? From what I’ve heard so far, it seems unlikely. And even if someone on the conference team had gone out of their way to understand the issues in detail, it’s clear that their input would not have been welcome as far as the fundraising team was concerned – because, in the opinion of the Conference Finance Lead, EWB doesn’t need to care about things that stand outside of its narrow focus, even when they clearly impact the organization’s area of focus.
It’s also pretty clear that your claims about the existence of a substantive screening process can’t be taken seriously. Alongside Statoil, which is supposedly a magical green oil company, Enbridge and Chevron, which are not exactly shiny companies, find themselves prominently featured on the conference list of sponsors. I hope I don’t have to tell you about the kind of things Enbridge has been up to recently in, among other things, its efforts to manipulate public opinion in Canada. Chevron, as everyone should know, has had a horrendous record in Nigeria ever since it began doing business in the country in 1913. Also, it’s operations in Burma (or Myanmar) have been a major source of revenue for the extremely repressive ruling military junta. And most recently in the news: Chevron has been doing all that it can to avoid paying $18 billion fine for dumping billions of gallons of toxic oil waste in the Amazon Rainforest in Ecuador. Do Enbridge and Chevron seem to you, Kevin, as companies with “Strong CSR policies along with a willingness to change and accept criticism”? It’s great that you have two examples of companies that EWB rejected offers to take money from, but if Enbridge and Chevron can get through the screening process it’s pretty clear that the two companies who EWB refused to take money from in the past are not much more than convenient tokens for you to point to whenever the funding policy is criticized.
We have to realize that allowing companies like Enbridge and Chevron, and even Statoil, allows them to use our brand to advertise themselves as socially concious and caring over a long period of time. The propaganda benefits don't end for them as soon as the conference wraps up. When Chevron wants to distract the public from its crimes in Nigeria or the Amazon, for instance, it can get to talking about all the money it gives to us. Do we really think that the good EWB does outweighs the damage done by allowing the likes of Chevron to continue committing crimes? Is anyone here bold enough to make such a utilitarian calculation to begin with? As these questions haven't seriously been thought about and discussed within the organization at large, it only becomes more clear that we haven't been engaging in due diligence when it comes to raising money.
Kevin, you also contradict yourself when, on the one hand, you say that the corporate funding was absolutely crucial to putting on the conference and, on the other, claim that EWB’s independence is not affected by its resort to taking money from such ill-famed actors. If they are so crucial to putting the conference on, then it’s pretty clear that EWB has to moderate any criticism it could potentially make of them in order to secure funds year-after-year. As is the case in most of these cases, the need for tempering of criticism comes about not as a result of a conscious decision but a somewhat-numbed feeling that some things are best left unsaid – some things, as you have said Kevin, are best left to others to research, think about, discuss, and try to fix: we’ll just work on our area of expertise. But forget about meaningful criticism, as things stand now oil companies are being openly praised by leaders within EWB. Statoil’s attempt to spread propaganda among members of EWB, Sean has opined, was “pretty thoughtfully written.”
This leads me to explicitly make an important point that I don’t think has gotten through so far: accepting money from oil companies affects the very soul of this organization. Most people have tried to isolate this incident and expressed concern simply about corporations using the conference (or even just the Statoil email sent as part of the conference) as a platform to spread propaganda. We should be concerned with a much wider problem. Leah put it well when she stated her general concern: “I fear the implications of aligning ourselves so deeply with big corporation that not entirely ethical.” The kind of chicanery on display in this thread makes it apparent that many EWBers are willing to look away from wrongdoing, or be concerned with learning about important issues like climate change, because of where the money comes from. This has wide-ranging consequences for the organization’s work.
This is precisely what happens when one’s material interests are tied up in something – there’s a reason why we have ethical concepts like “conflict of interest.” It’s rather difficult to not be affected by it. Even someone like John Stuart Mill, who was something of a paragon of uprightness in his day, was a victim of it. While India was being ravaged by British colonialism Mill, as an employee of the British East India Company, would testify the following on the company’s behalf: “The Government in which [the East India Company] have borne a part has been not only one of the purest in intention, but one of the most beneficent in act, ever known among mankind.” It’s not as if he didn’t have access to reports about the tyranny being engaged in by the company; as far back as 1776 Adam Smith would note in The Wealth of Nations that “three or four hundred thousand people die of hunger in one year" in Bengal because of "the mercantile company which oppresses and domineers." The difference in opinion between Mill and Smith arose, of course, because of the former’s material interests. Mill simply chose to look away from inconvenient facts. Even Gandhi was known to temper his criticism of rich capitalists who donated money to his cause. And in extension he would temper his criticism of capitalism in general (despite referring to himself a socialist after having read Marx).
Now, is anyone seriously ready to proclaim that EWB is a more principled force than John Stuart Mill or Mahatma Gandhi?
The idea that EWB is surely safe from having its independence eroded because it has shown itself to be critical of CIDA despite receiving lots of funding from it is wrongheaded because of two reasons. First, receiving money from a public body, which has a diffuse social mandate, is a bit different from receiving money from actors in the market, who first and foremost have an explicit private mandate. It’s easier to make criticisms while receiving money from the former and get away with it. Second, and more importantly, it’s clear that EWB’s criticism of CIDA, and the Canadian government in general, is tempered. EWB does criticize government policy but it does so within a very limited range. Government policy on aid is overwhelmingly our focus, whereas anyone who has seriously studied the issue of development should recognize that aid has little to do with the matter. The government doesn’t mind so much that policies on aid are criticized. That’s one of the main reasons for having an aid program to begin with: it distracts people’s attention from the rest of the government’s foreign policy. Chomsky puts this point well when he relates:
“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate with that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”
EWB’s large member base provides it with an opportunity to make a significant contribution to social change. If not getting large amounts of corporate funding makes it impossible to hold fancy annual conference, I think it's well worth taking the hit. I've been to a number of conferences which are not held in grand convention halls because the receive little or no funding from oil and mining companies, but are much more worthwhile to attend because issues that matter are actually being talked about.
Unfortunately instead of actually building an environment where people come together to meaningfully deal with problems relating to poverty, a lot of lip service is given to wonderful sounding ideals and meaningful ideas are kept out of view. Most people, particularly those in positions of influence, avoid uncomfortable facts and substitute informed discussion with resort to bringing up tired excuses. There’s a kind of “postmodern authoritarianism” in play within the organization. Feelings can stand in for facts where the latter get in the way of established doctrine. This is why Kevin can say: we don’t need to talk about climate change because we did a survey about people’s feelings and the results supported our belief that taking money from oil companies is a good idea. Imagine if the people working for EWB in Africa disregarded the facts on the ground and made decisions by emailing a voluntary survey to members about how they felt about things. That would be quite ridiculous. It’s just as ridiculous to not take an accounting of the facts and the proper context when decisions are made about fundraising policy.
The survey was of course not at all representative. The attention given to this thread, and others like it, is a testament to the very real concerns among general members of EWB about where the money comes from. It’s not uncommon for me to receive emails from people, or have people come up to me at EWB events to, thank me for raising my voice about a belief that they themselves hold. I think everyone should be speaking out, of course, but I understand why many choose not to. EWB doesn’t exactly offer a friendly environment for bringing up uncomfortable realities. Sure, there’s dissent and debate, but it’s kept within a narrow range. Despite all the talk about asking tough questions, there is a clear reluctance (and I’ve personally even been subjected to overt hostility) when actual tough questions are asked. And at the end of the day, the people making the decisions can just wave everything away by making a comment about there being “diversity of opinion” within the organization and doing whatever they want.
Some time ago I started distancing myself from EWB because I realized that my input on things was not really appreciated and that my efforts would be better put to use elsewhere. Having written all this, I’m struck by an acute feeling that I’m once again wasting my time with EWB. The people who need to read this and get something out of it will no doubt remain unmoved even if they bother to read it.
… Ah well… Hopefully someone will find what I’ve written to be of use.