The Bezos Earth Fund has clearly been generous in absolute terms. On November 16 Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced via Instagram the fund’s first set of disbursements to environmental organizations, totalling $791 million. These grants have roused some controversy. One criticism is that, while large, they don’t outweigh Amazon’s harms to the environment and workers’ rights. Another critique is that they focus on US megacharities that are already well funded, rather than grassroots organizations representing people who are more heavily affected by climate change.
One of the charities that have benefited most from the Bezos Earth Fund’s initial disbursements, WWF, has been entangled in allegations of human rights violations. For years, there have been reports of WWF funding anti-poaching guards who were abusing their positions in violent ways. As smaller NGOs like Survival International had long argued, WWF was putting the interests of wildlife ahead of humans.
But these reports exploded into prominence in 2019, when Katie J.M. Baker and Tom Warren of BuzzFeed News and Tsering D Gurung of the Kathmandu Post published searing articles about alleged torture, rape, and even murder committed by rangers working on WWF-funded conservation projects. In general, heavy-handed policing of low-level poachers doesn’t accomplish much. But the tactics of those funded by WWF were themselves criminal.
WWF appointed a panel to investigate; this panel’s report was finally published on November 17, and publicized the following week. This came after the first Bezos Earth Fund recipients were announced. In other words, the fund decided to grant $100 million to an organization under active investigation for possible links to murder.
The panel’s report didn’t find that WWF staff were directly involved in any of the atrocities. But it did conclude that while the organization had good intentions regarding human rights, in practice it had weaknesses. WWF’s complicated globe-spanning structure led to a lack of consistency and oversight. In some cases staff members knew and expressed concern about the allegations, but these concerns were ultimately dismissed or whitewashed.
WWF has announced plans to strengthen its commitment to human rights, including an ombudsperson’s role. A WWF spokesperson commented for this article, “All of WWF’s work on the ground, including the projects supported by the Bezos Earth Fund’s grant, are subject to our environmental and social safeguards framework, which includes implementation and monitoring for the protection of human rights.”
Regarding the investigation into the allegations, they stated, “As outlined in our response to the recently-concluded independent review led by former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Judge Navi Pillay, human rights and conservation are at the heart of sustainable development, and we are committed to integrating both in our work.”
But again, this review was published following the Bezos Earth Fund announcement. “It indicates that a single donor (Bezos Earth Found) is willing to donate to an NGO (WWF) regardless of its human rights record,” comments Domenico Carolei, a law lecturer at the University of Stirling in Scotland, who focuses on human rights law and civil society.
And the history of scandals affecting NGOs suggests that voluntary self-policing may not be enough to prevent future abuses. There’s a lack of legally enforceable ways to keep these organizations accountable. Carolei notes, “In this legal vacuum, donor’s accountability is a precious tool to ensure human rights compliance…Informal means of accountability vary and include, for example, human rights campaigns, media pressure or donors’ blacklists.”
Public furor can lead to donor hesitation, as in WWF’s case. For instance, a US Deputy Secretary of the Interior memo from September revealed the suspension of funds totalling $12.3 million to multiple conservation NGOs, including WWF. But these kinds of amounts are dwarfed by the $100 million that WWF was eventually granted by the Bezos Earth Fund; $100 million represents almost a third of WWF’s annual revenue. So there may be limited incentive for NGOs to reform if they keep being rewarded, despite people being killed or assaulted on their dime.
WWF clearly does important work, employs dedicated staff, and enjoys the support of many well-intentioned people. But such support should leave room for questions. It should also be transparent. (Amazon did not respond to a request for comment, and the Bezos Earth Fund has not disclosed details of what human rights conditions, if any, it imposes on its grant decisions.)
As Carolei warns, “There is good philanthropy and bad philanthropy; there are good NGOs and bad NGOs in the same way that there are good corporations and bad corporations.”