Some few years ago I had a conversation with a colleague who bluntly told me how he passionately hate Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs).
His vehemence was surprising. NGOs are far from revolutionary organisations, 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 programmes. Short of more radical measures, NGOs seemed to serve an important interim function. 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 my colleague’s hatred of NGOs is clear. NGOs are destructive, both in their current work and in their preclusion of an alternative future beyond the capitalist present. Here are some reasons why NGOs are a tool of imperialism. Military invasions, or the threat of invasion, still play an indispensable role in aiding imperialist countries in their quest to extract and exploit resources and labour 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 favourable conditions for agribusiness for export, sweatshops, resource mines, and tourist playgrounds. While these days military action is usually characterised as 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,” Todger mentions 10,000 NGOs in the country before the 2010 earthquake, more per capita than anywhere else in the world. A large percent of earthquake relief aid was funnelled 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” programmes on Haiti and elsewhere. Even 20 years ago, 80% of USAID money wound up in the pockets of US corporations and “experts.” As the process matured, NGOs evolved into the favoured entity of the parasitical form of accumulation capitalising 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 many years or so in many poor or disaster struck countries, many of those who initiated and led NGOs also came to influence political decisions on Presidents down to members of Parliament.
So global imperialism doesn’t just give NGOs a reason to exist, but involves them actively in the project of imperialist domination. In another example, in 2002 NGOs stood side-by-side with the White House, the CIA, to back what James Petras calls a “military-business-trade-union bureaucrat-led ‘grass roots’ coup” to oust democratically elected President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. After a domestic mobilisation successfully restored Chavez to power, US-financed NGOs backed a lockout orchestrated by oil executives that
“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 programmes 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.
As historian Badruddin Umar stated “Their government and imperialists’ principal objective in this is 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.” NGOs further 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 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 petty bourgeoisie. In poor countries like Haiti, for example they are the largest employer.
Channelling the fight against the worst effects of capitalism through NGOs hides the central contradiction of capitalism, namely that between capital and labour. 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 labour process. 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 trade unions.
However this piece 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. One 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. 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 organise together to defeat capitalism — either we all get free, or none of us will. 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.