Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Are you being served?

(June 2004)

From Socialist Review, No.286, June 2004.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

There’s more to the role of NGOs than meets the eye

Left wing activists raised one issue repeatedly with me when I spoke at a number of meetings in Pakistan a few months back: ‘What can we do about the NGOs? How can we stop them continually damaging struggles?’ The vehemence of the questioning would surprise many activists in the west. The plethora of non-governmental organisations that have sprung up in the last two decades are usually thought of here as campaigners who expose the misdeeds of corporations and governments. In Naomi Klein’s No Logo they were presented as part of the ‘swarm’ that was going to paralyse corporate power. But the campaigning organisations are only a small minority of the NGOs. The majority play a very different role.

One by-product of the spread of neoliberalism is that governments consciously follow policies of using voluntary agencies to replace state provision of services. The point has been reached in Mozambique where NGOs run the whole transport system, or in Afghanistan where, as Conor Foley of the Norwegian refugee councils says, they ‘have assumed responsibility for state-type functions such as the provision of public services, health and education’.

It is this which explains the massive growth in the number of NGOs, from 145,000 worldwide in 1990 to 255,000 ten years later. And the funds flowing to them have increased accordingly, so that total expenditure in Britain alone now exceeds £5 billion. Whether they like it or not, many of those running NGOs are filling in, on the cheap, gaps in social provision for which the state should be responsible. Yet they do so using words like ‘empowerment’ that make it seem that they are making things better, not papering over the cracks as they get worse. But criticism from the Pakistani activists was not restricted just to service-providing NGOs. It was also directed at those heading campaigns.

They are accused of derailing popular movements. They have money which other grassroots activists lack, getting it from foundations run by western multinationals or from governmental bodies. This means they can go into an area from the outside and offer local people the finance and resources they need to advance their campaigns.

The local campaigners pay a price. The NGOs will tend to restrict their demands so as not to offend their donors. And, just as seriously, the NGO money tends to create a layer of privileged activists, cut off from the people around them – mini-bureaucracies intent above all, on keeping the NGO happy. So NGOs cramp the development of the very movements they encourage, limiting them to single issues that do not challenge the system as a whole, and co-opting leaders who are removed from control from below. Such criticism points to a very real problem. But it usually fails to provide an answer to it. For in many countries the influence of the campaigning NGOs is growing much more rapidly than that of the left. That was very clear at the World Social Forum in Mumbai, when NGOs brought many of the people who applauded denunciations of imperialism and neoliberalism.

Many NGO activists come from the left or are potential recruits to the left. In much of the world the old left of the 1960s and 1970s fell apart in the 1980s and 1990s. Disillusionment, especially after the disintegration of the Eastern bloc, led many of its members to retreat from any idea of total confrontation with the world system and turn to single-issue campaigns. The massive growth of NGOs fitted neatly into this shift. It allowed people to preserve old notions of ‘serving the people’ in new ways – and to receive salaries while doing so. Hence the way in which people who were once stalwarts of the far left run many NGOs.

The NGOs attracted support by taking up issues which the left organisations were no longer ready or willing to agitate around. As a result they are often the only people in third world countries helping workers, peasants and the poor to organise. This did not do away with their negative features. As the spread of neoliberalism reduced the possibilities for reform through single-issue agitation, the pressure was on salaried full timers to become mediators, reconciling people to the system.

But this tendency has produced counter-currents. Many NGO activists and, especially, the grassroots groups they organise do not want to go in this direction. Some have begun to see the need to go beyond one-issue campaigns if they are ever to win even small gains. The differentiation is not complete – and, indeed, cannot be, given the very way the NGOs raise money and organise. Their activists draw people into struggle, but then still all too often clamp down on any further militancy lest it goes beyond the NGO’s framework.

In one limited way activist NGOs resemble a much older phenomenon – that of reformist trade unionism. This too organises people to demand reforms from the system, but attempts to do so in a controlled way that discourages militant struggle confronting the system as a whole. This too has a privileged layer of full time officialdom, which attempts to detach new activists from the grassroots and co-opt them into its own framework.

The response of the genuine left cannot be simply to dismiss such bureaucratic structures out of hand. It is necessary to avoid the trap of putting your faith in them, getting entangled in their apparatuses and partaking of their privileges. But it is also necessary to respond to them tactically. This means working alongside them in united fronts to pull people into activity that clashes with many of the reformist notions embodied in the official structures.

The analogy with the trade unions must not be pushed too far. The NGOs usually shy away from organising compact, powerful groups like workers. But they do organise some of the most oppressed groups in ways which the left has often failed to do in recent years, and we need to find ways to pull those they organise into the wider struggle. The campaigning NGOs are not simply an adjunct to the system. They are a new form of reformism. As such they can express, partially, in a distorted manner, people’s discontents with the system. That is why many were at Seattle and Genoa, Florence and Paris and Mumbai. And that is why we should welcome their presence at the same time as making it clear that their methods are not the same as ours.

The comrades in Pakistan were right to criticise the NGOs. They were wrong to believe we can build the new movement by simply turning our backs on them and on those they attract.

Last updated on 27 December 2009