Are we allowed to talk about the self-interest of NGO officials?

Public officials might occasionally have other motives besides the altruistic pursuit of the public interest. In recent years, one of the boom fields in economics has been political economy (building upon a prior and related field called public choice). Both fields suggest that if we have a fuller picture of what drives public officials, which might include the desire to stay in power or personal gain, we would have a more realistic view of political outcomes. Of course, public officials also care about the public interest, and may be self-selected to be more altruistic than most. It’s too cynical to say they ONLY care about personal gain and power, and it’s too naïve to say they ONLY care about the public welfare. And, in recent years, we have started to view managers of official aid agencies with the same realism.

So why are we so reluctant to have the same realism about NGO officials? Many condemn any discussion of their motives being anything besides selfless devotion to the poor as hopeless cynicism. But why can’t we do political economy on NGOs?

One example is the way that aid has been increasingly fragmented into tiny pieces in recent years because there are increasingly many NGOs advocating different causes. Most of these causes are good ones, but the NGOs don’t take into account the negative effect of promoting THEIR cause on the OTHER causes. The political economy result is that, after feeling all the pressure, many aid agencies are trying to do many things at once to be effective.

I saw one recent example of shameless lobbying for one cause. A group known as Children’s Rights Information Network (CRIN) has a mission to put “children’s rights at the top of the global agenda.” CRIN began a campaign recently to lobby for appointments over 2010-2012 to more than 11 positions in international organizations (including the UN Secretary General) to be limited to those who have “the appropriate commitment, skills and experience to work effectively for children’s rights.”

Well, the World Bank lists “children and youth” as just one of 34 “major topic areas.” Moreover, the interpretation and practical value of “Children’s Rights” is still controversial – the World Bank did not even mention the concept in its exhaustive 2007 World Development Report on “Development and the Next Generation.”

Who is CRIN? It started as an alliance between Save the Children (particularly UK and Sweden branches) and UNICEF in 1991, and that’s pretty much what it remains today. Were the leaders of Save the Children completely indifferent to the large expansion that Save the Children would enjoy if Children’s Rights moved to the “top of the global agenda,” thanks to choosing the right people for 11 major positions? I think Save the Children really does care about poor children, but they could conceivably have less pristine motives. That’s not cynicism, that’s political economy.