The billionaire takeover of civil society

Wealthy ‘progressives’ are shaping political life through a dense web of interconnected NGOs.

As the founder and operator of a pro-democracy civil-society organisation, I’ve often been astounded at calls to give NGOs a greater say in rule-making, more visibility during negotiations and privileged access to decision-makers. Because I know what few people do – that small, member-driven, self-funded NGOs are relatively rare.

Instead, the kind of organisation that tends to drive the political agenda is generally billionaire (or at least multimillionaire) funded. The most well-known examples here are groups funded by conservatives like the Koch brothers and large companies like ExxonMobil. I had naively assumed that others criticised these organisations for the same reasons I did – because their actions undermined the principle of democratic equality by giving the impression that their ideas enjoyed far more backing than they did.

However, I stand corrected.

A few months ago, I suffered a rare relapse into naivety and decided that it was about time I got on to the NGO ‘funding’ gravy train. Apparently, floods of money were out there waiting for me in the democracy world. Meanwhile, for incomprehensible reasons, I was stubbornly insisting on behaving like some old-fashioned grandmother, cackling things like, ‘In my day, we used to go around with a tin can collecting for Amnesty International at Christmas! We met in the basement of a pub and everyone paid for their own beer!’

People were so baffled at this attitude that I began to doubt myself and look into how to get funding for projects in the democracy space. And because I thought it would be a good idea to be organised about it, I made a database.

That turned out to be a good idea, because it revealed the influence exerted by a wealthy few over civil society. To illustrate this, I am going to show how just a tiny fraction of a small slice of one funding network starts, but definitely does not end, with eBay billionaire Pierre Omidyar.

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