The Unbearable Lightness of NGOs


NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) in one form or another have been part and parcel of the theory of civil society since at least the 18th century. Today, the Enlightenment-era philosophy underwriting such institutions has been hijacked by conservative ideologues to support the downsizing of everything, including federal, state, and local government. This is the neo-faith-based version. Critically, this twisted vision of civil society has attempted to downsize the rights of individuals and call into question the rights of dissent and civil disobedience through perverse, fundamentalist readings of its founding texts. Plugged into the mantra of “family values” this doctored concept of civil society reaches back to the Middle Ages when an individual conscience was a liability and radical statements could land one in the stocks, or worse. Giordano Bruno died for your pre-modern sins.

NGOs were originally conceived as agencies to mediate between government and the individual, but oddly, today, 85% of NGOs are funded by governments. As such, few any longer represent possible venues for significant action influencing both government and citizens. This is the other side of the two-headed coin. In fact, it may be more accurate to say that most NGOs are set up to influence citizens versus government. Today these institutions, once organized from below, are staffed by professionals who work through mediation, compromise, deal-making and the impressive sounding amici curiae, or statements on behalf of everyone else in public hearings and legal proceedings. In the case of the neo-conservative version of civil society and the NGO, the favored writ is sure to be the auto-da-fé, or the virtual death sentence for anyone wandering outside the prescribed circle of acceptable subjectivity. Despite this vicious social whipsaw, that the present-day NGO represents, the pure idea of civil society remains the last, best chance — in the absence of activist government — for collective action in the face of wholesale corruption and influence peddling, or that which passes for “public policy” in the age of globalization and corporatization of nearly everything. Were not the French, American, and Russian revolutions provisional NGOs?


Once upon a time, NGOs were primarily philanthropic organizations, neither fundamentalist rear-guard club nor well-endowed lobby for special interests, populated by a now nearly extinct class of beings, amici humani generis (friends of the human race). Today, however, the majority of NGOs are plush parking groves for the upwardly mobile, de luxe finishing schools (places to polish one’s social skills), and elite bazaars for the nouveaux riche, while the new conservative minority lot participate in the sell-down of individual liberties and public policy. Are churches and/or madrassahs NGOs? Sic transit secular society.

In the former East Bloc countries of Central and Eastern Europe, the NGO is still the preferred means of rebuilding the rudiments of civic culture destroyed by the communists, and for installing new checks and balances in the high-octane, cowboy- and crony-capitalist systems that have replaced the crude-diesel, crony-communist dictatorships of the recent past. The super-rich Soros Foundation pours millions into these countries every year through its Open Society Institute, a late-modern philanthropic operation based on the civil society ideal. OSI-Budapest spent $17,606,000 in 2000 on programs throughout Central and Eastern Europe, including efforts to help the persecuted Romani (Gypsies) and monitoring the ups and downs of integrating the economies of the East with the EU. The ideology of the NGO is in fact pervasive, and both the World Bank and the United Nations maintain congenial relations with NGOs throughout “the developing world.” In the case of the U.N., these groups include champions of human rights, such as Médecins Sans Frontières and Amnesty International, but also champions of free trade, such as the International Chamber of Commerce.

Given this high profile, high flying late-modern version of civil society, one has to ask if certain international NGOs are not stalking horses for globalizing the free-market ideology of the West. Since the ideals of Enlightenment rationality do not automatically translate into the hegemony of the wealthy and powerful, is it not possible that the NGO combined with the lofty rhetoric of neo-civil society is nothing more than an elegant rope trick?


In the Czech Republic, the principal agent of market reforms, after the Velvet Revolution of 1989, was Václav Klaus, a Thatcherite economist (schooled in the hifalutin nonsense of conservative economists Milton Friedman and F. A. Hayek). Klaus was finance minister from 1989 to 1992 and served 1.25 terms as Prime Minister (1992-1997) before resigning. During the Klaus period, Czech state assets were pillaged by newly-wired consortia formed by businessmen, financial institutions, and politicians who legally “tunnelled” (looted) the assets of state industrial and financial structures and dumped the depleted carcasses into the bankruptcy courts. Klaus famously believed that civic culture was the “seasoning of life” and not much more. The absence of a competent press and an independent judiciary, for example, plus a dearth of laws to enforce “transparency” in business transactions, made the scorch-and-burn practices of Czech neo-capitalists all but inevitable. Civil society — with or without NGOs — simply did not exist. Klaus, the die-hard free-marketeer, apparently believed all too much in the hidden hand of the market (even if that hand was stealing state property and buying off politicians). Once a colleague of Vaclav Havel, in the early days after the Velvet Revolution, Klaus became his most bitter enemy.

Havel returned the favor in 1997 (the year Klaus fell from grace) with a speech before the Czech Parliament regarding the post-communist morass: “Human beings are social animals who feel a need to form associations and to take part, even if it were only within their small worlds, in the management of public affairs and in the pursuit of universal benefit. This, too, was somehow forgotten: under the motto the citizen and the state, the citizen was thrown into a hopeless solitude. In order that he would not feel too lonely, and because it was appropriate, the word family was added from time to time. Beyond that, nothing but emptiness.”

State assets continue to be plundered today in the Czech Republic, most recently banks and heavy industry, and the highly-respected journal Respekt is being sued by every single member of current PM Milos Zeman’s cabinet for publishing damning articles about the machinations of the so-called “elite”. The absence of civil society, and meaningful recourse to law, continues to haunt the post-communist world. What in the world could NGOs do in such an environment to make even a pittance of a difference?

Civil society was supposed to engender an elite which would look after the welfare of the nation — this in a time when the Nation-State was in ascendance and when many of the more powerful states were undergoing imperial expansion. This elite, however, schooled in the art of deal-making, soon became the Master (re Nietzsche’s Master/Slave dialectic) and the levers of civil society became a means for enriching oneself. Most NGOs, now and then, are/were the parlor for learning the games of power politics.

In the Czech Republic, today, as elsewhere, a coalition government (combining the worst elements of Klaus’ ODS (Civic Democratic Party), pronounced odious, and Milos Zeman’s CSSD (Czech Social Democrats) has effectively meant stalemate for everyone except those feeding at the trough. The dispossessed have nowhere to turn. One recent story told concerns an elderly woman who jumped off an overpass into the onrushing traffic of a busy expressway in Prague. So many people had jumped from this same bridge in the ’90s that the authorities were forced to erect a fence along the bridge. Not to be deterred, the poor woman brought along her own ladder. Some climb the ladder to enrich themselves, others to end it all.

Civil society in the Czech Republic for the most part remains the romantic dream of President Václav Havel, see Summer Meditations (1992), imprisoned in an all but rhetorical presidency. Havel made the fatal error shortly after 1989 of vesting absolutely no power in the presidency except that of moral authority, something that will be hard to replace once Havel has left the stage. Perhaps he was right, after all? Havel’s faith in civil society is nostalgic, reaching back to the days of the First Republic, the 1920s, before the Nazis and before the Russians, when Tomas Masaryk crafted a Czechoslovak state out of the ruins of the Habsburg Empire. To be fair, however, Havel does not equate the complicity of the NGO with the autonomy of the individual bad conscience — the latter is much worse. He does, however, recognize that criminality runs unchecked — high, low, and in-between — without some form of cultural buffer zone between the elite and the dispossessed.


Here in New York, New York, the typical NGO spends 50% of its time fund-raising, 48% navel-gazing, and 2% hell-raising. This latter percentile is both a result of the exertions required of the first and a byproduct of the lethargy induced by the second. Necessarily middle-of-the-road, or neo-liberal, the vast majority of NGOs are terrified of their own shadow. That shadow is the shade/ghost of civil society past, or the activist origins of the NGO prototype — a radical coalition of citizens. It is a very long shadow.

Most NGOs in Manhattan (a.k.a. New York, New York, New York) are plugged straight into the plutocracy and bank on first-class (upper-class) credentials. The boards are stocked with big fish and the collective aquarium has tinted glass like the limousines that deliver the well-heeled philanthropists to catered banquets that pass as board meetings. Such de luxe NGOs have devolved into a bathetic version of noblesse oblige making real activism by the majority of such outfits all but impossible, save in such glamorous causes as saving Grand Central Terminal from demolition, and etc. The annual meetings for the privileged NGOs are star-studded affairs and one has to wonder how much of their budget is blown on self-congratulatory hype and gala events. Such telling details are buried in the annual report.

The modern NGO is clearly not a substitute for activist government, a very unpopular idea, nor should they lull individuals into thinking that sending $50 a year absolves them of doing anything else. In fact, the bulk of contemporary NGOs form a layer of intermediate fog between individuals and government making it well-nigh impossible to stop the wretched machinery of perpetual deal-making and self-aggrandizement. Given the source of much their money, foundations and government, and given the uncomfortably similar corporate strangle-hold on funding, pimping, and gilding today’s breed of neo-politician (part businessman, part lawyer, part-time talking head, future consultant, future lobbyist, future television commentator, and/or prototype for post-human existence), it is not rocket science to conclude that a landscape of NGOs, as far as the eye can see, is a very gloomy picture indeed.


DYING FOR DOLLARS–The World Bank–“The World Bank recognizes the important role that nongovernmental organizations play in meeting the challenges of development and welcomes the opportunity to work with civil society. The purpose of this website is to keep civil society groups informed about increasing opportunity for interaction with the Bank.”

MULTI-NATIONAL NGOs (!QUANGOs!)–United Nations NGOs Index

LEFT-LEANING EURO-NGOs–Platform of European Social NGOs–“The Social Platform is an association of 37 European non-governmental organisations, federations and networks that work in the social sector and uphold the interests of a wide spectrum of European civil society. The Platform includes associations of organisations representing women, older people, people with disabilities, unemployed people, migrants, people living in poverty, gays, lesbians, young people, children and families. The member organisations also include NGOs working on social issues such as social justice, homelessness, life-long learning, health and racism.”

ORIGINS–Essay on Civil Society by Adam Ferguson (1766)

DOUBLE-TALK IN DUBLIN–Adam Seligman (ISTR–Dublin)–“Thus, for right of center thinkers as well as for libertarian followers of Friedrich Hayek, the quest for civil society is taken to mean a mandate to deconstruct many of the powers of the State and replace them with intermediary institutions based on social voluntarism. For many liberals, civil society is identified with social movements, also existing beyond the State. And while many of the former refuse to recognize that voluntary organizations can be of a particularly nasty nature and based on primordial or ascriptive principles of membership and participation that put to shame the very foundations of any idea of civil society; the latter are blind to the fact that the achilles heel of any social movement, is its institutionalization which–one way or the other–must be through the State and its legal (and coercive) apparatus. In the meantime both communitarians and liberals continue to assimilate the idea of civil society to their own terms, invest it with their own meanings and make of it what they will; identifying with everything from multi-party systems and the rights of citizenship to individual voluntarism and the spirit of community.”–“Civil society is thus that arena where–in Hegelian terms–free, self-determining individuality sets forth its claims for satisfaction of its wants and personal autonomy.”–“For we know that world-wide 85% of advocacy NGO’s are funded by Government or Inter-government budgets. In the USA the percentage is 65% in Europe only 30%.”

VACLAV KLAUS–Markets & Virtue (Acton Institute, 1992)–“Klaus: People always pursue their self-interest, no matter what system they live in. Only ways and methods differ. Market systems, I am sure, encourage people in pursuing their self-interest to follow such ways that require and strengthen human virtue more than human vice.”

VACLAV HAVEL–Summer Meditations (1992)–“The return of freedom in an environment of total moral delinquency has roused what probably had to surface, and what thus was predictable, but which is incomparably more serious than was foreseen: the terrible explosion of the worst human faults. It is as if all the most questionable, or at least the most ambiguous, characteristics were unknowingly cultivated for years in this society and without our knowledge built into the daily functioning of the totalitarian system, so that when suddenly freed from its restraint, they have free rein to burst forth. A kind of regulation — if you can call it that — that the totalitarian regime imposed on them (and by which they were ‘legitimized’) has been ruptured, while a new regulatory system which, instead of taking advantage of these negative aspects, would control them — in other words a system of responsibility freely undertaken by the community toward the community — has not yet been established; nor could it have been, for these things take time.”

MORE HAVEL–Address to the Czech Parliament: The Post-Communist Morass (1997)–“Fascinated by our macro-economic data, we disregarded the fact that this data, sooner or later, reveals also that which lies beyond the macro-economic or technocratic perception of the world: the things that constitute the only imaginable environment for any economic advancement, although their weight or significance cannot be calculated by accountants–things like rules of the game; the rule of law; the moral order behind that system of rules, that is essential for making the rules work; a climate of coexistence. The declared ideal of success and profit was turned to ridicule because we allowed a situation in which the biggest success could be achieved by the most immoral ones, and the biggest profits could go to unpunishable thieves. Paradoxically, the cloak of liberalism without adjectives, which regarded many things as leftist aberrations, concealed the marxist conception about a fundament and a superstructure: morality, decency, humility before the order of nature, solidarity, regard for those who will come after us, respect for the law, a culture of human relations, and many other things were relegated to the realm of the superstructure, and slightly derided as a mere ‘seasoning’ of life–until we found there was nothing to season: the fundament has been tunnelled.”

Gavin Keeney is a landscape architect in New York, New York. He gave $50 to both Médecins Sans Frontières and Amnesty International in 2001. He is the author of On the Nature of Things, a book documenting the travails of contemporary American landscape architecture in the 1990s.

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