Help that hinders
By Arundhati Roy
BECAUSE of globalisation the distance between decision-makers and those who endure the effects of those decisions has never been so great (1). Gatherings such as the World Social Forum allow local activist movements to reduce that distance and get to know their counterparts from wealthier countries. When the first private dam was built, at Maheshawar, links between the Narmada Bachao Andolan, the organisation Urgewald (Germany), the Berne Declaration (Switzerland) and the International Rivers Network (Berkeley, US) made it possible to divert many banks and international companies from the project. That would not have been possible without solid local resistance and international support to allow the local voice to be heard globally, which led to investors withdrawing from the project.
One problem faced by mass movements is the NGO-isation of resistance. It will be easy to twist what I say into an indictment of all NGOs, but that would be false. There are NGOs doing valuable work; there are also fake NGOs set up either to siphon off grant money or as tax dodges. But it’s important to consider the NGO phenomenon in a broader political context.In India the funded NGO boom began in the late 1980s and 1990s, coinciding with the opening of India’s markets to neoliberalism.
At the time the state, in keeping with the requirements of structural adjustment, was withdrawing funding from rural development, agriculture, energy, transport and public health.
As the state abdicated its traditional role, NGOs moved in to work in these areas. But their available funds are a minute fraction of the cut in public spending. Most wealthy NGOs are financed and patronised by aid and development agencies, funded by western governments, the World Bank, the United Nations and multinational corporations. Though they may not be the same agencies, they are certainly part of the same political formation that oversees the neoliberal project and demands the slash in government spending.
Why should these agencies fund NGOs? Could it be missionary zeal? Guilt? It’s more than that. NGOs give the impression that they are filling a vacuum created by a retreating state. And they are, but in a materially inconsequential way. Their real contribution is that they defuse political anger and dole out as aid or benevolence what people ought to have by right. NGOs alter the public psyche. They turn people into dependent victims and blunt political resistance. NGOs form a buffer between the sarkar and public (2). Between empire and its subjects. They have become the arbitrators, the interpreters, the facilitators.
In the long run NGOs are accountable to their funders, not to the people they work among. They’re what botanists would call an indicator species. The greater the devastation caused by neoliberalism, the greater the outbreak of NGOs. Nothing illustrates this more poignantly than the phenomenon of the US preparing to invade a country while simultaneously readying NGOs to clean up the resultant devastation.
To ensure their funding is not jeopardised and that the governments of the countries they work in will allow them to function, NGOs have to present themselves in a shallow framework, more or less shorn of a political or historical context (an inconvenient historical or political context anyway). Apolitical – therefore extremely political – reports of distress from poor countries and war zones eventually make the (dark) people of those (dark) countries seem like pathological victims. Another malnourished Indian, starving Ethiopian, Afghan refugee camp, maimed Sudanese in need of the white man’s help. They unwittingly reinforce racist stereotypes and reaffirm the achievements, the comforts and the compassion – the tough love – of western civilisation. They’re the secular missionaries of the modern world.
Eventually, on a smaller scale, but more insidiously, the capital available to NGOs plays the same role in alternative politics as the speculative capital that flows in and out of the economies of poor countries. It begins to dictate the agenda. It turns confrontation into negotiation. It depoliticises resistance. It interferes with local peoples’ movements that have traditionally been self-reliant. NGOs have funds to employ local people who could be activists in resistance movements, but instead feel they are doing some immediate, creative good while earning a living. Real political resistance offers no such short cuts.
The date posted here is due to our website rebuild, it does not reflect the original date this article was posted. This article was originally posted in Yonip in Nov 23 2004