Are mainstream NGOs failing Africa?

June 21, 2005

by Patrick Bond, Dennis Brutus and Virginia Setshedi
ZNet Magazine

What’s on offer for Africa from the trendy but top-down initiatives called Make Poverty History and Live 8, and even the Johannesburg-based Global Call to Action Against Poverty? We worry that these projects are, like many NGO activities in Africa, unintentionally legitimating the institutions, processes and personalities through which neoliberalism and imperialism do their damage.

A better approach would be to endorse, strengthen and link the myriad of Africa’s bottom-up anti-racist, feminist and ecological struggles, especially those focusing on economic justice.

After all, it should be evident to careful observers that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown are no friends of Africa. And yet, once the neoliberal New Labour government took office in 1997, the rush of British NGOs to Brown’s Treasury office was akin to lemmings dancing over the ideological cliff.

With NGO-supplied teflon, Brown repeatedly endorsed and fostered policies that destroyed hundreds of millions of lives across the world, and refused to countenance democratic reform of the Bretton Woods Institutions, whose important Monetary Policy Committee he chairs.

To illustrate, Brown’s Euro-solidaristic choice for International Monetary Fund managing director in 2004 was Rodrigo de Rato, the austerity-minded Spaniard whose political lineage is described by Vicente Navarro of Johns Hopkins School of Public Health as ‘ultra-right. While in Aznar’s cabinet, he supported such policies as making religion a compulsory subject in secondary schools, requiring more hours of schooling in religion than in mathematics, undoing the progressivity in the internal revenue code, funding the Foundation dedicated to the promotion of francoism (i.e., Spanish fascism).’

NGOs should know who to make alliances with. Brown isn’t good material; mass social movements are. Those movements have their own analyses, campaigns, priorities, discourses, strategies and tactics. Though it may be harder to establish a singular global campaign from their struggles, trying to impose one top-down is counterproductive.

Control of Make Poverty History by Oxfam is a telling example. According to a recent New Statesman front-page critique of the organization – ‘Is Oxfam failing Africa?’ (May 30) – a revolving door exists between Oxfam, the Downing Street Policy Unit, Brown’s office, and the World Bank.

But what has resulted from such easy access? Even setting aside Blair/Brown’s financing of and participation in Iraq’s looting and destruction, British official development ‘aid’ included – not atypically – foisting the notorious Adam Smith Institute on Africa.

Low-income black South Africans were victims when the British Department for International Development (DfID) funded water privatisation advice, resulting in disastrous municipal pilot projects.

And in Dar es Salaam last month, the Tanzanian government had to cancel a contract with London’s Biwater, after it failed to meet water delivery and pricing targets that the Adam Smith Institute helped set out, courtesy of British taxpayer funding channeled by Brown and DfID’s Clare Short and Hilary Benn.

And yet Brown has been central to defining the parameters of Make Poverty History and claims credit for advocating a Marshall Plan for Africa and promoting fair trade instead of dogmatic liberalisation.

As George Monbiot explained in The Guardian at the end of May, ‘It doesn’t take a great imaginative effort to see that a double game was being played. Before the election, Blair makes one of his tear-jerking appeals for greater love, compassion and human fellowship, and gets the anti-poverty movement off his back. After the election he discovers, to his inestimable regret, that love, compassion and human fellowship won’t after all be possible, as a result of a ruling by the European Commission’ against Third World countries retention of industrial protection tariffs.

The reason is that the Commission’s trade negotiator, Peter Mandelson, is apparently undermining the British trade concessions, according to his director-general in mid-May (in a leaked email memo): ‘Mandelson is taking up our concerns and will press for a revised UK line, noting that their statement is contrary to the agreed EU position.’

The same double game is being played with aid. Brown recently announced Britain will pay the fabled 0.7% of national income only by 2013, which is 33 years after the date promised back in 1970. According to the New Statesman, ‘Many in the Labour Party and in the NGO movement wonder why it has taken so long, but again, Oxfam was a signatory to an open letter congratulating the government on taking the action.’

Monbiot takes up the story: ‘Again the government admitted, before the election, that its critics were right. DfID published a long mea culpa, in which it promised, “We will not make our aid conditional on specific policy decisions by partner governments, or attempt to impose policy choices on them (including … privatisation or trade liberalisation)”. ‘

Warns Monboit, ‘It looks great, until you read the whole document. On privatization, DfID admits that there was “concern that in the 1980s and 1990s donors pushed for the introduction of reforms, regardless of whether these were in countries’ best interests”. The 1980s and 1990s, eh? What about the privatization it was demanding in 2004 and early 2005? What about its recent assault on the public services of Tanzania, South Africa, Ghana and the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh? What about the money it is STILL paying the effing Adam Smith Institute?’

Moving from aid to debt, confusion followed the alleged victory that Africa and campaigners won from the G8 finance ministers on June 11. Looking at the devil in the details, the Brussels-based Committee for the Abolition of Third World Debt condemns the scheme.

The Committee’s Eric Toussaint points out that 165 countries deserve debt cancellation, but the finance ministers only agreed to partially cancel the debt of between 18 and 38 countries, depending upon how neoliberal conditionality is applied. The best case would be a $55 billion write-down of most – not all – debt for these poorest countries, because some would still owe the Asian Development Bank, the InterAmerican Development Bank and private lenders.

Putting the deal into perspective, African debt weighs in at more than $300 billion, and the total Third World debt that should be cancelled, according to Jubilee South, exceeds $2 trillion. As Toussaint points out, ‘The financial burden of the operation on rich countries would amount to some $2 billion a year, compared to $350 billion the G8 devote to farming subsidies or $700 billion they spend in military expenditure.’

Moreover, says Toussaint, ‘The G8 decision represents a continuation of the HIPC initiative, which means the imposition of heavily neoliberal policies: privatisation of natural resources and of strategic economic sectors to the benefit of transnational corporations; higher cost of health care and education; a rise in Value Added Tax; free flow of capital, which leads to capital leaving the country as shown by several UNCTAD reports; lower tariff protection, which leads to thousands of small and middle producers losing their livelihoods because they cannot compete with imported goods.’

While some debt is being cancelled immediately – most is not being paid back in any case, due to country unaffordability – can anyone trust Brown to deliver the future funds? Six years ago in the German city of Cologne, a heralded G8 debt relief package was purportedly worth $100 billion. An audit found that implementation of all debt relief between 1996 and 2003 amounted to just $26.3 billion.

Why, then, do groups like Oxfam and U2 singer Bono’s Washington NGO Data – Debt, AIDS and Trade for Africa – continue the charade, and why do some Africans play along?

At least some of the northern NGOs – like Jubilee USA, War on Want, World Development Movement and Christian Aid – are in continual dialogue with progressive Third World movements. But this has meant little, given that, according to Stuart Hodkinson of the British magazine Red Pepper, ‘Oxfam’s unrivalled financial resources and existing public profile make it by far the most powerful organisation in the Make Poverty History coalition. Last year, Oxfam’s annual income surpassed £180m including £40m from government and other public funds.’

Make Poverty History is pushing white bands, in part as a symbol from which yet more funding can be extracted? Hodkinson quotes campaigning staff who ‘stay inside’ the campaign simply because, as one admitted, ‘Although we hate the message and the corporate branding, some NGOs are making tens of thousands of pounds through the wristbands.’

Concludes filmmaker John Pilger, who was once very close to Oxfam, ‘Many NGOs have embraced a version of corporatism and a closeness to the British government, whose neoliberal trade policies remain a source of much of the world’s poverty.’

Africa has seen many such ‘Coopted NGOs’ (also termed CoNGOs). Possibly the toughest evaluation of this phenomenon was offered by James Petras and Henry Veltmayer, who are both academics but with extensive experience with social movements. Their 2001 article, ‘NGOs in the service of imperialism’, is still the seminal critique of those which ‘. confer with top business and financial directors and make policy decisions that affect – in the great majority of cases, adversely – millions of people, especially the poor, women and informal sector workers. NGO leaders are a new class not based on property ownership or government resources but derived from imperial funding and their own capacity to control significant popular groups.’

Petras and Veltmayer continue: ‘NGOs have become the latest vehicle for upward mobility for the ambitious educated classes. Academics, journalists and professionals have abandoned their earlier interests in poorly rewarded leftist movements for lucrative careers in managing NGOs. They bring with them their organisational and rhetorical skills and a certain populist language. These structures have displaced and destroyed the organised leftist movements and coopted their intellectual strategists and organisational leaders.’

There are indeed NGOs, not only in Washington and London, but in South Africa and across Africa which, as Petras and Veltmayer allege, ‘deflect popular discontent away from the powerful institutions towards local micro-projects, apolitical “grass roots” self-exploitation and “popular education” that avoids class analysis of imperialism and capitalism. On the one hand they criticise dictatorships and human rights violations but on the other they compete with radical socio-political movements in an attempt to channel popular movements into collaborative relations with dominant neoliberal elites.’

At some point, this general problem will have to be more explicitly confronted. At the Africa Social Forum’s Lusaka meeting last December, resentment was expressed by the Social Movements Indaba coalition from South Africa (including anti-privatisation, anti-debt, landless and environmental activists): ‘The underrepresentation of social movements in relation to NGOs is reflected in the political content of the forum. It manifests in the persistence of the notion that the Africa Social Forum is nothing other than a space, in contrast to the perspective that it should have a programme to advance our struggle against neoliberalism.’

Perhaps once the dust has settled on the wretched deals done by the G8 to the applause of CoNGOs, the latest version of the Africa charity fad will be buried. Then the more durable activists will again be on the frontlines and front pages, whether through specific campaigns against state and corporate malfeasance, or other forms of progressive mobilisation and democratic advocacy, or the construction of national Social Forums and internationally-networked sectoral forums that deliver serious solidarity.

A great opportunity has just arisen between water activists in Accra and Johannesburg. A public water catchment agency in the latter city is muscling in on the World Bank’s privatisation contract, in league with a Dutch water profiteer, so stay tuned for a fight.

These are the kinds of really New Partnerships for Africa’s Development we need (Mbeki’s NEPAD was termed ‘philosophically spot on’ by the Bush State Department). These bottom-up alliances between Africa’s progressive social, ecological and labour movements will, we believe, increasingly request the mainstream NGOs to please move out of the way.

1 comment for “Are mainstream NGOs failing Africa?

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