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Silence in NGO Discourse

Counterpunch

March 13, 2017

by Michael Barker

 

Silences

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) maintain a ubiquitous presence in most peoples lives (whether they realize it or not). It therefore should be a commonsense act that we scrutinize NGO activities to ascertain their exact political function within the “our” neoliberal world order, yet this is not normally the case. In response to this deliberative void, Issa Shivji, a professor of law based at the University of Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) argues the urgent need for such critical inquiry’s in his useful booklet Silence in NGO Discourse: The Role and Future of NGOs in Africa (Pambazuka Press, 2007). As Firoze Manji observes in the publications foreword: often “dressed up with the verbiage of participatory approaches,” “[o]ver the last two decades, development NGOs have become an integral, and necessary, part of a system that sacrifices respect for justice and rights.” Shivj’s own background, helps inform his work, and in his introduction he notes:

“Before I begin, I must make two confessions. First,my paper is undoubtedly critical, sometimes ruthlessly so, but not cynical. Second, this criticism is also self-criticism, since the author has been involved in NGO activism for some 15 years. Finally I must make clear that I do 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.” (p.2)

This is an important point, and so after summarizing some of his criticisms of the NGO community, I aim to to “analyse the objective effects of” Shivji’s booklet in an attempt to determine the limitations of his scathing polemic.

Shivji correctly diagnoses that the rise and rise of the nonprofit sector is closely aligned to neoliberal growth imperatives which “banishe[d] issues of equality and equity to the realm of rights, not development.” In this way, “’rights’ are reduced to the purview of advocacy NGOs, no longer a terrain for popular struggle.” “NGOs by accepting the myth of being non-political contribute to the process of mystification, and therefore objectively side with the status quo, contrary to their expressed stand for change.” While such a troubling discourse had been vigorously challenged both from within academia and on the streets, unfortunately, as Shivji points out: “A large part of the African intellectual elite has been co-opted and accommodated within the neoliberal discourse.” Thus his thesis is “that the sudden rise of NGOs and their apparently prominent role in Africa are part of this neoliberal” offensive. He argues that NGOs merely represent the “continued domination of imperialism… in a different form.”

“Within this context, NGOs are neither a third sector, nor independent of the state. Rather they are inextricably imbricated in the neoliberal offensive, which follows on the heels of the crisis of the national project. Unless there is awareness on the part of NGOs of this fundamental moment in the struggle between imperialism and nationalism, they end up playing the role of ideological and organisational foot soldier of imperialism, however this is described.” (p.29)

According to Shivji, silences in the NGO discourse shield the public from the following five facts: (1) NGOs are very much a part of the neoliberal onslaught on democracy, indeed the “anti-state stance of the so-called donor-community was the real push behind the upsurge in NGO activity”; (2) “NGOs are led by and largely composed of the educated elite” (falling into three categories, those “previously engaged in political struggles,” altruistic individuals who are “morally motivated,” and a mainstream “careerist” elite motivated by personal ambitions); (3) an “overwhelming number of NGOs are donor funded”; (4) “perhaps the most dominant” form of NGOs are donor-driven”; and (5) “[i]ncreasingly the model for the ‘successful’ NGO is the corporation.”

On top of these unspoken and self evident truths, it is clear that the contemporary political landscape is less amenable to human directed social change than in past years. Thus in former years “radical intellectual discourse was integrated with militant activism,” however:

“The NGO discourse in the current period of apparent imperial ‘triumphalism’ eschews theory, and emphasizes and privileges activism. In the African setting in particular, whatever is left of critical intellectual discourse, largely located in the universities, runs parallel to and is divorced from NGO activism. The requirements of funding agencies subtly discourage, if not exhibiting outright hostility to a historical, social and theoretical understanding of development, poverty and discrimination. Our erstwhile benefactors now tell us: ‘just act, don’t think’; and we shall fund both.” (pp.34-5)

Bias against theory within NGOs is manifested in various ways which include the managerial “penchant for project funding,” a single issue focus (which means “its interconnectedness to other issues and the whole is lost”), and finally “issue-orientated and time-limited projects do not allow for any long-term basic research based on solid theoretical and historical premises.” This theoretical detachment from the world around them means that “the ‘common sense’ theoretical assumption of the current period underpinning NGO roles and actions is neoliberalism in the interest of global imperialism.” Here Shivji cites Brian Murphy who writes that: “What the corporate PR manager understands implicitly as economic propaganda, NGO people often repeat as articles of faith.”

“To pretend that society is a harmonious whole of stakeholders is to be complicit in perpetrating the status quo in the interest of the dominant classes and powers. In the struggle between national liberation and imperialist domination, and between social emancipation and capitalist slavery, NGOs have to choose sides. In this there are no in-betweens.” (p.41)

Shivji concludes that: “In spite of these limitation, I do believe that NGOs can play some worth role. But we do have to recognise what we are not.” This may be true, but I would like to suggest that Shivji’s decision to provide no discussion of the imperialist history of liberal philanthropy clouds his readers’ ability to differentiate between obviously manipulative donors like the World Bank, and the US Agency for International Development, and what are often considered (falsely) to be benign donors, like liberal foundations. This is problematic as understanding the long and dirty history of liberal philanthropy is integral to comprehending the deeper phenomena that undergird the imperialist evolution of the NGO-driven change industry.

It is perhaps too much to ask to expect that Shivji should turn on the hand that feeds him, and so in this regard it is important to extend his criticisms by examining the background of his booklets publishers, Pambazuka News. Prefacing his work, the publisher is described as such:

“Pambazuka News is the authoritative pan-African newsletter and platform for social justice in Africa, offering comprehensive weekly coverage, cutting edge commentary and in-depth analysis on politics and current affairs, development, human rights, refugees, gender issues and culture in Africa. It is intended as a tool for progressive social change.” (p.xi)

The Munros Challenge, one of Christian Aid's 70 anniversary events in 2015.  Seventy Munros in all parts of Scotland will be tackled during the year.  Walkers on the South Glen Shiel Ridge in Scotland, 19 September 2015.  The ridge has seven Munros & was the most demanding walk of the Challenge.  (A Munro is a mountain more than 3000 feet (914 metres) in height, named after Hugh Munro, the first person to compile a list of them, in 1891.)  Seventy-year-olds Sue & Barry Petitt were part of the group that completed the 27km route in 11 hours.     [ CE2015 ]

The Munros Challenge, one of Christian Aid’s 70 anniversary events in 2015.

What is not mentioned is that Pambazuka News, which is produced and published by Fahamu: Networks For Social Justice, is itself funded by the world’s leading liberal elites, including groups like Christian Aid, the Ford Foundation, and George Soros’ Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa. As history has shown, such elites are quite willing to fund and even promote radical critiques of society (within limited circles at least), if only so they are better placed to co-opt their ideological adversaries more effectively. In fact, Shivji’s fairly superficial critique of NGOs is just the type of work that is typically promoted by reformist elites; while by way of a contrast, more radical criticisms, like for example, INCITE!’s edited book The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond The Non-Profit Industrial Complex (South End Press, 2007), are conveniently ignored.

This is not to say that much useful information cannot be gleamed from Shivji, but we should understand that people who have been embedded in the non-profit industrial complex for a long time are not necessarily the best people to critique it. Therefore, instead of just relying upon elite-dominated universities to provide such criticism we need to turn to the people around us, and work together with them to develop the type of research bodies that will be need to meld theoretical and activist concerns in a manner that can truly promote revolutionary social change.

 

[Michael Barker is the author of Under the Mask of  Philanthropy. He recently stood as parliamentary candidate for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) in Leicester East.]

FLASHBACK: The Missionary Position – NGOs and Development in Africa

 

Firoze Manji
Fahamu – learning for change
14 Standingford House, Oxford OX4 1BA
Carl O’Coill

Hull School of Architecture, University
of Lincoln, George Street, Hull HU1 3BW
Published in International Affairs 78 3 (2002) 567-83

 

NGOs face a stark choice. If they stand in favour of the emancipation of humankind (whether at home or abroad), then the focus of their work has inevitably to be in the political domain, supporting those social movements that seek to challenge a social system that benefits a few and impoverishes the many. The closing years of apartheid in Africa were illustrative of the choice that NGOs face today: either they supported the emerging popular movements (in South Africa and internationally) that supported the overthrow of a brutal system of exploitation, or they stayed silent and continued their philanthropic work, and became thereby complicit in the crimes of the system of apartheid.

 

Africa in the closing years of the 20th Century will be remembered for two historic events. One was the rise of the popular movements that led to the end of the colonial empire and the downfall of apartheid; the other, a human catastrophe of immense proportions involving the massacre of nearly a million people in Rwanda. If the one was achieved through the mobilisation of the majority for the goal of emancipation, the other was fuelled by pressures to comply with an externally defined agenda for social development. These events represent the
extremes of hope and despair that came to characterise much of the continent in the closing years of the millennium. Every country in the region contains, albeit to varying degrees, the mixture of factors that can lead to either outcome – a future built on respect for human dignity, or one torn apart by conflicts such as those seen in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Angola and in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Development, it seems, has failed. In many post-colonial countries real per capita GDP has fallen and welfare gains achieved since independence in areas like food consumption health and education have been reversed. The statistics are
disturbing. In Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole per-capita incomes dropped by 21% in real terms between 1981 and 1989.1 Madagascar and Mali now have per capita incomes of $799 and $753 down from $1,258 and $898 25 years ago. In 16 other Sub-Saharan countries per capita incomes were also lower in 1999 than in 1975.2 Nearly one quarter of the world’s population, but nearly 42% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa, live on less than $1 a day. Levels of inequality have also increased dramatically but worldwide. In 1960 the average income of the top 20% of the world’s population was 30 times that of the bottom 20%. By 1990 it was 60 times, and by 1997, 74 times that of the lowest fifth. Today “the assets of the top three billionaires are more than the combined GNP of all least developed countries and their 600 million people”.3

This has been the context in which there has been an explosive growth in the presence of Western as well as local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Africa. NGOs today form a prominent part of the “development machine”, a vast institutional and disciplinary nexus of official agencies, practitioners, consultants, scholars, and other miscellaneous experts producing and consuming knowledge about the “developing world”.4 According to recent estimates, there are as many as three thousand development NGOs in OECD countries as a whole.5 In Britain alone, there are well over one hundred voluntary groups claiming some specialism in the field.

Communication to TckTckTck Partner: Christian Aid – Feb. 21st, 2010

As of March 15th, 2010, we have received no response.

From: Canadians for Action on Climate Change [mailto:canadiansforactiononclimatechange@bell.net]
Sent: February-21-10 1:03 PM
To: ‘info@christian-aid.org’; ‘caerdydd@christian-aid.org’; ‘apickard@christion-aid.org’
Cc: ‘GlobalComplianceResearch@gmail.com’
Subject: TckTckTck Concerns | Time Sensitive – Your Response is Requested

Dear Christian Aid,

We are writing to you because we are concerned about the corporate connections, and about the weak demands in the TckTckTck campaign. We are conducting a survey related to these aspects of the campaign. We will be posting the results of our survey to the web, as well as issuing a media release. We will be issuing the press release on March 15th, 2010. For this reason could your organization please respond no later than February 28th, 2010?  If we do not receive a response by this time we will state that your organization did not comment.

Corporate connections of TckTckTck

We note your organization is listed in as a partner or ally of the TckTckTck campaign initiative. We are very alarmed to learn various details about the campaign. The trademark TckTckTck was registered, on November 30, 2009, by the EURO RSCG firm, a subsidiary of Havas Worldwide, a public relations firm. Partners of this campaign include multinational corporations. Two of these are Electricity of France (EDF)  which now uses the TckTckTck logo, in TV commercials. EDF, the world’s leading nuclear power utility, operates a French nuclear fleet consisting of 58 reactors spread over 19 different sites. Havas also lists GDF Suez which affirms that there is a nuclear revival. With 45 years of involvement in the nuclear industry, GDF SUEZ confirms its intention to take an active part in developing a new generation of nuclear power worldwide.

In the Havas press release (attached) it also states “Havas Worldwide incorporates the EURO RSCG” whose clients include Novartis and Adventis – both biotech industries in genetic engineering and biofuel.  Both Nuclear and Biofuel are deemed to be ‘solutions’ that are equally bad, if not worse than the problem they are intended to solve.  Through your association with the TckTckTck campaign, your organization has created intentionally or unintentionally the perception that your organization is supportive of false solutions such as nuclear and biofuel.

When challenged over the inappropriateness of associating NGO partners with the corporate sector, (see EYES WIDE SHUT | TckTckTck exposé) the TckTckTck.org campaign organizer Jason Mogus claimed the two campaigns are different.  His argument is not convincing when one sees the press release issued in September of 2009 (screenshot attached). It clearly states that the North American TckTckTck.org is Havas Worldwide.  In the September 2009 press release the last paragraph states: “Havas Worldwide Web Site: http://tcktcktck.org”.  There is further information about this in an article by ‘Peace, Earth & Justice News’. See the news article here.

One of your partners listed is at tcktcktck.org is the ‘Corporate Leaders Group on Climate Change’.  Signatories: can be found here. Of interest is the fact that on this page the multinational corporations ‘business verdict’ share your tcktcktck postCOP15 catch phrase ‘not done yet’.  This is perhaps one of the most truthful statements coming out of the entire tcktcktck campaign.  Partners in this group include Shell, Coca-Cola and RBC.  RBC is the number one financier of the most destructive project on the planet – the tar sands.  Over 1,000 corporate entities make up this TckTckTck partner group.

Furthermore, two of the same creators & partners (Havas & Euro RSCG) of TckTckTck were also initial partners of the infamous Hopenhagen campaign which was labeled a massive greenwash by the likes of Naomi Klein and others during COP15. (Farbman is reluctant to discuss what led to Ogilvy’s predicament or why previously enthusiastic partners were no longer involved.  See article here)

Many of us oppose, at least in principle if not vocally, the consumption of small community business into behemoth sized mega-corps.  We fear this is a growing trend with our NGOs.  We feel that we must work together to demand an end to this new strain of globalization which undermines and threatens our entire movement.

The entire TckTckTck campaign has been created in partnership with major multinational corporations.  These are the same multinational corporations that activists and legitimate grassroots organizations all over the world challenge on a daily basis.  People are devoting and risking their very lives defending themselves, their children and their environment from exploitation by these corporations in the name of corporate profit.  To have the largest climate change campaign on the planet formed, funded and shaped by the same corporate interests destroying our planet is a grave injustice to those already suffering.  It destroys all of our credibility, undermines true climate justice and erodes public trust.

Weak Targets advanced by TckTckTck

SIGNIFICANT OMISSIONS IN TCKTCKTCK http://tcktcktck.org DEMANDS

In the TckTckTck (http://tcktcktck.org) campaign for COP15, the organizers, allies and partners were calling for developed states to reduce developed country emissions by at least 40% by 2020. While most developed and developing states were calling for developed states to use 1990 as a baseline, the TckTckTck campaign did not have a baseline. Consequently what they were calling for was way below what developing states were demanding. How could an NGO campaign have a percentage reduction without a base-line date? In the TckTckTck campaign demands it was stated: “Reduce developed country emissions by at least 40% by 2020”. Is that from 2009 levels? or Canadian 2006 levels, or US 2005 levels?  It is far from what most of the developing states wanted, at least 45% from 1990 levels. Apart for calling for stabilization by 2015, the tcktcktck campaign had no commitment for subsequent years, such as calling the reduction of global emissions by at least 95% from 1990 levels by 2050. The TckTckTck campaign was silent on a 2050 commitment. The Key issues at COP15 were i) the need for a common baseline such as 1990, and the need for developed states to commit to high percentage reduction of greenhouse gases from the 1990 baseline, and ii) the urgent demand to not have the temperature rise exceed 1degree above preindustrialized levels and to return to no more than 300ppm. The tcktcktck campaign seriously undermined the necessary, bold targets as advanced by many of the developing states.   The TckTckTck (http://tcktcktck.org) list over 220 NGOs. We ask for your response on the following questions:

1)     Was your NGO aware that the brand “TckTckTck” has deep corporate ties?

2)     If so, how do you understand this relationship?

3)     Do you see yourselves as part of a campaign alongside “corporate partners” such as nuclear energy, genetic engineering, biofuels, aviation, automotive and other problematic sectors?

4)     If so, do you see how this creates confusion?

5)     In a release from Havas Worldwide it states “the idea behind TckTckTck was to create a movement…rather than a campaign, but a movement with a deadline. …the objective of the campaign was to make it become a movement that consumers, advertisers and the media would use and exploit.”

Were you aware that your NGO’s name and credibility would be used as a commodity in this way? (and continues to be used)

6) Do you intend to remain a partner of TckTckTck even though there are corporate ties?

7) Would you like to be removed from the list of partners of TckTckTck?

If yes to number 7;

To be removed from the list, contact laura.comer@tcktcktck.org.

8) Would your organization endorse the proposed ‘Post Cop15 Declaration’ that unequivocally supports the needs of the developing states.  It can be read here.

There are further questions related to privacy of the fifteen million people who signed on to it. There is an absolute breach of trust.  Who has collected such vital information on citizens with concern for environmental issues is anyone’s guess.  Trusting individuals disclosed personal information with no idea the campaign was aligned with corporate interests.  This is a separate and distinct issue altogether.  It is most likely that of privacy violations which warrant further investigation.

We wish that it be clear that we send this message in solidarity – that we have grave concerns with this “coalition”.  We do not wish to be patronizing but only elaborate on the concerns we share in the hope that you will share our concerns and come to the conclusion others have reached – that such a campaign is no longer the right place for any organization who believes in real climate justice to invest energies. If we say nothing – then our silence lends us as being complicit.  Therefore, we feel that must ask of all our allies to be accountable for their actions.  If we remain silent – we effectively breach the trust of those we claim to represent – the billions suffering at the hands of exploitation in the name of profits.  Let us be clear – we do not condone such a campaign and will speak out against it.

We hope that this communiqué will bring about debate that can strengthen our common understanding of the threats and opportunities for true climate justice. Our first priority is the planet, and this can only be worthwhile if it is another strand in unmasking the lies surrounding “climate politics” that threaten us with climate injustice.

Sincerely,

Canadians for Action on Climate Change | Cory Morningstar

Joan Russow | Global Compliance Research Project | www.climatechangecopenhage.org | For further information:  see Joan Russow , TckTckTck Hoodwinked NGOs, www.Pej.org)

Pacific Indigenous Peoples Environment Coalition | Aotearoa [New Zealand] | Sandy Gauntlett

Please send response to canadiansforactiononclimatechange@bell.net

The responses will be posted on the websites.