The Useful Altruists: How NGOs Serve Capitalism and Imperialism


About 20 years ago, in a conversation with a Bangladeshi organizer, the topic of non-government organizations (NGOs), or non-profits as they’re often called, came up. He said bluntly: “I hate NGOs.” His vehemence was surprising. NGOs are far from revolutionary organizations, but their work still seemed more helpful than not. Political differences with them aside, it seemed dogmatic to denounce free health care and anti-poverty programs. Short of more radical measures, NGOs seemed to serve an important interim function.

Since that conversation, NGOs have proliferated across the globe. First deployed in dominated countries, they have now become a staple of the political landscape in the imperial core as well. Today, the reasons for the organizer’s hatred of NGOs are clear. NGOs are destructive, both in their current work and in their preclusion of an alternative future beyond the capitalist present.

Here are four reasons why:

1) NGOs undermine, divert, and replace autonomous mass organizing.

NGOs have come to occupy a central role in social movements and political activism in the US and elsewhere —what Arundhati Roy calls the “NGO-ization of resistance.”

Sincere people often believe that they will be able to “get paid to do good,” but this is a fantasy. Nina Power writes that “there is no longer any separation between the private realm and the working day,” contending that “the personal is no longer just political, it’s economic through and through.” While she does not explicitly make this connection herself, the mushrooming of “social justice” and political NGOs is a good example of the erosion of this separation.

For those of us involved in organizing, there is an eerily familiar pattern: Some atrocity happens, outraged people pour into the streets, and once together, someone announces a meeting to follow up and continue the struggle. At this meeting, several experienced organizers seem to be in charge. These activists open with radical language and offer to provide training and a regular meeting space. They seem to already have a plan figured out, whereas everyone else has barely had time to think about the next step. The activists exude competence, explaining—with diagrams—how to map out potential allies, as they craft a list of specific politicians to target with protests.

They formulate simplistic “asks” to “build confidence with a quick win” and anyone who suggests a different approach — perhaps one involving the voices of people other than the mysterious default leaders — is passive-aggressively ignored. Under their guidance, everyone mobilizes to occupy some institution or the office of a politician, or to hold a march and rally. The protest is loud and passionate and seems quite militant, yet, the next thing you know, you find yourself knocking on a stranger’s door, clipboard in hand, hoping to convince them to vote in the next election.

There are certainly variations on this theme, but the central point remains: NGOs exist to undermine mass struggle, divert it into reformist dead ends, and supplant it. For example, at many “Fight for $15” demonstrations in Miami, the vast majority of participants were paid activists, employees of NGOs, CBOs (Community Based Organizations), and union staff seeking potential members. Similarly, some Black Lives Matter protests in Miami have been led and largely populated by paid activists who need to demonstrate that they are “organizing the community” in order to win their next grant.

Student organizing is also channeled into NGO activism. In Iowa, one “student power” non-profit actively reaches out to student organizers, urging them to unite and build power with other young radicals in the state and region, only to then funnel them directly into the Democratic Party with emails like this: “Iowa’s Senate race is one of the most contentious and closest races in the country right now. YOUR VOTE IS IMPORTANT AND CAN MAKE A HUGE DIFFERENCE!” This co-option of student organizing into reformism is rampant, and directly funded by capitalists.

When an “unorganized” person is spotted at these types of mobilizations, they are surrounded like fresh meat in a circle of hyenas, instantly devoured by paid activists who must meet recruitment quotas to keep their jobs. The next time you see these new recruits, they are clad in the purple, red, orange, or lime green t-shirt of whatever org brand they have been sold.

This hardly seems like the kind of “organizing” that Black Panther George Jackson had in mind when he urged revolutionaries to go to the masses in order to “contribute to the building of the commune, the infrastructure, with pen and clipboard in hand.”

Activism is being capitalized and professionalized. Instead of organizing the masses to fight for their interests, NGOs use them for their own benefit. Instead of building a mass movement, they manage public outrage. Instead of developing radical or revolutionary militants, they develop paid but ineffective activists along with passive recipients of assistance.

It has not always been normal for organizers to be paid. Before the NGO-ization of resistance, radicals took up the struggle from the perspective of international working class interests, from our conscience, and with a burning desire to crush the enemy and change the world.

Today, organizing without financial compensation is an almost alien concept. When we go out leafleting—yes, we still pass out paper leaflets—people often inquire: “How do I get a job doing that?” Our reply that we don’t get paid is often met with disbelief.

This internalization of the NGO mindset is a large part of why Left struggles are so weak. The capitalist class, often with the help of the state, has historically been extremely effective at repressing the Left, sometimes through infiltration and violence like the FBI’s COINTELPRO program. But today repression and displacement of dissent is just as likely to come from the well-intentioned activist with sign and clipboard in hand. Capital has no need to infiltrate these organizations because they fund them.

2) NGOs are a tool of imperialism.

Military invasions, or the threat of invasion, still play an indispensable role in aiding imperialist1 countries in their quest to extract and exploit resources and labor in the global periphery. But the “boots on the ground” tactic has more and more become a measure of last resort in a broader, more comprehensive strategy of control that today also includes less costly and socially disruptive methods.

NGOs, like missionaries, are used to penetrate an area to prepare favorable conditions for agribusiness for export, sweatshops, resource mines, and tourist playgrounds. While these days military action is usually characterized (at least to the home population) as a humanitarian intervention, the ostensibly humanitarian character of NGOs seems to justify itself. But it is essential to apply the same critical eye to NGO interventions that we do to military interventions.

Haiti is the most extreme example of NGO complicity in imperialist aggression. Referred to by many Haitians as “the republic of NGOs,” there were already 10,000 NGOs in the country before the 2010 earthquake, more per capita than anywhere else in the world. 99 percent of earthquake relief aid was funneled through NGOs and other agencies, who made out like bandits, pocketing most of the money that people around the world had donated in good faith with the expectation that it would actually help the communities devastated by the catastrophe.

This is not new. Decades ago, USAID and the World Bank were already imposing export-led economies and concomitant “structural adjustment” programs on Haiti and elsewhere. Even 20 years ago, 80% of USAID money wound up back in the pockets of US corporations and “experts.” As the process matured, NGOs evolved into the favored entity of this parasitical form of accumulation, capitalizing and feeding on the misery created by “aid” in the first place.

In many dominated countries, NGO directors have become a fraction of the bureaucratic bourgeoisie, using the state as their source of primary capital accumulation. For the past 20 years or so in Haiti, many of those who initiated and led NGOs also came to occupy political roles from President to Prime Minister to members of Parliament, including Aristide, Préval, and Michèle Pierre-Louis.

So global imperialism doesn’t just give NGOs a reason to exist, but involves them actively in the project of imperialist domination.2 In another example, in 2002 NGOs stood side by side with the White House, the CIA, and the AFL-CIO to back what James Petras calla “military-business-trade-union bureaucrat-led ‘grass roots’ coup” to oust democratically elected President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. After a domestic mobilization successfully restored Chavez to power, US-financed NGOs backed a lockout orchestrated by oil executives that was only defeated by workers’ subsequent takeover of the industry.

3) NGOs replace what the state should be doing.

“Aid” agencies funded by capitalist/imperialist institutions—corporations, foundations, and the G8—have taken over key functions of states in dominated countries. Ironically, the need for aid has come from draconian loan conditions demanded by these same imperialist social formations.

This “withering away” of state-run social programs in both imperialist and dominated countries does not mean that states have become weak. It simply means that they can devote more of their resources to conquest, repression, and accumulation, and less to pacifying the populace, preventing them from rising up in mass discontent.

In Bangladesh, microcredit programs have been aggressively promoted as an ostensible means of easing poverty, but they have had disastrous effects. While microcredit’s founder Muhammad Yunus and his Grameen Bank received the Nobel Prize for creating “economic and social development from below,” in reality, they simply opened up new markets for banks among the rural poor, while the victims of their lending practices have been reduced to selling their organs to pay off interest. As historian Badruddin Umar stated, “Their [government and imperialists’] principal objective in this was to perpetuate poverty and to distract the attention of the poor from political struggles for changing basic relations of production as well as social relations which create and preserve the conditions of poverty.”

Jennifer Ceema Samimi writes that, even in the U.S., “The devolution of the federal government has resulted in the government’s reliance on for-profits and nonprofits to provide a variety of goods and services, including welfare services.” Indeed, the dominated populations in both the imperial core and periphery become increasingly conditioned to get their needs met by shuffling from charity health clinics to food banks to a myriad of other “civil society” agencies.

Health care, food, water, shelter, education, childcare, and meaningful employment are basic necessities of human life. They should be a right, not a gift or a project funded by an NGO.

4) NGOs support capitalism by erasing working class struggle.

Part of the reason NGOs are reproducing so rapidly, in both the imperial core and periphery, is that they’ve become the survival option du jour for unemployed graduates with progressive inclinations navigating a global economy in crisis.

The job market today, even for young people with means and education, is extremely challenging. This fact, coupled with the capitalism’s growing crisis of legitimacy amid skyrocketing inequality and oppression, makes NGOs an attractive employment prospect. They offer a way out, a chance to secure a good job, especially for the petite bourgeoisie.3 In Haiti, for example, they are the largest employer.

The NGO sector is equally attractive to the US petite bourgeoisie as an individualized option to escape proletarianization and class struggle.

Many college-grads, emerging with degrees in the humanities and social sciences, are presented with dreary employment opportunities and have few options for good jobs. With low-wage service work as the alternative, NGO employment is a welcome prospect. As one young NGO employee recently said, work in the non-profit sector is branded as “meaningful” work, work that not only helps make the rent, but also helps change the world.

Uplifting inner-city youth with Teach for America sounds much more enticing than making sandwiches at Subway, but it’s best not to think about how this job makes young teachers complicit in what Glen Ford calls the “corporate anti-education sham” of the racist TFA.

Channeling the fight against the worst effects of capitalism through NGOs hides the central contradiction of capitalism, namely that between capital and labor. The horrific effects of capitalism—oppression, ecocide, wars of conquest, exploitation, poverty—cannot be eliminated without eliminating their cause. The reproduction and accumulation of capital occurs from the production of surplus value through the exploitation of workers in the labor process.

Instead, NGOs highlight the aspirations of the petite bourgeoisie, who are underpaid in the circulation of capital rather than exploited in production (as workers are), are dominated by capital but not in a fundamentally antagonistic relation with it (as workers are). Thus the natural tendency for the petite bourgeoisie, in asserting their class interests, is not to destroy capitalism, but to fight for equality within the capitalist framework. NGOs are an expression of this. The capitalist class relies on them to dampen working class struggle and divert it into reformism, into burying their struggles in establishment political parties and collaborationist unions.

Historically, whenever the working class opens its mouth to call for revolution, the soft pillow of the petite bourgeoisie has been willing to suffocate it. Capitalists lean on the petite bourgeoisie to act as enforcement agents for capitalist domination of the working class. The challenge for the serious progressive, radical or revolutionary militant who happens to be a member of the petite bourgeoisie is to jump out of this imposed track, to consciously reject this role, and prevent being used—inadvertently or otherwise—for reactionary purposes.

A Note to NGO Employees:

This list is not meant to question the sincerity of people who work for NGOs — many are smart, well-intentioned people who genuinely want to make a difference. Jobs are scarce, and it is supremely tempting to believe that these two imperatives — serving humanity while ensuring your own survival — can be combined into one neat, unproblematic package.

This is unfortunately not the case. A Haitian poem goes: “The unity of the chicken and the roach happens in the belly of the chicken” — you can’t change the system from the inside.

But quitting is not the answer, either. We are all trapped in the economy of capitalism, and the vast majority of us are compelled to work for a living. We cannot simply decide to exit on an individual basis. The only way out is to organize together to defeat capitalism — either we all get free, or none of us will.

In the meantime, however, we must avoid confusing NGO employment with real autonomous organizing.

Capitalism will not assist us in destroying it — should we actually become effective in building an anti-capitalist mass movement, capitalists will do everything possible to discredit, neutralize, imprison, and even kill us. They will certainly not issue us a paycheck.

[Note: This article was initially solicited by Jacobin magazine. The first version, by Stephanie McMillan, can be read here.  The current version is co-authored — Vincent Kelley of Grinnell College joined the project to add his perspective and to help revise it according to the Jacobin editor’s requests. We attempted to do so without diluting the content. Their requests included making the language less informal and more “academic,” and culminated in what we both interpret as blatant attempts to erase the working class from its content (the editor disagrees). When we refused to remove what we felt was our central point, Jacobin decided not to run the piece.]


1 We use the term imperialism not to construct a category of “national oppression” or to advocate nationalism as the appropriate political response to imperialist domination. Rather, we understand imperialism as a product of the tendency toward the concentration and centralization of capital. Most basically, imperialism today is characterized by the internationalization of monopoly capital in which the imperial core—in the form of multinational capitalists—extracts surplus value from workers in the periphery, who are no less “productive” than workers in the core, but, rather, whose labor power is super-exploited in comparison to workers in the core. Military conquest, cultural domination, and other aspects of imperialism are dependent upon this relationship of domination at the level of surplus value extraction. In dominated social formations, internal class struggle between the working class and the dominant classes (bureaucratic bourgeoisie, feudal classes) remains the fundamental contradiction, even when the internal development of capitalism has been severely affected by and subordinated to imperialism. For a more in depth discussion of this topic, see http://koleksyon-inip.org/a-brief-definition-of-imperialism/

2 By domination, we mean, in this case, the effects of imperialism on the whole of a peripheral social formation (country). This encompasses an understanding of the impacts of imperialism on all dominated classes in the peripheral social formation, including, but not limited to, the working class. The overturning of imperialist domination requires international action against the imperial core—currently the United States—in both the global periphery and imperial belly of the beast. For an analysis of the imperialist domination of Haiti, see http://koleksyon-inip.org/haiti-and-imperialist-domination/

3. We use the term petite-bourgeois not simply as a stand in for the “middle class,” but rather as a precise and analytically indispensable account of this class’s unique relationship to production. The petite-bourgeoisie is neither those who produce surplus value (the working class) nor those who extract and accumulate it (the capitalist class). This diverse class, not pivotal to the reproduction of the social relations of production, is compelled to side with one of the two autonomous classes, labor or capital. NGO employees are one of many examples of members of this class and must recognize their position as such in order to advance working class rather than capitalist class struggle. We call for working class leadership not because of any moral privilege of workers, but, rather, because of the historical and present failure of the radical petite bourgeois in successfully advancing anti-capitalist struggle. For a more in depth discussion of this topic, see http://koleksyon-inip.org/greece/#more-495.

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