Monday, March 20, 2006

Pulling the blinds on awareness work

In Copenhagen recently, the Danish Association for International Cooperation held a farewell party. The nongovernmental organization, known by its Danish-language acronym MS, had been forced, by a budget cut, to fire 30 staff members. Song sheets were distributed, someone having cleverly replaced the lyrics of well-known numbers, as is the practice at birthdays and anniversaries here; and accompanied by a piano, the guests, most of whom had worked together for decades, sang nostalgically and triumphantly of the projects they had accomplished together. Speeches were made, and one of these ended in a rather bitter challenge to Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the prime minister.

MS was founded in 1944 by individuals and organizations that had anticipated both the close of World War II and the amount of reconstruction that was to follow. Accordingly it sent out young people on a volunteer basis to work camps around Europe, which also provided an opportunity for these youths to travel and socialize. Its efforts were initially concentrated in Europe, but as the 1950s drew to a close and many former colonies around the world began to declare their independence, the NGO decided to participate in development work in these places. Eventually it began to send out volunteers, which sounds a lot like the American Peace Corps, but in the Danes’ case they have finished an education and have at least a couple of years experience in their field of expertise. Also they did not initiate projects of their own but sent out people to augment the staff of already existing projects in the countries being aided. Through the decades, MS was funded by private contributions and by an outlay from the Danish foreign ministry.

The NGO came to have four distinct departments. One for the volunteers, one for youth work camps, a third concerned with immigration and refugee issues. A fourth department was devoted to information—because of the nature of its functions, MS had become the most important supplier in Denmark of information regarding the developing countries. In practice, 1 percent of the budget for development aid was allocated for this kind of awareness work and available for any interested entity.

In August last year, following general reductions in the budget for NGOs working in developing countries, the Danish foreign ministry decided to cut that one percent substantially. MS was the immediate victim of this action: it was obvious that its library would have to close, as would its publishing arm, and staff would have to be laid off. This put an end to an important means by which Danish citizens could gain familiarity with living conditions in developing countries. MS, on its website, made an editorial comment to the effect that this would make Danes “more ignorant.”

“The government talks a lot about globalization and the challenges Denmark is facing—challenges that require insight and engagement in complex international questions. But now the same politicians intend to take away Danish citizens means of understanding the living conditions in poor countries,” the MS secretary-general said in an interview last year.

Interestingly, this country guarantees the freedom to form associations without the encumbrance of registering with some government authority. Thus the proliferation of groups founded on ethnic identity, such as Babaylan, composed of Filipino women. But this freedom was curtailed to some extent recently—a news item on the radio informed us that the government had just been cosignatory of an international agreement requiring the registration of organizations in future, the stated purpose being the prevention of terrorist activities, regardless of ideology. This move is the latest in a series of actions since 9-11 that threaten individual freedoms.

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