Publicly-funded NGOs are spending OUR money to lobby OUR public representatives. OK?

19 November, 2009

James Joyce wrote about Ireland being the old sow that ate her farrow.  The late John Kelly T.D. memorably said that the position had been reversed and the Irish State had become like a sow “lying, panting, exhausted by her own weight and being rent by a farrow of cannibal piglets”.

 How true that seems now, with our massive Government spending deficit, and the raucous clamour from every sectional interest demanding that they be spared the coming cuts in Minister Lenihan’s budget.

His simile seems all the more appropriate when one looks at one particular section of the scrum of lobbyists: those NGOs, quangos and charities who draw liberally on the public purse to support their activities (and in many cases their very existence), yet are now spending their money (which is partly or mainly OUR money) on expensive lobbying campaigns designed to influence our public representatives in their decision-making.  As if the Minister for Finance’s job isn’t hard enough, he has to put up with attacks from organisations he is helping to fund.

 For instance, the National Women’s Council of Ireland (NWCI) gets substantial funding from the taxpayer every year, and appears to use a good chunk of it telling the Government how it should spend the rest of the money it raises from hard-pressed taxpayers (either current ones or, through the medium of Government borrowing, future ones).

And Dublin now boasts several expensive billboards promoting a campaign to protect the size of the current State pension (“My Pension is my shopping, heating, independence.  My dignity. Act Now to Protect Basic Supports”), produced by an organisation called “Older & Bolder”.  I might forgive their patronising title if I didn’t suspect that part of my taxes is going towards funding them and, by extension, their self-serving campaign.  To quote from their website:

 Older & Bolder began when five NGOs came together in late 2006 to campaign for a commitment to the development of a national strategy on ageing..…. The current member organisations are: Active Retirement Ireland; Age & Opportunity; The Alzheimer Society of Ireland; The Carers Association; The Irish Hospice Foundation; The Irish Senior Citizens Parliament, and The Senior Help Line…..A key focus of our campaign is to defend the State Pension; An Board Snip Nua threatens a 5% cut in the contributory and non contributory pension….. Get together and lobby your local politician on the last weekend in November (27th to 29th)…..Find out where and when your local politician’s clinic is open…..You can find your local TD’s contact details on the Oireachtas web site…..Visit the clinic with members of your group.

 Now, I’m aware that the Carers Association gets state funding, that the Alzheimer Society of Ireland got a Health Board Grant of 9.2 million in 2007, and I suspect many of the other NGOs mentioned also receive money from the taxpayer.

When the Government hands out grants to such bodies on our behalf, surely it doesn’t intend that part of the money be used in lobbying the Government to get a bigger share of the national pie?  For in a situation where the national pie has shrunk alarmingly, looking for a standstill in funding for a particular cause is effectively to ask for an increased share of the available resources.

It’s all a bit reminiscent of what happened earlier in the decade, when Traveller-support organisations spend shedloads of money on billboards attacking Government policy, using money contributed by the same Government.  The then Justice Minister, Michael McDowell, rightly intervened to stop this nonsense.

Now I’m not saying that anybody who takes funding from the State must forfeit the right to comment on Government policy.  But surely commonsense and good manners would dictate that their lobbying be done in a straightforward, non-emotive, non-political manner.  Enormous billboards which directly address themselves to the Government are not the way to go; NGOs should instead direct their messages to the population at large, and let them be the influencers in framing Government policy.

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