Looking Beyond the NGO Halo Effect

The problem with this phenomenon, known as the “halo effect,” is that it is often a façade, and readily exploited.
August 26, 2022
Francesco Scatena/Getty Images

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), also known as “civil society,” have a widely accepted reputation for morality, honesty and political neutrality. In the realms of human rights, international aid, disaster relief or climate change, the leaders of these NGOs are portrayed as volunteers who are motivated by idealism and universal values, rather than seeking personal gain and political power.

However, the problem with this phenomenon, known as the “halo effect,” is that it is often a façade, and readily exploited. For many years, for instance, Amnesty International got away with bogus “reports” claiming to document war crimes and other egregious violations, until it was finally caught with false accusations regarding Ukraine’s response to Russia’s aggression. As should have been clear long ago, a number of Amnesty officials promote a biased personal political agenda under the cover of universal human rights.

Another important example is the case of the extensive Palestinian NGO network. Recently, headlines around the world declared that “Israel raids Palestinian rights groups it labeled terrorists.” The pictures and text invariably presented the leaders of these organizations as selfless campaigners for human rights, and unfairly targeted by Israel.

In these accounts, the considerable evidence of hard-core terror involvement, including the murder of young civilians, is omitted. The details trace the history of these organizations as fronts for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) terror group, a Marxist organization well known for airline hijacking and banned from operating in the US, UK, European Union and elsewhere. This is one of the main motivations for creating the NGO façade and running terror operations from behind the curtain.

The omitted evidence begins with open-source information showing that 70 individuals occupy dual positions in NGOs and the PFLP, and there are probably more. A publicly available video depicts numerous officials from these NGOs attending a PFLP event. Either the chorus of diplomats and officials who came to the defense of the Palestinian NGOs didn’t bother to check this widely available report, or they decided to ignore it.

Furthermore, at least one of the NGO network’s main European government funders conducted investigations, following demands from Members of Parliament who did their due diligence. In July 2020, the Dutch government froze funding for the Union of Agricultural Work Committees (UAWC) after an internal investigation confirmed that Dutch funds were used to pay the salaries of two UAWC employees accused of the murder of the Israeli teenager, Rina Schnerb, in August 2019. A second investigation, by an independent firm, concluded that no fewer than 34 UAWC employees and board members occupied dual positions both within the NGO and the PFLP. Crucially, these findings were based solely on publicly accessible information, not classified intelligence. But none of these details make it into the media accounts—the NGO halo effect cannot handle facts.

There are many more details on arrests, trials, plea bargains and convictions of officials from other members of the PFLP’s NGO network. For example, Khalida Jarrar, from Addameer, was arrested in October 2019 for “involvement in terror activity.” On December 18, 2019, Israel’s Security Agency announced that Jarrar had “emerged as the head of the PFLP in the West Bank and responsible for all the organization’s activities.” Another instance is Bisan’s Executive Director, Ubai Aboudi, arrested in 2019 for recruiting members to the PFLP. And there are many more examples. Serious investigations by journalists and donor government officials would show that instead of the “no evidence of terror” mantra, the PFLP cleverly exploited the NGO halo effect to build and operate this network.

Another reason for omitting the evidence is the power of the NGO industry, in total contrast to the idealized image of small voluntary and altruistic groups. The officials are highly skilled in working the system and getting funds from sympathetic government officials in return for political services (the term “non-governmental” is another myth.) In the last decade, Western governments funneled more than $220 million for the PFLP-linked NGO network alone. This money buys an expensive entourage of spin-masters and propaganda experts that use the halo effect to protect their PFLP NGO clients.

The evidence of extensive terror links to these NGOs is too blatant to be erased or hidden. In contrast, there are hundreds of other Palestinian and global organizations that actually provide aid and promote universal principles without ties to terror. As more details become available, government officials who decide on funding and fail to examine these crucial details will be pressed to account for their actions by members of parliament and journalists who go beyond the myths. At least for this part of the NGO industry, the halo effect is fading fast.

Gerald M. Steinberg heads NGO Monitor and is emeritus professor of political science at Bar Ilan University.

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