Monday, June 04, 2007

NGOs , so far so terrible

The activities of Non Governmental Organisations in the poor countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America have been, to say the least, appalling. This is not however surprising as the chequered path they have travelled so far is in consonance with and reflects capitalism’s frantic efforts to survive the ever-emerging crisis at its every turn. Their operations not only contribute marginally to the relief of suffering among the masses of humanity, it also undermines the prospects of emancipation from poverty and want.

The idea of charitable organisations gained currency, in part, during the post war period in Europe when war charities were set up to help the poor European victims of the capitalist world wars. However, when the post war reconstruction effort was embarked upon through the implementation of the Marshall Plan in 1948, these charities had little to do as starvation and suffering no longer posed any serious threat to the Europeans. Some of these charities, notably Oxfam, Plan International and Save the Children decided to carry their humanitarian gestures outside the boundaries of Europe. Their efforts were given more impetus by the declaration of the UN Decade of Development and the Freedom from Hunger Campaign in the 1960s. They thus jumped on the FAO’s bandwagon of eradicating poverty through agricultural development. Many of them pitched their camp in Africa and wittingly or wittingly worked in the interests of European rich farmers by marketing their produce. Thus they not only appeared to be helping the poor but they also actively supported and protected the agro-business of the rich, primarily of Europe.

The activities of these charitable organisations were later to move into a higher gear when the western business interests through their governments (especially the US government) began to characterise our half of the world as "underdeveloped" and to describe "development" as a global goal. This resulted in the transformation of the "charities" into "development NGOs". Later, indigenous people started to form similar organisations. This resulted in the distinction between the Western-originated ones and their local counterparts. The former was called International "development NGOs" whilst the latter was Indigenous "development NGOs".

As the colonial countries were granted "independence" the role of these NGOs also underwent structural and functional changes. The Western International NGOs assumed the paternalistic status of parent NGOs whilst the local ones became their junior partners and affiliates. In the 1970s these newly "independent" peripheral countries of the capitalist world could not, as a result the lopsided nature of the profit system itself, manage their affairs. This afforded the excuse to expand the activities of the NGOs who concentrated their efforts mainly in the importation of Western expertise and technology and the implementation of projects. These were ostensibly meant to benefit local communities but in reality they were enhancing the businesses of foreign inventors in the name of bringing development to the underdeveloped people. This period saw the transfer of obsolete and unproductive machinery to the poor countries under the guise of "Appropriate Technology". International NGOs served, in the main, as the vehicles through which these white elephants found their way to peripheral capitalist countries.

It was around this time, (the mid-70s), that one of the endemic convulsions of the capitalist mode of production occurred. This time around it was "oil crisis". It led to a glut in finance capital within the global capitalist economy and thus worsened the global economy, which was already threatened by recession. Investment for high rates of return became a problem in Europe and America. Consequently, African countries were persuaded and in some cases, coerced to take loans to finance "development".

This state of economic affairs did not last long as the technology in microcomputers and the revolution in genetics made progressive strides. Huge capital was therefore needed for investment in these obviously very lucrative fields. African countries had to pay back money borrowed. The western creditors were quick to come up with plans to recover their loans and interests thereof. This saw the introduction of the infamous Structural Adjustment Programmes. The SAPs ensured that the state and government spent very little on social services for their citizens. This was to enable these poor states channel their resources into debt servicing. Governments adopted drastic measures in order to implement SAP. Divestiture and privatisation of state enterprises, retrenchment of workers, removal of subsidies on essential commodities and services, etc became the real face of SAP. Several catch phrases catchwords more manufactured and drummed into the citizens’ ears to try to hide the real cause of the widespread suffering which SAP had brought about. NGOs, whose proliferation at this time was on the rise, were roped in to wage the economic crusade. They were instrumental in propagating such deceitful ideas as "government has no business doing business", "NGOs are the engine of growth", NGOs are the fourth arm of government", and a lot of such garbage. They thus saw themselves as agents of "poverty alleviation", "putting people first" through a "cost effective" management of resources. This period witnessed the NGO direct involvement in government as "partners in development".

21st Century
Today, with the intensification of the search for more super-profits through the concept of "globalisation", the NGO family is up in arms again on the side of its rich masters. Having proved itself an obedient and willing tool of international capital, it has been given feathers that enable it fly higher than many a poor country. Under the US Public Law 480, American capitalists, represented by the American government, finance aid activities exclusively through NGOs and other related institutions. In fact in 1993, Bill Clinton, in a speech at the UN General Assembly declared that US Aid would pass exclusively through NGOs. The conditions of service of NGO volunteers are evidence of the fantastic donations that they are furnished with. In comparison to other employees in both the public and private sectors, these volunteers are far well off (of course by African standards). They have access to free cars, free fuel, free food, free tickets to meaningless conferences held all over the world, etc, etc.

It is therefore not surprising that NGOs are equal partners with UN organs such as the Inter Agency Standing Committee (IASC) where standards and procedures on humanitarian response are defined. This leverage and clout NGOs now possess has made it possible for them to even interfere in the budgetary policies of "sovereign" African states. An example is the recent imposition of Oxfam and Action Aid on Nigeria by the Paris Club. The two were appointed to serve on the committee set up to monitor what happened to the 31 billion dollar-debt relief granted to Nigeria by the Paris Club. The committee including these two NGOs would also help shape the activities of Nigeria’s UN Millennium Development Goals.

Thus, born out of the crisis resulting from capitalist search for spheres of economic influence and profits, NGOs, though initially somewhat well meaning, have assumed their real role as an offspring of an uncaring socio-economic system. Nor could they have turned out otherwise as whatever institution, hoping to genuinely turn around the sad state of the masses within the rotten capitalist system will always end up putrefied. NGOs, and voluntarism as a whole, under this profit-oriented system can only end up dancing to the tune of those wealthy few who pay the piper that the NGO community is.

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