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Silence in NGO Discourse

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) maintain a ubiquitous presence in most peoples lives (whether they realize it or not). It therefore should be a commonsense act that we scrutinize NGO activities to ascertain their exact political function within the “our” neoliberal world order, yet this is not normally the case. In response to this deliberative void, Issa Shivji, a professor of law based at the University of Dar es Salaam (Tanzania) argues the urgent need for such critical inquiry’s in his useful booklet Silence in NGO Discourse: The Role and Future of NGOs in Africa (Pambazuka Press, 2007). As Firoze Manji observes in the publications foreword: often “dressed up with the verbiage of participatory approaches,” “[o]ver the last two decades, development NGOs have become an integral, and necessary, part of a system that sacrifices respect for justice and rights.” Shivj’s own background, helps inform his work, and in his introduction he notes:

“Before I begin, I must make two confessions. First,my paper is undoubtedly critical, sometimes ruthlessly so, but not cynical. Second, this criticism is also self-criticism, since the author has been involved in NGO activism for some 15 years. Finally I must make clear that I do not doubt the noble motivations and good intentions of NGO leaders and activists. But we do not judge the outcome of a process by the intentions of its authors. We aim to analyse the objective effects of actions, regardless of their intentions.” (p.2)

This is an important point, and so after summarizing some of his criticisms of the NGO community, I aim to to “analyse the objective effects of” Shivji’s booklet in an attempt to determine the limitations of his scathing polemic.

Shivji correctly diagnoses that the rise and rise of the nonprofit sector is closely aligned to neoliberal growth imperatives which “banishe[d] issues of equality and equity to the realm of rights, not development.” In this way, “’rights’ are reduced to the purview of advocacy NGOs, no longer a terrain for popular struggle.” “NGOs by accepting the myth of being non-political contribute to the process of mystification, and therefore objectively side with the status quo, contrary to their expressed stand for change.” While such a troubling discourse had been vigorously challenged both from within academia and on the streets, unfortunately, as Shivji points out: “A large part of the African intellectual elite has been co-opted and accommodated within the neoliberal discourse.” Thus his thesis is “that the sudden rise of NGOs and their apparently prominent role in Africa are part of this neoliberal” offensive. He argues that NGOs merely represent the “continued domination of imperialism… in a different form.”

“Within this context, NGOs are neither a third sector, nor independent of the state. Rather they are inextricably imbricated in the neoliberal offensive, which follows on the heels of the crisis of the national project. Unless there is awareness on the part of NGOs of this fundamental moment in the struggle between imperialism and nationalism, they end up playing the role of ideological and organisational foot soldier of imperialism, however this is described.” (p.29)

According to Shivji, silences in the NGO discourse shield the public from the following five facts: (1) NGOs are very much a part of the neoliberal onslaught on democracy, indeed the “anti-state stance of the so-called donor-community was the real push behind the upsurge in NGO activity”; (2) “NGOs are led by and largely composed of the educated elite” (falling into three categories, those “previously engaged in political struggles,” altruistic individuals who are “morally motivated,” and a mainstream “careerist” elite motivated by personal ambitions); (3) an “overwhelming number of NGOs are donor funded”; (4) “perhaps the most dominant” form of NGOs are donor-driven”; and (5) “[i]ncreasingly the model for the ‘successful’ NGO is the corporation.”

On top of these unspoken and self evident truths, it is clear that the contemporary political landscape is less amenable to human directed social change than in past years. Thus in former years “radical intellectual discourse was integrated with militant activism,” however:

“The NGO discourse in the current period of apparent imperial ‘triumphalism’ eschews theory, and emphasizes and privileges activism. In the African setting in particular, whatever is left of critical intellectual discourse, largely located in the universities, runs parallel to and is divorced from NGO activism. The requirements of funding agencies subtly discourage, if not exhibiting outright hostility to a historical, social and theoretical understanding of development, poverty and discrimination. Our erstwhile benefactors now tell us: ‘just act, don’t think’; and we shall fund both.” (pp.34-5)

Bias against theory within NGOs is manifested in various ways which include the managerial “penchant for project funding,” a single issue focus (which means “its interconnectedness to other issues and the whole is lost”), and finally “issue-orientated and time-limited projects do not allow for any long-term basic research based on solid theoretical and historical premises.” This theoretical detachment from the world around them means that “the ‘common sense’ theoretical assumption of the current period underpinning NGO roles and actions is neoliberalism in the interest of global imperialism.” Here Shivji cites Brian Murphy who writes that: “What the corporate PR manager understands implicitly as economic propaganda, NGO people often repeat as articles of faith.”

“To pretend that society is a harmonious whole of stakeholders is to be complicit in perpetrating the status quo in the interest of the dominant classes and powers. In the struggle between national liberation and imperialist domination, and between social emancipation and capitalist slavery, NGOs have to choose sides. In this there are no in-betweens.” (p.41)

Shivji concludes that: “In spite of these limitation, I do believe that NGOs can play some worth role. But we do have to recognise what we are not.” This may be true, but I would like to suggest that Shivji’s decision to provide no discussion of the imperialist history of liberal philanthropy clouds his readers’ ability to differentiate between obviously manipulative donors like the World Bank, and the US Agency for International Development, and what are often considered (falsely) to be benign donors, like liberal foundations. This is problematic as understanding the long and dirty history of liberal philanthropy is integral to comprehending the deeper phenomena that undergird the imperialist evolution of the NGO-driven change industry.

It is perhaps too much to ask to expect that Shivji should turn on the hand that feeds him, and so in this regard it is important to extend his criticisms by examining the background of his booklets publishers, Pambazuka News. Prefacing his work, the publisher is described as such:

“Pambazuka News is the authoritative pan-African newsletter and platform for social justice in Africa, offering comprehensive weekly coverage, cutting edge commentary and in-depth analysis on politics and current affairs, development, human rights, refugees, gender issues and culture in Africa. It is intended as a tool for progressive social change.” (p.xi)

What is not mentioned is that Pambazuka News, which is produced and published by Fahamu: Networks For Social Justice, is itself funded by the world’s leading liberal elites, including groups like Christian Aid, the Ford Foundation, and George Soros’ Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa. As history has shown, such elites are quite willing to fund and even promote radical critiques of society (within limited circles at least), if only so they are better placed to co-opt their ideological adversaries more effectively. In fact, Shivji’s fairly superficial critique of NGOs is just the type of work that is typically promoted by reformist elites; while by way of a contrast, more radical criticisms, like for example, INCITE!’s edited book The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond The Non-Profit Industrial Complex (South End Press, 2007), are conveniently ignored.

This is not to say that much useful information cannot be gleamed from Shivji, but we should understand that people who have been embedded in the non-profit industrial complex for a long time are not necessarily the best people to critique it. Therefore, instead of just relying upon elite-dominated universities to provide such criticism we need to turn to the people around us, and work together with them to develop the type of research bodies that will be need to meld theoretical and activist concerns in a manner that can truly promote revolutionary social change.

Michael Barker is the author of Under the Mask of  Philanthropy

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Michael Barker is the author of Under the Mask of Philanthropy (2017).

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