And from his solar panel-equipped office, located in a warehouse 18 kilometers north of Beirut, he’s carrying out a crusade against the European Commission, which he says is “controlled by multinationals.”
As the manager of the Isvara Foundation, an important source of funding for some of the loudest critics in Brussels, the publicity-shy Jallad, who is 67, is seeking to turn his antipathy toward genetically modified crops, corporate influence and greenhouse-gas emissions into EU policy — and succeeding.
The foundation, established in 2007, is the largest funder of Corporate Europe Observatory, a 20-year- old Brussels-based advocacy group, dedicated to “rolling back corporate power and exposing greenwash.” The observatory is widely credited with helping to derail the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, the proposed free-trade deal between the EU and the U.S.
Isvara has also provided backing to Friends of the Earth Europe and the Transnational Institute, two other influential activist groups that have played central roles in pushing through pesticide bans and flagging what they describe as the undue influence of industry in Brussels.
Despite rarely setting foot in Brussels, Jallad has extensive familiarity with EU jargon and acronyms; and he keeps a close eye on legislative files involving chemicals and biodiversity.
“I believe in one world,” Jallad said in an interview when asked why a Lebanese businessman is interested in the EU’s legislative processes. “If there is more justice in Europe, it might spill over to the rest of the world.
In the line of fire
Foundations like Jallad’s are coming under increased scrutiny in Brussels, as the European Parliament casts a critical eye on where non-governmental organizations get their money.
On March 27, the Parliament’s budgetary control committee discussed a proposal put forward by German center-right MEP Markus Pieper calling for the EU to cut public funding for NGOs “demonstrably disseminating untruths” or campaigning for “objectives [that are] contrary to the fundamental values of the European Union.”
Even MEPs close to the NGO community are advocating for more transparency about funding.
“It’s legitimate to have sources of funding from rich individuals who have convictions, but it should be transparent,” said Green MEP Sven Giegold, who backed a proposal in the Parliament obliging NGOs, think tanks and trade associations on the EU’s transparency register to disclose who their donors are.
Among the most vocal critics of NGOs like Corporate Europe Observatory are corporate lobbyists, who accuse them of pushing narrow political ideologies, rather than the public interest they claim to represent.
“Most [NGOS] are open about who is funding their work,” said Marco Mensink, the director general of CEFIC, the chemical industry association and one of the biggest spenders on lobbying in Brussels. “Regrettably, some others don’t practice the transparency they preach or comply with the letter and spirit of EU transparency laws.”
Far from representing the will of the people, some NGOs distort the public debate “with dubious arguments, often fake figures and by fear-mongering tactics,” said Markus Beyrer, the director general of BusinessEurope, the bloc’s largest business lobby. This “raises broad questions over their democratic legitimacy and representativeness,” he added.
The foundations deny forcing their opinions on the organizations they support. “The core reason we fund groups is that we feel it helps strengthen the voice of civil society,” said Rogier van der Weerd, who works at the Netherlands-based Adessium Foundation. “It’s part of what protects the public interest in the whole system.”
Meanwhile, NGOs reject the suggestion there’s anything untoward in accepting funding from rich donors, arguing that their work is in the public interest — even if not all of the groups represent the public directly.
To Corporate Europe Observatory’s Olivier Hoedeman, a foundation’s goals are more important than the source of its funds. “The moment the money is put into a foundation with a particular set of progressive objectives that we can identify with, there’s no problem for us,” he said.
“We are part of overlapping networks with large membership-based civil society groups,” he added. Without backers like Isvara, he argued, the public would have even less of a voice in EU policymaking, opening it up to accusations that it is undemocratic and subject to corporate lobbying.
Short and soft-spoken, Jallad sat at a desk in his office, surrounded by plates of paper clips and post-it notes made from recycled paper. He wore a brown leather jacket and fielded questions with a smile. To him, he said, “killing people is less of a crime than chopping down trees” and exterminating birds.
When he is not working, or campaigning to introduce recycling in Lebanon — a lost cause, he says — Jallad spends his time reading esoteric literature.
The name of the Isvara Foundation derives from the Hindu word for Supreme Being or God. It is incorporated in Liechtenstein and managed by the Swiss banking giant UBS from Zurich, according to Jallad.
He declined to reveal the identity of his fellow donors — the foundation has five other members — and said only that they meet “informally” twice a year around the world, most recently in Athens. Isvara also does not disclose the sources of its money or the NGOs that it funds — something it has in common with many other foundations operating in Brussels.
By dint of geography and his predilection for privacy, Jallad is almost completely unknown in Brussels circles. There is no mention of him on Isvara’s website and little information about him online, aside from a few conspiratorial blog posts.
His love for feathered creatures is no secret to his employees. On the door of his office hangs a sticker of a finch calling for the protection of the species. He does not hide his mystic views either. “The truth is behind our physical body,” he said, when asked about his drive to save the planet and help others. “There is a common soul that unites people and explains empathy.”
His firm, the Jallad Group, has had the concession to sell Caterpillar products since 1929. Jallad, who comes from Lebanon’s wealthy Muslim business elite, joined the family company in 1967 after studying engineering in the United States.
The Green MEP Giegold met him at a gathering of funders of NGOs in Brussels in 2012 and described him as “a very calm, reflective person … who has clear convictions without being radical in the way he expressed them.”
Corporate Earth Observatory’s Hoedeman, who has met Jallad several times, said he found him to be “a very progressive guy.” Isvara began funding the NGO in 2007 after Jallad hit it off with Hoedeman, “at my sister’s place in London,” Jallad said.
The lack of information about Isvara has dissuaded the EU branch of Transparency International from applying for grants. “We considered approaching Isvara for funding but, after a fairly quick internet search decided against it, due to the limited public information about the organization,” said Carl Dolan, the director of Transparency’s Brussels office.
Asked about the reason for the secrecy, Jallad replied: “We are not here to make publicity. We are here to help. What unites us is the concern for the environment and for human rights.”
The foundation, Jallad said, picks which groups to fund by analyzing their proposals and requires that grantees submit yearly progress reports. Its mission: “To halt the unsustainable and socially destructive neo-liberal policies that characterize the currently dominant process of corporate-led globalization,” according to the foundation’s website.
The Commission is one of the foundation’s main targets, because it is “very controlled by the multinationals,” according to Jallad. As an example, he pointed to the weak implementation of the REACH chemical regulation, a law governing the use of chemicals introduced in 2006. “There is corruption with big business. It’s all pre-set by business.”
Because not all NGOs disclose the sources of their funding, it is difficult to quantify Isvara’s relative influence in Brussels.
Since its creation, the foundation has donated at least €2.9 million to NGOs and advocacy groups, according to the recipients’ annual reports and accounts. The main beneficiary so far has been Corporate Europe Observatory, which was granted €1.7 million, a third of its total budget since 2007.
The foundation has also given almost €1 million to Friends of the Earth Europe and around €135,000 to the Transnational Institute. It also gave £80,000 to the campaign group Spinwatch, which has “led the campaign for greater transparency in lobbying in the U.K.” since 2007.
The Transnational Institute, which isn’t currently receiving funds from Isvara, said in a statement that it “works to avoid grants that could result in funders unduly influencing our work or steering us away from our core work,” adding that it “[aims] to work with a variety of funding sources to avoid becoming overly dependent on any one funder.”
Jallad said he has also backed international NGOs like Survival International, Oxfam and Action Aid, and that he once sat on a board for Greenpeace. “Lebanon, now covered with concrete, used to be covered in trees,” he said. “If you don’t have trees and birds you don’t have nature. We should preserve nature and burn less fuel.”
“I do all this for no return but also because I believe I am nothing,” said Jallad, who meditates twice daily, “I am a truth seeker and also a businessman trying to understand where we come from.”
In Lebanon, he says, his company funds literacy programs for the poor and provides legal counsel to those unable to afford a lawyer.
Jallad is not active in politics. “People who are honest don’t go into politics because it’s dirty and it’s full of crooks,” he said. But he allowed that he admires Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in Britain and the U.S. Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders.
“I am not a socialist but I don’t think business should rule the world,” he said.
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WHO’S FUNDING WHOM?
Many NGOs in Brussels receive a combination of funding from the European Commission, membership fees, national governments and private foundations. The relationships illustrated below are based on information provided on the websites of the listed NGOs about funding sources in recent years. The list of foundations is not exhaustive.
* Funds behind the ECF: Thirteen foundations give money to the ECF, including the Tellus Mater Foundation, the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, the ClimateWorks Foundation (made up of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and others), the Good Energies Foundation, the Growald Family Fund, the Oak Foundation, the KR Foundation, the William + Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Grantham Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the McCall MacBain Foundation, SITRA and Stiftung Mercator.
Author: Giulia Paravicini and Harry Cooper