When NGOs attack Africa, be wary of hidden agenda

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There are very few people in the world who would disagree with the notion that corruption is bad for development. The theft of public resources, especially in developing nations, represents an important challenge, one that requires serious focus, international cooperation, and innovative policy solutions to deliver a better life for citizens.

But unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way. In many cases, perceptions of corruption – whether these acts are actually taking place or not – become weaponised in the hands of less scrupulous parties who have an agenda that is far different from law enforcement or social development.

NGO activity in our region usually begins with a common lofty-but-paternalistic declaration that they are going to “save Africa from Africans.” There are certainly some important success stories, but just as often, total disaster. Oxfam, one of the largest British charities, has been exposed in sexual abuse scandals ranging from Haiti to Chad. Save the Children, which works in 21 African countries, recently had to suspend its donations from the UK Department for International Development (DFID) until it worked out its own scandals. Then there was the controversy involving the ONE Campaign founded by pop stars Bono and Bob Geldof, who appear to spend much more energy attacking a Zambian author over her book on aid than actually helping people.

The problem it seems is quite widespread, and become even more difficult to parse the truth when the NGO in question is not very well known. Though it is far from the only example, Zambia is an interesting case study of how non-governmental organizations can sometimes act far outside their mission statements to carry out what appear to be politically motivated attacks, usually based on evidence that falls far short of acceptable standards.

This much is clear from the allegations recently brought forth by a foreign NGO calling itself the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA). In a recent report entitled the “Mukula Cartel,” the organisation claims to have uncovered a deeply-embedded scheme to illegally extract and smuggle Mukula timber, a highly valuable type of tree that is protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

At first glance, such a revelation naturally would provoke outrage. But if we undertake the responsibility of fact checking their claims, everything is much less clear. In sum, the EIA claims to have evidence, which it declines to share publicly, of high-profile Zambian officials being involved in unlawful acts. The NGO claims this mysterious scheme goes all the way to top with President Edgar Lungu, as well as his daughter Tasila Lungu, the Minister of Justice and the Minister of Lands and Natural Resources – allegedly using the Zambia Forestry and Forest Industries Corporation Ltd. (ZAFFICO), a state-owned enterprise, to systematically underreport exports of the coveted lumber to foreign markets, particularly China.

Yet the EIA report is mysteriously quiet on any meaningful details to back up their claims.  Underneath their impressive graphic design, publicity campaigns, and sensationalist language lies hardly more than an assortment of unoriginal and often baseless findings paired with inferences – generally it is a collection of discredited false claims shared around opposition social media.

To be more specific, the EIA report relies on information on the illicit Mukula trade in Zambia and Southern Africa, and describes the former’s efforts to control it. However, this lengthy history lesson is used to construct a narrative, a preconceived notion of culpability that makes its unnamed sources, unverified evidence and damning conclusions somehow more convincing.

They present photos of “special permits” and strange signatures that may have been very easily falsified. The same can be said for their decision to quote numerous opposition Members of Parliament without referencing their names or political affiliation. But perhaps most alarming was EIA’s decision to reference the work of disgraced former minister Harry Kalaba. It seems that perhaps the authors were not aware that he faces serious and documented corruption allegations of his own stemming from the Lower Zambezi National Park mine permitting scandal?

With these and other unanswered questions, it’s worth asking ourselves what the EIA, heretofore unheard of in Zambia, intends to accomplish with this report. The answer to that question may be found in the NGO’s foreign funding apparatus and what they want to take from Zambia.

Among the institutional donors EIA proudly lists in its most recent annual report are the David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, upon which Zambian real estate mogul Ms. Robin Miller is a Trustee; the ClimateWorks Foundation, a US-based environmental group once blacklisted by the government of India and been criticized for funding radical environmentalist groups in Europe; and Vulcan Inc., a US-based impact investing organization whose Chair Jody Allen has suppressed numerous smuggling accusations of her own, only with exotic African wildlife bones instead of furniture wood.

Understanding this, it’s difficult to trust the veracity of the EIA’s report. Not only do the argument’s central claims fail to hold water, but the means through which their supposed evidence was accessed is dubious in and of itself. Who are these traffickers with whom they spoke? Why was the EIA unwilling to report their findings to the relevant Zambian or international justice and regulatory authorities before releasing them to the public?

I’m sad to say that in Africa, we’ve been experiencing the “fake news” dilemma decades before it became part of the nomenclature of American politics. In fact, it would be hard to identify a hero of the pan-African liberation movement who was not at one time or another falsely accused of corruption as a part of a smear campaign.

The fake and unsubstantiated attacks on African nations over corruption are very damaging, in that they provide cover for those who are the real thieves. Let’s not pretend that the billions extracted from the worst rulers of South Africa, Congo, Nigeria would have any place to move that money without Western acquiescence and secrecy, and yet where is the NGO report attacking the Swiss and Caribbean bankers?

There are definitely corruption issues to address in Africa. We should all be working very hard and working together to address them. But whenever these unscrupulous NGOs come in from abroad making claims of widespread conspiracies, it seems that it is time for us to exercise far greater scrutiny of who is behind them.

 

Sunday Chilufya Chanda is an author, political analyst, and Media Director of the ruling Patriotic Front party of Zambia.