International Tibet NGOs – Generous friends of Tibet or a Trojan Horse of Imperialism?

Design 01 We can do it CMYK + logo - web edit.jpgImage: Poster as found under the “shopping” section on the “Free Tibet” NGO website. The NGO is based in London, England. The image – a Tibetan version of Rosie the Riveter is revealing. Rosie the Riveter is a cultural icon of the United States certainly not of Tibet. 



November 20, 2012

By Adele Wilde-Blavatsky


Any attempt to “soften” the power of the oppressor in deference to the weakness of the oppressed almost always manifests itself in the form of false generosity….True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nourish false charity.
Paulo Freire, ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’

‘There is an obvious advantage for Tibetans to be articulating the defence of their occupied homeland, and it is a matter of eternal regret that no charismatic and internationally-respected figure has achieved that role in the last couple of generations (though, personally, I live in hope).’

Stephen Corry, Board member of Free Tibet

Two hundred people from forty-three countries gathered in Dharamsala last weekend for the Second Special International Tibet Support Group meeting, the financial cost of which is not publicly known. The meeting was convened by the Core Group for Tibetan Cause-India and facilitated by the Department of Information and International Relations of the Central Tibetan Administration. In a press release, the CTA said the meeting will “explore ways to strengthen support of the international community to press the Chinese government to end its repressive policies that are pushing an increasing number of Tibetans to burn themselves to death in protest.” One can only hope, at such a crucial and agonising time for Tibetans, that this meeting will prove ‘symbolic’ in terms of showing solidarity with Tibetans in Tibet but also produce something that is substantively meaningful and not become yet another international networking and social event, where press releases and noble statements take precedence over genuine action and initiative. Even the Dalai Lama urged delegates to ‘take action’. However, as I argue in this essay, the role and activities of international NGOs need to be called into question; and had Tibet’s elected political leader, Lobsang Sangay and the Tibetan politicians in exile worked and made radical political and social linkages with the people who are driving the unprecedented protest movement in Tibet, there would be much less need for such support groups at all.

NGO careerism and funding-dependency

At the time of writing, I was unable to confirm whether or not the London NGO Free Tibet attended the meeting. The quote cited above was given in an email response from Free Tibet Board member, Stephen Corry, to serious concerns made by former staff members regarding the lack of Tibetan voices within the Free Tibet organisation. Although there may be some truth to his statement, sadly, Mr Corry uttered this in relation to concerns about the absence of Tibetan voices in Free Tibet, which he insultingly equated with “whinging about not being given jobs”.

I worked for almost one year at Free Tibet and during that short period of time I was shocked by what I discovered there. Prior to that, I had been under the illusion (as most other Free Tibet supporters no doubt are) that an NGO like Free Tibet is staffed by Tibetans or Tibet supporters who have genuine passion, expertise and experience in relation to Tibetans and the Tibet movement. However, the majority of staff at Free Tibet were non-Tibetan NGO careerists, with little to zero prior connection or expertise on the Tibetan movement, culture, language or religion. There were not even any Tibetan volunteers or a HR policy of actively recruiting Tibetan volunteers in order to develop them into staff positions (Burma Campaign UK have such a policy). This lack of authentic expertise or genuine accountability to Tibetans revealed itself in particular at staff meetings when it became obvious that hardly anyone was interested in the Tibet movement outside of their working hours, even to the extent that staff had to be persuaded to attend Tibet protests in London on the promise of being able to take it off as time in lieu.

In fact, I was so disheartened by the situation, I wrote a letter of complaint to both the Director of Free Tibet and their Board members. My concerns were also backed up by an independent complaint from a former volunteer. Our concerns fell on deaf ears and swiftly dismissed without serious, independent investigation. As a result, on leaving Free Tibet in March 2012, I wrote a public expose about the organisation. This was done despite warnings from within the Tibet UK movement not to do so, for fear of causing disunity. Since writing this expose – although I received some private messages of support and gratitude from former long-term staff members of Free Tibet and Tibetan activists in exile – there has been no public reaction from Tibet’s political leader, Lobsang Sangay, the CTA or the Tibetan community in exile.

What is at stake here is not only the lack of Tibetan voices and financial accountability in such international NGOs, but the political issues that arise from the monopolising and funding of the Tibetan cause by such groups, particularly those staffed and led by western non-Tibetans. As Stephen Corry’s email revealed, it appears that some non-Tibetan led groups think they are doing Tibetans a service with their ‘generosity’ and leadership, and that without such help or aid the Tibetan cause would flounder and collapse. Tibetan intellectual Jamyang Norbu alluded to this issue in Seeking the Power of the Powerless: