Australia Scrutinizes Influence of Nongovernmental Groups ; the Government Has Hired a Conservative Think Tank to Evaluate NGOs' Growing Clout

Article excerpt

Spurred by conservative rumblings over the growing clout of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the Australian government is taking a closer look at such groups' activities at home and abroad.

Earlier this year, Prime Minister John Howard offered to investigate all aid agencies working in Indonesia using Australian government funding, following complaints by President Megawati Sukarnoputri. And in a move that critics see as politically motivated, his government has hired a conservative think tank to investigate NGO influence on some government agencies.

The investigation by the Melbourne-based Institute of Public Affairs could potentially cut off some charities from further government access, funding, or tax breaks, experts say.

"NGOs are becoming very influential today - they sit on various committees and are seen to influence governments and big business. As global players they need to be more transparent," says Mike Nahan, executive director of the IPA.

IPA is not the only group scrutinizing NGOs. In June, IPA joined with two organizations in the United States - the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), known to be close to the Bush administration, and the Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies - to launch www.NGOWatch.org. The site will monitor the operations of international NGOs and their relations with corporations and government.

The cyber watchdog is being set up at a time when NGOs are gaining credibility on the world stage for attempting to reform world markets and politics to make them more humane. A study released by the United Nations and SustainAbility, a consulting firm, concludes the groups such as Oxfam International, Greenpeace, and the World Wildlife Fund have become more receptive to market- based solutions to global problems - and in turn, corporations are more keen to work with NGOs.

Still, some NGOs have become focal points for controversy. An Australian aid agency working in Indonesia found itself in hot water after allegations that it has been active in the pro- independence movement in the provinces of Aceh and Papua.

Union Aid Abroad (UAA), which gets more than half of its funds from the Australian government, says that it favors a referendum in the region, but denies that any funds have been put toward motivating political change. …