decrypting a critique of NGOs

From time to time, I come across a really useful article that resonates strongly with my own experiences and observations. I forward it quickly to friends, but don’t have the time to point out the bits that rang true to me and those that I had questions about or did not understand. I suspect that that’s one reason I’ve stopped receiving much feedback from friends about these forwards – it’s a mode of communication that is not very conducive to dialogue. So, I’m going to try to do more posts along the lines of what I did with The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, highlighting and commenting sections of the text. Starting now with a rather long article about the role of NGOs by one of their harshest and most consistent critics, James Petras.

My main criticism is that Petras frequently employs somewhat abstract jargon that puts a distance between the subject matter and the reader and does not always show the links between the jargon and the evidence he cites. Perhaps, it’s a question of the audience he’s writing for, in which case, I guess they must be highly educated people with some significant experience of working in the Third World. Thinking of friends in Europe, I imagine that it would be very difficult for them to follow this paragraph:

Today most left movement and popular spokespeople focus their criticism on the IMF, World Bank, multi-national corporations, private banks, etc. who fix the macroeconomic agenda for the pillage of the Third World. This is an important task. However, the assault on the industrial base, independence and living standards of the Third World takes place on both the macro-economic and the micro-socio-political level. The egregious effects of structural adjustment policies on wages and salaried workers, peasants and small national businesspeople generates potential national popular discontent. And that is where the NGOs come into the picture to mystify and deflect that discontent away from direct attacks on the corporate/banking power structure and profits toward local micro-projects and apolitical “grass roots” self-exploitation and “popular education” that avoids class analysis of imperialism and capitalist exploitation.

Firstly, for many of them, it is not at all obvious that “the IMF, World Bank, multi-national corporations, private banks, etc. […] fix the macroeconomic agenda for the pillage of the Third World.” Then, never having lived in a Third World country, never having read the newspaper over the course of a fiscal year and seen the inflationary cycle in operation, along with the constant negotiating with the World Bank and IMF, the steady disappearance of locally produced industrial goods, more and more frequent shortages of wheat, rice and sugar, electricity and gas and the ever-decreasing access to clean water, they can have very little notion of all that this sentence implies: “The egregious effects of structural adjustment policies on wages and salaried workers, peasants and small national businesspeople generates potential national popular discontent [sic].” And of course, a salvo like this only serves to raise the hackles on the backs of ordinary, well-meaning Europeans, who trust and identify with long-established NGOs like Médecins Sans Frontières, the ICRC, Save the Children, CARE, TdH, GTZ, etc.:

And that is where the NGOs come into the picture to mystify and deflect that discontent away from direct attacks on the corporate/banking power structure and profits toward local micro-projects and apolitical “grass roots” self-exploitation and “popular education” that avoids class analysis of imperialism and capitalist exploitation.

What could be so bad about “popular education” they wonder? Why is it in quotes in the first place? And what could he possibly mean by “grass roots” self-exploitation??! And when will these old lefty gas-bags stop using ugly, hackneyed accusations like “imperialism” and “capitalist exploitation”. Even though most of the claims made in this paragraph are given substance later on in the article, I suspect that most of my friends would never even get there. I myself looked at the scroll bar at this point, thought to myself,  “interesting but long, forward and read the whole thing later on.” I doubt that my friends are significantly more disciplined than me in their casual reading habits, so it’s quite likely that they would end up not reading this article either. It’s just too bad, this older rhetorical style that’s starts with a whole bunch of hectoring that verges on sloganeering. In addition to delaying the point at which you get to the really interesting stuff, it puts people already inoculated to various degrees against leftist propaganda on their guard against whatever will follow. Which is a pity because there’s some real substance in here:

While analytically useless and obfuscating, the concept, “civil society” facilitates NGO collaboration with capitalist interests that finance their institutes and allows them to orient their projects and followers into subordinate relations with the big business interests that direct the neoliberal economies. In addition, not infrequently the NGOers’ civil society rhetoric is a ploy to attack comprehensive public programs and state institutions delivering social services. The NGOers side with big business’ “anti-statist” rhetoric (one in the name of “civil society” the other in the name of the “market”) to reallocate state resources. The capitalists’ “anti-Statism” is used to increase public funds to subsidize exports and financial bailouts, the NGOers try to grab a junior share via “subcontracts” to deliver inferior services to fewer recipients. Contrary to the NGOers’ self-image who see themselves as innovative grass roots leaders, they are in reality the grass root reactionaries who complement the work of the IMF by pushing privatization “from below” and demobilizing popular movements, thus undermining resistance.

This is one of the most important insights of this article: the common anti-state agenda of NGO’s and neo-liberal economics, and the neat division of labour between NGOs and international financial institutions (IFIs): NGOs undermine the state among the masses while the IFIs impose so-called “austerity” programmes that drastically reduce public spending on social services like education, health and support for the most vulnerable segments of the population.

In Pakistan, I have seen this in operation first hand in the critical health and education sectors. Quality has plummeted, whether in private or public institutions while the reach and capacity of the public schools and hospitals network has reduced and more and more people are left to fend for themselves.

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