Unmasking the “Good Intentions” of Canadian NGOs


May 30, 2014

by Fernanda Sánchez Jaramillo

Interview with Nik Barry-Shaw, coauthor, with Dru Oja Jay, of Paved with Good Intentions, Canada´s Development NGOs from Idealism to Imperialism

Fernanda Sánchez Jaramillo: What is the contribution of your book to the understanding of Canadian Foreign Policy?

Nik Barry-Shaw: Canada’s participation in the 29 February 2004 coup d’état against Haiti’s democratically-elected government was what really woke up many people on the left (including Dru and I) to the reality of Canadian imperialism. Several of us involved in Haiti solidarity work began studying the history of Canadian foreign policy, and concluded that Canada was not simply being pushed around by the U.S.; it was an advanced capitalist power that had its own economic interests in the Global South that it sought to advance, through violence if necessary. Left nationalist analyses of Canada as a “rich dependency” under the thumb of the U.S. simply did not do justice to the high levels of initiative and involvement demonstrated by the Canadian state in orchestrating the Haitian coup, and many other instances. So one thing our book is trying to do is to debunk widely-held perceptions of Canada’s foreign policy as that of a uniquely benevolent “peacekeeper” nation.
The principle aim of our book is to dispel the notion that development non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are independent organizations driven solely by altruism. Instead, we demonstrate the heavy (and increasing) financial dependence of these organizations on funding from the Canadian government and the political effects this relationship has on NGOs. We then trace out historically how development NGOs, these nominally independent and nominally non-governmental agencies, have become ever more closely intertwined with the Canadian government’s foreign policy, and thus adjuncts to a policy that has nothing to do with fighting poverty or promoting social justice and everything to do with advancing corporate interests.
Again, Haiti was crucial in the formation of our ideas. Canadian NGOs – even self-styled progressive organizations close to the anti-globalization movement like Alternatives and Développement et Paix – were integrally involved in the coup, by training and financing anti-government groups and demonizing the elected government before the coup, and then working with the unelected, Canada-backed regime of Gerard Latortue (2004-2006) that took power afterward.
These Canadian NGOs and their Haitian partner organizations provided cover for the coup government’s violent repression of Haiti’s popular movement, lobbied the Brazilian government on its behalf and even blocked Montreal’s anti-war coalition from taking a stand against the coup. There were so many leaders of Haitian NGOs (nearly all of which received funding from Canadian NGOs) who took positions as ministers in the Latortue government that the regime was dubbed a “non-governmental government.” Analyzing how the NGO system functioned became a pressing task for those of us involved in Haiti solidarity activism. Haiti, known as “The Republic of NGOs”, was an extreme but far from exceptional case, as we found in the course of researching the book.

London, 1st of May 2012: Women of Colour in the Global Women’s Strike campaigners gather outside the British Red Cross offices, to protest alleged theft of money donated for humanitarian relief and of failing to alleviate the suffering of Haitians. Photo P Nutt

Aren´t Canadian NGOs hypocritical in claiming to help rebuild democracy and bring health care in Africa while oppressing First Nations and cutting health care services for Canadian citizens and refugees, including those from Africa?

I’d say the hypocrisy is even closer to the surface. Canadian development NGOs claimed to be building democracy while they were supporting the installation of a dictatorship in Haiti, for instance. They are today forging “development partnership” with Canadian mining companies that have displaced peasants and polluted watersheds around the world, and, in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo, even fomented civil wars. NGOs are beholden to the very agencies – Canadian capital and the Canadian state – that perpetuate poverty in Africa and other parts of the structurally-adjusted Global South.
But the link that you point to between what NGOs are doing abroad and what the Canadian state is doing at home is very important. It is rarely acknowledged because, again, development NGOs are typically presumed to be independent of the state. Yet the demonization of refugees and immigrants within Canada as freeloading scroungers (a characterization that obscures what they actually are: the most exploited and oppressed segments of the Canadian working class) is merely the flipside of a venerable trope of the right, namely the denigration of the peoples of the Global South as slothful and dependent on foreign aid “handouts.” And the utter disregard of Canada (and by extension the NGOs it funds) for the sovereignty of nations like Haiti is merely the outward expression of our domestic unwillingness to recognize the rights of self-determination of First Nations. Beneath Canada’s fading veneer of multiculturalism, racism and colonialism have deep roots in our culture. As Lester B. Pearson once said, foreign policy is just domestic policy with its hat on.

Are NGOs part of the government strategy to present Canada’s foreign policy as charitable?

Definitely. The NGO-mining corporation partnerships funded by the Canadian government are the latest example of how NGOs are used to put a “human face” on the inhuman, a tall order considering the trail of dead bodies and devastated ecosystems this sector of corporate capital has left in its wake. In Afghanistan, NGOs were integrated into the Canadian military’s counterinsurgency effort, in an effort to win over both Afghan civilians in warzone and Canadians back home. The Canadian military recognizes NGOs as such an important part of fighting insurgencies that they are now training regularly with them; as we discovered while researching the book, the military’s 2007 counter-insurgency manual contains numerous references to NGOs explaining how they can be made into “force-multipliers” (to use Colin Powell’s words, in reference to NGOs in Iraq) on the battlefield.
Liberals and social democrats consider this instrumentalization of NGOs to be a new phenomenon, a consequence of how Harper and his Conservatives have hijacked Canada’s foreign policy. When the Harper government cut funding to a number of left-leaning development NGOs, for instance, the cry from the NGO sector was unanimous: Harper and the Conservatives are betraying Canada’s proud history as a caring middle power, Pearson is rolling over in his grave, etc. The image of Canada as a global good guy, a nation devoted to peacekeeping is hegemonic among liberals and social democrats, and NGOs are one of the most credible exponents of mythology.

One big problem with such nostalgia and nationalist myth-making is that it is simply false. Funding development NGOs to build domestic support for Canadian foreign policy abroad goes back to the initial decision to create an NGO division in the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) in 1968, when policy makers sought to put a “human face” on Canada’s aid program, a program that was driven by commercial interests and Cold War geopolitics. An even bigger problem is the way in which these myths serve as the basis for a liberal form of imperialism. I think the clearest example is the Responsibility to Protect, or R2P, doctrine, which basically says that the West has a responsibility to step in – with military force if necessary – to prevent massive human rights abuses. The basis for the doctrine was a 2001 UN report by Michael Ignatieff and others, which elaborated an “international norm” justifying Western intervention on humanitarian grounds. This was in effect an attempt to codify the rationale given for the 1999 bombing of Kosovo. The Canadian state has thrown the full weight of its “humanitarian” reputation behind getting the UN to endorse this principle, and a number of Canadian NGOs (including Oxfam) are part of an International Coalition for R2P pushing the idea out to the public. It was invoked by Obama to justify the bombing of Libya and held up as a potential rationale for intervention in Syria. Canadian politicians defended their role in the 2004 coup in Haiti citing their “duty to protect” Haitians. It is nothing more than a white man’s burden for the 21st century, basically saying, “We need to stop the natives from killing each other.” This is the dangerous side of Canada’s humanitarian reputation.

“Canadian Mining Destroys the Social Fabric!”: Protest against Canadian mining company Tahoe Resources in San Rafael Las Flores, Guatemala

What are the techniques that NGOs use to camouflage themselves and their imperialism through NGOization of the Third World, Latin America for example?

The very name “non-governmental organization” is perhaps the most important kind of camouflage used by NGOs. How “non-governmental” are organizations that typically get 60% of their funding from the Canadian government? NGOs also obfuscate their ties to government by referring to themselves and their partners as “civil society” organizations, as members of a “third sector” distinct from the state and the market. Yet as anyone who has read Antonio Gramsci knows, the line between state and civil society is quite blurry.
Another example of camouflage is the particularly Orwellian language of “democracy promotion” used by NGOs and their funders. In places like Haiti, Venezuela and Bolivia where movements opposed to neoliberalism have attained political power, “democracy promotion” has served to destabilize elected left governments, with NGOs playing a key role in building up “civic” opposition groups.

“Partnership” is another term that is often used to mask realities of power. For instance, Canadian NGOs claim their priorities are determined in collaboration with their “partners” in the Global South. Yet these organizations lower down the aid chain have far less power and are in competition with many other local NGOs for access to the resources that Canadian NGOs possess. The relationship is much closer to that of an internationalized form of patron-client relations. Much of the work that Canadian NGOs do with local NGOs is called “capacity building.” But capacity building for what? Mostly, this work consists of helping local organizations conform to the bureaucratic exigencies of the aid system – and to the political inclinations of the donors. This is how Canadian NGOs indirectly extend the influence of Canadian imperialism down to the grassroots.
It must be said that this camouflage is far more effective at fooling people from the Global North than those from the South. In countries where there is a heavy NGO presence, local people usually distinguish between local organizations and “NGOs” which are defined by their access to foreign funding.

Why are self-identified “progressives” and “activists” reluctant to see that NGOs are not independent but an extension of colonization?

The simplest reason is that often they (or their friends) are employed in NGOs! This was an important reason why so few people on the Quebec left mobilized against the coup in Haiti. Though it is no longer tenable, the progressive reputation of NGOs has an historical basis. It was built up during the 1970s and 1980s when, as we discuss in Chapter 7, a significant minority of development NGOs were aligned with the Left and espoused a vision of “development as struggle.” During these years, these NGOs often contributed to campaigns against the dictatorships of Latin America and apartheid in South Africa and were very critical of Canadian foreign policy. Very few people, however, know about the history of how the Canadian government stamped out this political current in the NGOs through a combination of funding cuts and bureaucratization, to the point that by the mid-1990s it had been completely extinguished. This history is important for understanding just how little room there is for reforming NGOs from within and how important political and financial independence from the state is for international solidarity.

Toronto, May Day 2013

What do you think about NGOs, such as CoDevelopment, which received money from CIDA and Mining Watch, which partnered with an NGO that received money from CIDA, Canadian Agency for International Development (CIDA) rewrote Colombian Canadian mining that allows Canada to take away our resources while at the same time these NGOs promote projects in Colombia?

MiningWatch Canada is supported by several NGOs (Inter Pares, Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund, Développement et Paix, Kairos) that get (or, in the case of the latter two organizations, got) funding from CIDA. But MiningWatch also receives support from a series of other environmental, labour and church organizations, and thus has a substantial independent funding base. This is related to a more general point about funding: organizations become vulnerable to the political and bureaucratic demands of the state when they are financially dependent on government funds. If an organization gets 1% of its budget from CIDA, the influence of the government is correspondingly small. CoDev lost its CIDA funding in March 2013 and (as far as I know) has not been able to re-establish it. The Harper government has cut off funding to virtually all labour-backed solidarity funds doing international labour solidarity work (e.g. the CAW Social Justice Fund), but like Kairos and its links to the churches, I think organizations like CoDev should look upon the loss of government funding as a blessing in disguise, an opportunity to do more politically contentious work without worrying about the consequence it might have for 30% of your organization’s budget. Seizing this opportunity will hinge on a wider radicalization within labour and the churches.

Finally, are NGOs a way to privatize services or replace them without being noticed?

NGOs gained a prominent place in the world of development with the rise of neoliberalism because they facilitated the privatization of public services in two ways. In the 1980s, development bureaucrats at the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund discovered that the social unrest provoked by their “Structural Adjustment Programs” could be dissipated or contained by funding NGO projects. While governments slashed funding for health care, education and other social services in order to prioritize debt repayment to Western banks, NGOs would co-opt leaders of formerly oppositional organizations and turn the poor towards individual or community-level “self help” initiatives – and away from political resistance. Canada pioneered this approach to dealing with what donors delicately called the “social costs of adjustment” in Ghana in the mid-1980s. The result was a political context in which neoliberal reforms could be implemented without fear of significant popular backlash.
The “NGO boom” began with the Third World debt crisis of the 1980s and the struggles over structural adjustment, but it has persisted into the present. NGOs have become a permanent feature of the social and political landscape of the neoliberalized Global South, taking over large swathes of responsibility for social services. Making access to public services dependent on flows of foreign aid and the resources of poor communities is a crazy idea that could never work, and should be seen for what it is, i.e. a massive downscaling of social entitlements for poor people.
NGOs, however, have typically finessed this problem through contrived notions of “sustainability,” “participation,” and “community control.” The problem obscured by NGOs is the fact that without a serious redistribution of resources from rich to poor, social services are utterly unsustainable, and participation and community control end up serving as pleasant sounding words that mask a shifting the burden of social reproduction onto the backs of those who could bear it the least, typically poor women. The creation of parallel NGO service provision structures has also had the effect of luring professionals and civil servants away from the public sector, making a reversal of the cutbacks even more difficult. But poor people definitely noticed! There has developed widespread resentment against NGOs in the countries of the Global South where they are the most prominent, like Haiti. Poor people frequently denounce them for creating a well-off class of NGO bureaucrats living high on the aid hog, while their living conditions deteriorate.