From the July 2000 issue of the Socialist Standard
When governments and business have done with keeping us in line and exploiting us, NGOs step in to soothe us with left-overs“Give us fish and you feed us for a day, Give us the fishing rod and you feed us for life”
Non-governmental organisations in general come in to assist where governments fail. Today however many of them claim they are now shifting their focus to the economic development of poor countries. But it is common knowledge, from the concrete situation on the ground, that the main thrust of NGO activity is still within the framework of alleviation and not eradication of poverty and want. And even in that regard, a cursory glance at their intervention reveals nothing but a catalogue of failures and deceit. But what else is expected of any organisation that tries to reform a system which is inherently evil and incorrigible? In this article three reasons are advanced to explain why NGOs are like the proverbial decorated donkey which is “still an ass”.
The unholy trinity
Even if NGOs were groups genuinely seeking, on humanitarian grounds, to reach out to the needy (as some may honestly do) they would still not escape being branded blind groups groping in the dark. But a closer scrutiny of the entire NGO set-up reveals almost a sinister plot against the wretched of the earth—those whose suffering they claim to be alleviating. This is easily understood when one considers the life and role of the NGO as being largely determined by a three-dimensional interplay of forces.
To begin with, it is evident that governments, big business and NGOs constitute the three sides of a triangle. The three are one and their efforts are complementary. Are we in the poor peripheral countries not constantly reminded, both in the print and electronic media, of some three “basic facts”?
(a) that government has no business doing business, that government only provides an “enabling environment” for free trade,(b) that the business community, aka Foreign Direct Investment, aka private sector is the key to, and the engine of, our economic development,(c) and that NGOs are partners in development, the third estate of African economic development.
In real terms what the three propositions mean is that whilst governments keep the people in check with their armies, police, prisons, the judiciary, etc, the capitalists rip us off through exploitation and retrenchment. The NGOs then intervene to soothe, console and cajole the victims with sweets and second-hand (discarded) materials.
Though this unholy collaboration is done in a discreetly Mafia-like style, it is not uncommon, once in a while, to see such back-scratching manifested openly. A case was seen in Ghana in the mid-1990s, when an NGO—The 31st December Women’s Movement—diverted huge sums of aid money to the ruling NDC government to foot its electioneering campaign bills. Another example of this government/NGO collaboration is the issue of World Vision International helping the Honduran government to track down and kill suspected dissidents (Graham Hancock, Lords of Poverty, London, 1989). Where NGOs fail, to fulfil their part of the unwritten connivance, governments do not hesitate to take firm measures against such NGOs. In 1989, for instance, when Oxfam advocated sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa, it (Oxfam) was censured by the England and Wales Charity Commission for contravening UK charity law. Then in 1995 the Ghanaian government was bitterly confronted by the opposition for trying to impose an NGO Act on the people. The law was meant to boot out all NGOs which were not subservient to the government. In a similar vein, NGOs are known to be promoters of big business through the purchase of (sometimes expired) drugs and food and also obsolete or faulty machinery. It is on record for instance that Bob Geldof’s Band Aid wasted $4 million in purchasing eighty unusable lorries from a Kuwaiti business group and dumped the junk as aid to Sudan (Independent, 25 November 1987).
The second dimension to the three-pronged characteristics of the NGO system relates to their source of funds. It is an undeniable fact that individuals filled with fellow feeling donate to NGOs to assist the needy. However, large sums do come from owners of capital, corporate bodies and governments. The donations of these latter, like “aid” in a profit-oriented society, are not without ulterior motives and strings. Who pays the piper calls the tune and even since one does not bite the finger that feeds one, whatever well-meaning intentions that motivated the setting up of the NGO is sooner or later compromised in favour of having more funds. They would henceforth dance to the tune of “major” donors and benefactors.
Such tendencies reduce many an NGO to a complete business enterprise where “profit” now their major concern. This is expressed in the methods employed to attract funding. Advertising is an expression of an unwholesome competition in the quest for profits. NGOs spend huge sums on adverts. Sometimes this is done using typical capitalist fraudulent methods. A clear example is the famous “wire fraud” of World Vision International, on the Los Angeles-based relief agency Operation California. The latter had organised a fundraising concert for Kampuchea refugees which was televised by CBS. Unknown to the organisers WVI had managed to have its toll-free number flashed at regular intervals during the concert for potential donors to pay into that account (The Plain Dealer, Cleveland, Ohio, 21-27 December 1982).
Another dishonest method of ensuring a bumper harvest is the raising of false alarms through a gross exaggeration of the plight of “vulnerable groups”. In the NGO business the commodity is the misery of the downtrodden. So intense is this hunt for super-profits that the bugbear of unhealthy rivalry (typical of big business) often raises its ugly head within the NGO community. Part of the causes of the Somali famine in the late 1980s , for instance, was a result of the refusal by relief groups to heed Oxfam’s fully substantiated warning of imminent hunger. These agencies rejected the warning just so that Oxfam would not take the credit (Lords of Poverty).
The result of this business-oriented voluntarism is the tendency to accumulate. The recent imprisonment of Allan Boesak in South Africa for embezzling NGO funds is only the tip of the iceberg. There is also the case of International Christian Aid (ICA) a US-based NGO, which was accused, in 1985, by the UN and the US State Department of failing to send anything to Ethiopia though it had raised $18 million for famine there (Daily Mail, 14 January 1985). Many more monstrous cases of this nature are either not discovered or hushed up in the interests of the dubious capitalist fraternity. Thus set up to help the needy NGOs often only help themselves.
Needless to say, the work and assistance programmes of NGOs cannot be anything but a red herring. Having been brought into existence by the exploitative money-oriented system and being completely dependent on the same underhand methods of this unfeeling system for their survival what else can the activities of NGOs be if not messing about in trivialities? The main problem confronting humanity revolves around ownership of the means and instruments for producing and distributing (social) wealth. How many NGOs mount platforms to explain this simple truth to their target groups? How many NGOs ever distribute tracts about working people replacing this profit-oriented system with a higher social system based on collective and democratic ownership of the means and instruments of production?
It is not by accident therefore that NGO activities in poor southern countries never approach education, shelter, food, clothing, healthcare, etc with a view to finding a lasting solution to them. These areas are the exclusive lucrative business of private capital. A good lot of NGO programmes involve organisation of seminars and talk-shops on such superstructural issues such as female circumcision, the empowerment of women, prostitution, drug abuse, etc. Most of the relatively few projects end up as white elephants or never even get complete. No wonder then that as the number of NGOs keeps rising, ignorance, homelessness, hunger, poverty, disease, etc are getting out of control (instead of the other way round).
Of course poverty and want are necessary offshoots of the capitalist socio-economic formation. Trying to get rid of the former whilst leaving the latter intact amounts to putting the cart before the horse. The only genuine assistance the NGO community could lead to the suffering people of this capitalist world is to stop collaborating with the owners of capital and instead, join forces with socialists to get rid of this system based on money. NGOs could use their resources to help usher in a system where production is not for profits’ sake but for the satisfaction of needs. Under such a system nobody will have to run around begging for funds in order to help the needy—in fact, there wouldn’t be any more needy people.
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