NGOs: In the service of imperialism?

Just re-stumbled upon an oldie but a goodie paper, “NGOs: In the service of imperialism,” that is purposefully provocative about the purpose and function of NGOs in the global development and economic landscape. James Petras is a somewhat eccentric Marxist and this paper is a scathing critique of NGO action, even purportedly “rights based,” liberal NGOs working to “mobilize civil society” in the name of democracy and rights.

Similar to Monika Krause’s view of “the good project” 1 and the commodification of projects and beneficiaries, Petras see’s NGOs as serving the function of preventing or co-opting true, locally-driven movements to apply political pressure to governments and the international actors to protect rights.

“NGOs emphasize projects not movements; they “mobilize” people to produce at the margins not to struggle to control the basic means of production and wealth; they focus on the technical financial assistance aspects of projects not on structural conditions that shape the everyday lives of people.”

He goes on:

“The formal claims used by NGO directors to justify their position  — that they
fight poverty, inequality, etc. are self-serving and specious. There is a direct relation between the growth of NGOs and the decline of living standards: the proliferation of NGOs has not reduced structural unemployment, massive displacements of peasants, nor provided liveable wage levels for the growing army of informal workers. What NGOs have done, is provided a thin stratum of professionals with income in hard currency to escape the ravages of the neo-liberal economy that affects their country, people and to climb in the existing social class structure.

“By talking about “civil society” NGOers obscure the profound class divisions, class exploitation and class struggle that polarizes contemporary “civil society.” While analytically useless and obfuscating, the concept, “civil society” facilitates NGO collaboration with capi- talist 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 rico- liberal 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.”

I tend to agree with him about the structure of power and forces that shape the NGO terrain and ultimately drive the practice of NGO managers and the programs they develop. I think (as I’ve written) that these forces are often, if not always, antagonistic to the political process necessary to demanding the protection of rights, especially the right to health. Private NGOs seem to lessen the pressure on the public sector to provide fundamental social services (such as education and health care) and can function as a tool of privatization. Linking back to the comments by Dr. Salmaan Keshavjee about his experience with developing a revolving drug fund Kazakhstan with the Aga Khan Foundation, its easy to see how NGOs can function “transplantation device” for neoliberal, “free market” ideas and the privatization of fundamental social services.

At the end of this piece, Petras calls for a more robust “theory of NGOs.” I think there is a major opportunity to build off Bourdieu, McAdam, and Krause to develop better theoretical constructs and case study examples to analyze the expansion of transnational nongovernmental organizations and the ways they alter the local political, economic, and cultural landscape in poor and marginalized communities around the world. It seems clear that the “field” of international development has set up the game that NGOs play, the rules of which are dominated by large-scale capital. This is the game of the construction of commodified “good projects” that then get sold to the international financiers on an “open market.

The question for me is: what’s to be done?

Though I’m sure you can level all sorts of critiques at Partners In Health as a fairly large transnational NGO, I do believe there is something unique and special about the way that we have tried to institutionalize a practice of “accompaniment.” I believe that PIH has a stated and deeply held set of values, internal logics, and defined purpose that in many ways runs perpendicular to the animating logics of the “Bourdieusian” field of international development. PIH’s core purpose is to work alongside ministries of health and marginalized communities to build the capacities to develop high-quality health care delivery systems that can be scaled into national systems of universal health coverage. We seek to accompany governments in the process of helping them meet the obligations of protecting the rights of their citizens, of which we consider health to be foundational.

I have seen how the field-defining “good project” drives the flow of capital through financing mechanisms (bilateral foreign aid, in particular), and makes PIH’s core mission (and a more broadly important function in the world if we want to advance rights-based work) very difficult to finance. At least, it makes it nearly impossible for an organization attempting to support governments in the task of being effective in their work to deliver packages of needed services (thus, protecting rights) at scale to gain access to the capital necessary to do this work effectively.

Questions we need to keep working on:

  • What type of social movement or political project is necessary to sufficiently disrupt and reorient the field of international development such that it can be less organized towards the narrow construction of tightly defined projects and more towards the goal of enabling governments to be effective in protecting rights?
  • What would it take to reform the large-scale financing mechanisms that reflexively define “the good project” and are reinforced by this definition?
  • Could we imagine the creation of new financing mechanisms that would direct capital towards the idea of a “third sector organization” type that we might call an “accompaniment” organization? An accompaniment organization could be thought of as one that would be focused on the specific work of embedding in and enabling a public sector (government ministry) to be effective in its work to protect social/economic rights of citizens (health in particular, or at least for us).
  1.  Krause, Monika. The Good Project: Humanitarian Relief NGOs and the Fragmentation of Reason. Print.