Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Turning poverty into an industry


AFRICA-BASED NON GOVernmental organisations (NGOs) are playing a bigger role in expanding and consolidating neoliberal hegemony in the global context, says a new book.

“It may not have been as direct or as underhand as some of the activities willingly undertaken by colonial missionary societies and voluntary organisations. However, that is not to say it is any less significant,” argues one of Africa’s most articulate critics of the destructive effects of neoliberal policies in Africa — Issa G Shivji — in his new book: Silences in NGO discourse: The role and future of NGOs in Africa.

The book is published by Fahamu — a publishing house that supports the struggle for human rights and social justice in Africa.

In two extensive essays, Shivji shows that the role of NGOs in Africa cannot be understood without placing them in their political and historical context.

Aid, in which NGOs play a significant role, is frequently portrayed as a form of altruism, a charitable act that enables the wealthy to help the poor.

The two essays have appeared in abridged form elsewhere. “But because of the importance of the subject and the richness of the arguments presented by Shivji need to be heard in full, we are pleased to be able to make them available to a wider audience,” notes the publisher in the forward.

The book examines the role and future of NGOs in Africa in the light of its self-perception as a non-governmental, non-political, non-partisan, non-ideological, non-academic, non-theoretical, non-profit association of well-intentioned individuals dedicated to turning the world into make it a better place for the poor, marginalised and downcast.

Faced with an avalanche of accusations over the “end of history,” the Tanzanian scholar says that he finds it necessary to emphasise the history of Africa’s enslavement, from the first contacts with the Europeans five centuries ago, through the slave trade, to colonialism, and now globalisation.

“The aim of this historical detour is to demonstrate the fundamental antithesis between the national and the imperial, so as to identify correctly the place and role of NGOs within them.

“I locate the rise, prominence and privileging of the NGO sector in the womb of the neoliberal offensive. Its aims are ideological, economic and political.”

He argues that NGO discourse, or more correctly, non-discourse, is predicated on the philosophical and political premises of the neoliberal or globalisation paradigm.

Shivji’s regular essays in the Tanzania press have been a beacon for those who grapple with understanding the post-independence onslaught on their countries that has led to a situation where it is accepted that social and economic policies should be determined, not by the electorate, but by a small elite that gets its legitimacy (and power) from London, Washington, Berlin and Paris.

Undoubtedly, Shivji’s book is highly critical and sometimes ruthlessly gets to the NGO world, but notable is the fact that the author has been involved in NGO activism for about some 15 years, mostly in his native Tanzania. However, he makes it clear that he does not doubt the noble motivations and good intentions of NGO leaders and activists.

“But we do not judge the outcome of a process by the intentions of its authors. We aim to analyse the objective effects of actions, regardless of their intentions.” Aid, in which NGOs play a significant role, is frequently portrayed as a form of altruism, a charitable act that enables wealth to flow from rich to poor, poverty reduced and the poor empowered.

“The market and voluntarism have a long association; the first and most celebrated period of ‘free trade,’ from the 1840s to the 1930s, was also a high point of charitable activity throughout the British empire,” he argues.

In Britain itself, the industrial revolution opened up a great gulf between the bourgeoisie and the swelling ranks of the urban proletariat. In the 1890s, when industrialists were amassing fortunes to rival those of the aristocracy, as much as a third of the population of London was living below the level of bare subsistence. Death from starvation was not uncommon.

At this time, private philanthropy was the preferred solution to social need, and private expenditure far outweighed public provision.

IT IS HARDLY SURPRISING THAT in the current era of neoliberalism we are seeing, once again, a burgeoning of NGOs: the new missionaries to Africa.

While such institutions had some presence in Africa in the post second world war period, it was really only in the 1980s and 1990s, as structural adjustment programmes were imposed across Africa by the international financial institutions and development agencies, that NGOs really flourished, gradually taking over the work of the retrenching state that had been persuaded to disengage from the provision of social services to its populations.

The bilateral and multilateral institutions set aside significant funds aimed at “mitigating” the “social dimensions of adjustment.” The purpose of such programmes was to be palliatives that would minimise the more glaring inequalities perpetuated by their policies.

Funds were made available to ensure that a so-called “safety net” of social services would be provided for the “vulnerable,” but this time not by the state (which had after all been forced to “retreat” from the social sector) but by the ever-willing NGO sector.

The possession of such funds was to have a profound impact on the very nature of the NGO sector.

This was a period in which the involvement of Northern NGOs in Africa grew dramatically. In the 10 years between 1984 and 1994, the British government increased its funding to NGOs by almost 400 per cent, to £68,700,000 ($137.4 million). NGOs in Australia, Finland, Norway and Sweden all saw similar increases in official funding from the early 1980s.

As a consequence of the increased levels of funding and increased attention, the number of development organisations in Western countries mushroomed, and many established NGOs experienced spectacular growth.

Over the past two decades, development NGOs have become an integral, and necessary, part of a system that sacrifices respect for justice and rights. They have taken what has been described elsewhere as the “missionary position”. This means — delivering services, running projects that are motivated by charity and pity, and doing things for people (who, implicitly, cannot do for themselves), albeit dressed up with the colours of participatory approaches.

It would be wrong to present the relationship between Western NGOs and official aid agencies in the 1980s as the product of some conscious conspiracy, as was clearly the case with colonial missionary organisations. The precondition for the co-option of NGOs into the neoliberal causes merely reflect a coincidence in ideologies, rather than a purposeful plan.

The proponents of neoliberalism saw in charitable development the possibility of enforcing the unjust social order they desired by consensual rather than coercive means

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