Foreign aid ‘buys influence’ in the US

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The Norwegian government has been sending large amounts of money earmarked for foreign aid to several US organizations commonly known as “think tanks.” Some of the money was passed on to foreign aid projects in developing countries, but opposition politicians and the foreign ministry itself claim the Norwegian funding also is meant to buy influence in Washington.

Newspaper Aftenposten reported on Wednesday that around NOK 250 million (USD 43 million) from the ministry’s foreign aid (bistand) budget was sent to some 40 organizations in the US in 2011 alone. About half of it, according to a confidential state report obtained by Aftenposten, was sent further to developing countries, but the rest stayed with organizations including The Brookings Institution and the Center for American Progress.

Long list of influential recipients
Aftenposten reported that the internal document, which had been withdrawn from the public domain, was ordered by the ministry and written last year by the Norwegian Peace Building Resource Center, which was established as an independent organization by the ministry itself in 2008. Its report offers an overview of how the Norwegian government is trying to buy influence among US organizations that in turn can influence US policy in Washington. The organizations mostly conduct research, foreign aid projects of their own and environmental protection.

The Brookings Institution, a long-established think tank that aims to strengthen American democracy along with economic and social welfare, received NOK 10 million over a three-year period for studies on changes in the balance of international influence. The New America Foundation received NOK 580,000 to study regional dimensions in the conflict Afghanistan, including relations with Iran. The Center for American Progress, a major think tank for the Democratic Party, received NOK 1.3 million to look at fairness in the workplace. The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, meanwhile, received NOK 3.5 million in 2010 for peace research in Latin America.

The list goes on, with the resource center’s report noting that only the governments of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have given more money to the various organizations in the US, according to Aftenposten.

Yields ‘an important platform’
“This has to do with foreign aid funding and its use is regulated,” Kjetil Elsebutangen, spokesman for Norway’s foreign ministry, told Aftenposten. He confirmed the amounts and identities of the American organizations listed, and defended the practice of sending foreign aid funding to them.

“As the report points out, the overall contribution gives Norway an important platform in American research circles,” Elsebutangen said, adding that the organizations “produce knowledge and recommendations that often are used in American policy and make great breakthroughs internationally.”

The projects that are funded also create “important meeting places with American and other countries’ decision makers,” Elsebutangen said.

The money sent to the US organizations accounts for a fairly small percentage of Norway’s foreign aid budget, which amounted to NOK 27 billion last year. The five largest recipients of Norwegian foreign aid in 2011 were, according to the most recent figures available, Afghanistan, Tanzania, Palestine, Somalia and Mozambique. The money sent to the mostly Washington-based organizations, though, sparked criticism from opposition parties in parliament.

Critics bash secrecy and scope
Peter Gitmark, foreign aid spokesman for Norway’s Conservative Party, said he has nothing against the various US organizations or their goals, but he harshly criticized the “secrecy” around the funding and claimed he couldn’t find the allotments in the state budget. He also believes the money is spread among so many organizations that it may be spread too thin. It would be better, Gitmark thinks, to concentrate funding on fewer, more carefully chosen institutions.

Kjell Arvid Svendsen of the small Christian Democrats party, which may wind up in a new Conservative-led non-socialist government coalition after the fall elections, claimed that foreign aid funds should “go to real foreign aid,” adding that his party would be “very careful” to monitor other use of the money.

“Norway is using its foreign aid budget to buy American political influence,” Gitmark told Aftenposten. “It would be better and cheaper to use Norwegian political influence and friendship on the other side of the Atlantic.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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