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.