Sunday, February 24, 2008

Short review of Stephen Hopgood's Keepers of the Flame: Understanding Amnesty International

I was asked recently to review Stephen Hopgood's Keepers of the Flame: Understanding Amnesty International for an academic journal.  The journal review must necessarily be a capsule, around 750 words.  So I thought I would post up here my original 1600 word draft, before it gets cut down to size and the more biting stuff toned down (by me, by the way). 

There are a couple of things I did not address in this draft review, knowing that the final product is 750 words.  One is the embrace by AI of a sort of multiculti-anti-imperialism ideology.  Another, following on the first, is AI's embrace of often crude anti-Israel biases that have led to what can only be called factual errors in its reporting and beyond-dubious legal standards and international law interpretations.  A third, finally, is the unsurprising inability of the organization to mediate the contradictions between its gender, gay, and other progressive Western agendas and its pro-Muslim sensitivities; try as it might to ignore them, the contradictions result in considerable, um, cognitive dissonance.  At best.  Then there is AI's anti-Americanism, on which I commented in the Weekly Standard piece footnoted below.  One might as well add just how helpful all the above are to fundraising.

This is still first draft, not cleaned up, and I might well make some copy editing changes in the text below.  The Hopgood book is excellent, strongly recommended for anyone trying to understand the cultural inside of a leading organization of what is sometimes called - though not by me! - 'global civil society'.


Keepers of the Flame:

Understanding Amnesty International

Stephen Hopgood

(Ithaca NY: Cornell UP, 249 pp., paper, 2006)

ISBN: 978-0-8014-7251-0

The opacity of international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), their closetedness and disdain for opening up even a small window into their internal workings, and more broadly their lack of accountability, is remarkable considering how much of their activity is devoted to getting other kinds of organizations to do precisely what they won’t. The environment, human rights, development, gender, labor, it does not really matter what – the most powerful global civil society groups (and the foundations that fund them) display haughty aversion to the transparency and accountability that they demand of government, business, international organizations and, really, everyone else.

The international NGO sector, taken as a whole, controls large resources (even leaving aside the development organizations that act as outsourcers of government funds). Greenpeace, for example, has had a peak annual budget exceeding a hundred million dollars. Oxfam, too, is also financially considerable.  NGOs have an enormous economic and political footprint in the developing world especially; their leverageable moral capital even larger than their financial capital. Yet getting concrete information (even routine financial data of the kind every public corporation must publish quarterly) is cantankerous at best. Getting truly inside NGOs, inside the culture, the habits of thinking and decisionmaking, is, in many instances, simply impossible.

For these reasons, Stephen Hopgood’s quasi-historical, quasi-anthropological, quasi-organizational account of governance, decision-making, values, power, organization, staffing, and control of Amnesty International is an important, fascinating study of one of the leadership organizations of global civil society. Hopgood traces the development of the organization as a history of its internal arguments and fights over its fundamental mission and mandate, beginning with its origins in 1961 with a British lawyer, Peter Benenson, and his mission – one squarely in the grand tradition of British social reformers that includes the Utilitarian Bentham and the Evangelical Wilberforce – to document and advocate on behalf of “prisoners of conscience.” One dimension of the book is the history of the organization. But a second dimension, much more important, is a compelling and closely observed walk through the fundamental and sometimes contradictory mission questions that AI has faced over its approximately fifty years of existence.

What are those mission issues? Perhaps the most vexed is the question of how wide AI’s human rights mandate should reach. And, by implication, how much should AI interpret and understand “human rights” to be simply an ever lengthening laundry list of progressive social demands? Hopgood begins his account with a revealing incident from 2003 when many members of the secretariat staff signed an open letter to AI general secretary Irene Kahn and her senior staff calling on them to maintain, and indeed refocus, the mission of AI onto something much closer to its original mandate. It appears to have had little impact on the internal trajectory of AI’s mission. Ironically, in fact, if there is anything that has pushed AI (and also HRW) back towards its original mandate, at least temporarily and partially, it is the post-9/11 US detention facility at Guantanamo, and the arguments over torture and coercive interrogations and renditions that have accompanied it. Activities about which AI, under Kahn, seems to have been become somewhat – well, how to put it? of course, torture is bad, but we have all these other new activities concerning development and anti-imperialism and what-not that are just so exciting – when they occurred in the usual benighted places, suddenly become front burner issues when the US is involved. Hence AI’s controversial invocation of Guantanamo in its 2005 annual report as “an American gulag” – although, thoroughly in keeping with the “new” AI public relations, that particular charge appears only in the press release and executive summary to the press, and is nowhere argued for in the actual body of the report.[1]

The original 1960s AI brief was, well, brief – to see to prisoners of conscience, those imprisoned on political grounds rather than ordinary criminal grounds in the liberal sense, oppose torture and the death penalty. It gradually expanded to cover the political human rights found, particularly, in the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) that came with the founding of the UN. A liberal understanding of these rights lent themselves to a certain prioritization – core rights that could be understood on Kantian, categorical terms. No tradeoffs accepted regarding torture, for example; categorical, admitting of no exceptions. Yet the difficulties were present from the beginning, given that the ICCPR was accompanied by the International Convention on Economic and Social Rights, and by the enunciation within both the United Nations and many declarations and documents of positive international law that aspirational economic rights – ones requiring resources, economic growth and, yes, tradeoffs – were as much “human rights” as anything else. The core human rights NGOs – AI and Human Rights Watch (HRW) – resisted for a long time. But gradually, with varying degrees of actual commitment, they concluded that the juridical status of those rights in international law prevented them from prioritizing them over civil and political rights; the most they could do, as HRW has long done, is plead rather weakly that organizationally, they are not very efficient at what we might call “tradeoff” rather than “Kantian-trump” human rights.

Hopgood shows how AI gradually has come to embrace the entire economic, social, and cultural canon of left-progressivism, preaching it as though it were required by the Categorical Imperative rather than simply being one politically contestable vision of the good even within an impeccably liberal paradigm. As a practical political matter, it especially moved this way because of the fact that, unlike most other leading international NGOs, its constituent national chapters are membership organizations. Members, voting members. One practically has to have worked in NGOs to understand just what it means to have an organization whose board of directors is not self-appointing and self-perpetuating, from the top down.

On the one hand, it means an organization that has accountability to its members for the positions it takes, and in that special sense, democracy. But that democratic accountability is entirely internal. It is not accountable to anyone outside the organization – which, in the case of demands for how development budgets should be spent, the economic tradeoffs involved in poor and developing countries facing AIDS, environmental problems, malaria, girls’ education, is far from a minor thing. On the other hand, non-membership organizations, the self-appointing board-controlled organizations, have advantages in ideological coherency (as exemplified by HRW), top-down governance not swayed by the diffuse political desires of a voting membership. HRW, to be sure, has followed the shifting winds of liberal internationalism, gradually converting its mandate from international liberalism to international multiculturalism, but by comparison to AI, it remains much more willing to say that not everything that is good is a matter of rights.

Hopgood is best – superb, even – on the internal culture of AI, and the secretariat in London especially. Anyone (this reviewer included) who has had dealings with the culture of AI on the inside will immediately recognize the enormous pressures of an organization that is both a big business, a professional commitment, but also what amounts to a religious vocation with all the intensity that entails. Burnout is common and even expected; even so, Hopgood’s interviews on the subject are startling. So is the sense that the world devolves into the space within AI itself. It is a place of religious fervor, but also of people who finally have no other place to go even if they wanted to, and few job skills deployable outside of AI itself; a place of many theological disputes over mandates and ideological categories, but at the same time, because of the democratizing pressures of the membership, a place prone to sometimes humiliating mistakes. Its embarrassing factually flawed reporting on Guatemala a few years ago, for example, or its general lack of sophistication (even by the standards of broadly sympathetic fellow organizations, HRW and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)), in matters of the laws of armed conflict – for an organization that pioneered human rights professionalism, it can sometimes remain remarkably amateur. Moreover, relations between the secretariat and wealthy and powerful national organizations such as AIUSA can be tense.

Finally, however, Keepers of the Flame documents (yet without entirely recognizing it) the ways in which an organization can exhaust the mobilizing discourse of rights. “Rights” in AI’s usage, in the relentless broadening of categories that Hopgood reveals chapter by chapter, perversely lose their sanctity, luster and status as trumps, and simultaneously their ability to mobilize, precisely because they become merely the language for describing every fashionable political desire. It has been a long time since AI was regarded by serious political actors as anything other than a political advocacy group, a long time since it was regarded as standing above ordinary politics in the way that, for example, the ICRC has carefully continued to do, even in its nastiest confrontations with the US. And yet AI, blinded by its own rhetoric, will likely never recognize the damage it has done to the language of rights in pursuit of its promiscuous political agendas. As Michael Walzer once put it, in a passage Hopgood might fruitfully have made his own, the “effort to produce a complete account of justice or a defense of equality by multiplying rights soon makes a farce of what it multiplies. To say of whatever we think people ought to have that they have a right to have it is not to say very much.”[2]

[1] I have written critically of AI in this regard; see Kenneth Anderson, “An American Gulag? Human Rights Groups Test the Limits of Moral Equivalency,” The Weekly Standard, Vol. 10, No. 37, June 13, 2005, available at SSRN at

[2] Michael Walzer, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality (NY: Basic Books 1983), p. xv.


smitty1e said...

Thanks for this.
I have to write an independent study paper on, which is to include more government and NGO interactions than AFRICOM's siblings, with respect to Rules of Engagement. Dunno what role AI has in Africa, but this book may be of interest.

Jane said...

Thank you for another brilliant piece. Am a longtime fan of your work, from your TLS reviews to your blog posts.

You highlight many important points: the way AI (and HRW) treat their staff as a cheap disposable resource; the dilution of rights' trump power when more and more political objectives are dissolved into rights discourse; the way that sloppy and reckless, Village-Voice style rhetoric undermines AI's Guantanamo report, and probably other reports; the lack of transparency and accountability in NGOs; the large economic footprint left by NGOs, especially in poor nations.

One thing I am curious about is the sense of scale that you bring to your (quite accurate, I think) critique of left-of-center, international NGOs. For instance, do you also view multinational corporations as having the same problems you see in international NGOs? Just as NGOs are either completely opaque in their decision making, or only "internally democratic", so it is with multinationals. And the economic footprint of MNCs is so much greater than that of the liberal NGOs! Greenpeace's peak annual budget of $100mn is a lot of money but still only a small fraction (1/45) of the annual revenue of Chiquita Brands Int'l, an organization which only barely makes it into the Fortune 500 at #488. I would imagine that in most nations the role of MNCs in dispensing capital simply dwarfs that of the NGOs--though there are no doubt exceptions to this, such as Sierra Leone, and what, maybe Bangladesh? Anyway, is it too facile a point to say that the influence wielded by MNCs in poor nations might be commensurate to the capital they dispense, especially as compared to the influence wielded by NGOs? I'm guessing this is so.

And I suppose one could also extend the critique of leftish NGOs to established religious organizations, from the United Methodists to the Wahabbi Moslems to the Catholics to evangelical churches etc. To whom are these influential, and activist, organizations accountable? They too have large annual budgets, own property, spend a lot of money and influence government policy.

I bring these up because I have read a few very cogent critical analyses of NGOs which seem to stop short of subjecting other not-governmental organizations (such as MNCs and religious groups) to the same standards--and I don't know why that is. How and why would these other types of not-governmental organizations be more legitimate than the left-of-center NGOs?

No doubt the above is hardly an original observation, but if you know of any literature that addresses this question of scale and proportion in critiques of NGOs and could point me towards it, I'd be very grateful. And thanks again for your consistently excellent blog-- JR

Mey Kandal said...

This was a very refreshing review.

Having worked for INGOs and also stood witness to their antics on the ground in Third World countries, I have noted the huge discrepancy between their haughty moral exhortions and the distinct lack of moral integrity in actual working practice - in particular how such organisations will sacrifice the physical safety of their own local fieldworkers (at times failing to publicise those workers 'disappearance' by repressive security forces) just so that the organisation can keep its prestige and power.

So it is good to read some dissenting opinion that acknowledges the very dishonest role organisations like Amnesty International play in the international arena.

As you say, such organizations are opaque, they refuse any kind of accountability, especially to the very populations they are meant to be 'helping'. If you are a victim of human rights you have no voice at all...organisations like Amnesty International take what little voice you have away, they appropriate it, and put their own voice in its place. Their voice does not emerge out of personal experiences of suffering injustice, but instead is fashioned in the corridors of power and prestige (however much they want to whine that they don't get enough power or enough prestige), their voice is distilled and matured in exclusive Western governmental environments...not the mean streets of oppression. This is no doubt one of the biggest reasons for their opacity, closetedness and disdain for opening up even a small window into their internal workings, and more broadly their lack of accountability. They need to hide the fact that they do NOT speak for the oppressed of this world, and the wilfully refuse to allow the oppressed to speak for themselves.

They use their powerful connections, their prestige, their money and their '1st Worldness' to assert moral authority over the victims of human rights abuses, telling the victims they know better than them whose experiences should count and whose should not.

I met the field officer for UNICEF in one war torn country, who told me he could not accept the testimony of any of the ten thousand people who had been made refugees overnight when the army invaded their village...because they would not be considered 'impartial' witnesses. The army had wiped the village clean of human existence, killing anyone they got their hands on. The village remained like that, empty of any civilian life, for several years. I asked him who would be considered impartial - he told me that only himself or one of his senior officers - none of whom would go anywhere near the village for fear of their own safety. The atrocity was reported by UNICEF as civilians being caught in crossfire - even though no one fired back at the security forces. But for the civilians it was ethnic cleansing - they were the wrong race and that is why the military wanted to destroy them.

The UNICEF field officer refused to let me record his comments on camera...just like Amnesty International and all the other INGOs and IGOs, they are secretive and fail to report, or downright misrepresent people's suffering - and take away the people's voices while bolstering up their own authority as 'experts' on the situation.