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NGOs and Imperialism

Source: Academia by Petrea A. Nes-Iadicola

Introduction: Antagonistic Relationship or Joyful Marriage?

Words etched on page, in their skeletal and bodiless forms, are of little value until saturated within human culture. Culture thus acts as the body of words, giving birth to and moulding the meanings of these otherwise hollow skeletons. The meanings thus attributed to words, in turn require interpretation (which is indeed dependent on one’s cultural context). Subsequently the interpretation of words and their meanings will elicit varying emotive responses to them. This introduction might seem fruitless, but it does indeed carry within it something of great importance. For it is the interpreted meanings attributed to words, and the emotive responses that they elicit that influences how in fact certain concepts and entities are judged and/or prejudged within societies. Equally important, such perceptions and judgements that evolve and in effect clothe naked words may, albeit unintentionally, conceal or illuminate relationships between seemingly disparate concepts.

Thus in part, this paper will seek to reveal a relationship between two seemingly antagonistic and incompatible entities: that of imperialism and that of non-governmental organisations. There exists a paucity of literature examining such a relationship, in part due to the phenomena described above. The term imperialism has often been relegated to the dusty shelves of ancient history, only to be revisited in the confines of Roman, British, French and Spanish episodes of expansionism and conquest. Only relatively recently has there been a resuscitation of this term (albeit limited) in mainstream academic discourse. Even so, ‘imperialism’ remains a term still partly embalmed within the tombs of history and rarely is much serious attention given to those that apply it to the actions for example of the United States or other deemed states of the global ‘North’ or ‘West’ within the modern era.

The latter concept of the ‘non-governmental organisation’ is one that fosters at least a superficial image of benevolence and altruism. Some may even suggest that NGOs provide a sort of panacea to the exploitive tendencies of neoliberal capitalism and act as the vanguards of universal human rights. In as much as these concepts are perceived as such, imperialism and non-governmental organisations could not appear more incompatible. ‘Imperialism’ seems to represent a destructive force whilst NGOs seem to represent a sort of remedy to societal ills. The contention then that NGOs could function in the service of imperialism seems implausible, and yet this is the very premise upon which this paper will depart.

It will hence be argued that there does indeed exist a relationship between these two contrasting entities, and that to some extent, this relationship is mutually reinforcing; wherein in return for Western funding and sponsorship, NGOs act in accordance to the interests of imperialism and neoliberal capitalism. The significance of such an analysis is to be found in the lack of scrutiny given to the relationship of NGOs and their predominantly Western donors. There is a tendency to neglect, especially on the part of academicians to see past this façade of benevolence as it relates to NGOs, and indeed Western interests alike. NGO activities are commonly perceived as being divorced from Western interests and counter to imperialism. Thus, an analysis and exposition of this relationship is not only valuable, but also necessary in encouraging greater critical analysis of this relationship between NGOs and imperialism both in the present and in the future.

Establishing Definitions: Neoliberalism, Imperialism, and Globalisation

For purposes of clarity, it would be constructive to pre-establish definitions to and connections between terms that may be employed throughout this analysis. It will be assumed that non-governmental organisations require not any sort of elaborate definition, being that the term inherently is self-defining. Hence, the focus will be on defining the following terms: imperialism, globalisation, and neoliberalism.

Imperialism, in the most basic sense, implies (historically direct) control of one territory or nation over another (Kiely, 2007, p. 6 & Hobson, 2006 p. 235). This general depiction however, is more reminiscent of colonialism, whereby direct physical control of one nation over another is not only implied, but necessary.

More appropriately instead, a narrower definition of imperialism will be employed throughout this analysis. The following narrower definitions are commonly defined as those of neo-imperialism, capitalist imperialism, or economic imperialism. According to Ray Kiely (2007), “capitalist imperialism refers to the subordination of some territories or nation-states to other territories, which arises out of the uneven development of international capitalist accumulation and the associated hierarchies of the international nation-state system. This may involve economic, political, or military domination, or a combination of these things” (p. 7). According to Michael Parenti (1995): “[imperialism can be defined as] the process whereby the dominant politico-economic interests of one nation expropriate for their own enrichment the land, labor, raw materials, and markets of another people” (p. 5). In sum, imperialism can be understood as a form of ‘indirect’ control as opposed to the direct control of colonialism through economic, military and political means.

Globalisation, according to James Petras and Henry Veltmeyer (2005), can be viewed as both a prescription and description. As a description, “globalization refers to the widening and deepening of international flows of trade, capital, technology, and information within a single integrated global economy”(Petras and Veltmeyer, 2005, p. 11). The description is thus one that seems to imply a benign and possibly beneficial process, whereby several components are freely moving across increasingly transparent borders. However, the description alone, neglects the very real emphasis of globalisation’s economic component.

As a prescription: “globalization involves the liberalization of national and global markets in the belief that free flows of trade, capital, and information will produce the best outcome for growth and human welfare” (Petras and Veltmeyer, 2005, p. 11). The latter prescription reveals globalisation as capitalist globalisation; or rather more specifically, neo-liberal globalisation. Neoliberalism can be understood as an ideology as well as a an economic model beginning in the 1970s, and gaining momentum in the 1980s, which encouraged structural adjustment policies requiring 1) Deregulation 2) Liberalisation, and 3) Privatisation (Roy and Steger, 2010; Harvey 2005). The globalisation which exists today is overwhelmingly reflective of the dominant neoliberal capitalist economic system. Today’s imperialism then, as it relates to neoliberal globalisation, “attempts to contextualize the flows, locating them in a setting of unequal power among conflicting states, classes, and markets” (Petras and Veltmeyer, 2005 p. 26).

Neoliberalism and Separate Development

The neoliberal antidote to ‘mal-development’ in the late 1970s onwards quickly morphed into the neoliberal contagion; instead of fulfilling promises of universal economic growth and progress, it seemed instead to increase the politico-economic divide and in turn dispel any myth of convergence. What is more, due to the structural adjustment policies demanded by neoliberalism, throughout the deemed Global South, social welfare systems quickly began to evaporate as governments turned their attention towards appeasing the global capitalist market. Thus the picture that is painted here is one that portrays 1) growing class divisions and tensions 2) societal fragmentation, and 3) growth of an uninsured population (Duffield, 2007). Equally apparent, the role of the government has shifted towards accommodating corporate interests over popular interests.

The failure of the neoliberal antidote to remedy growing economic disparities both within and between states led to a reconfiguration of development strategy (Duffield, 2007; Veltmeyer, Petras 2005). Instead of continued reassurance that ‘mal-developed’ states would soon reach the status of ‘developed’ states, there surfaced a growing emphasis on ‘separate’ development; or as Mark Duffield has termed, a ‘development of self-reliance (Duffield 2007).’

Now that the politico-economic landscape has been illustrated, the following analysis of NGOs as an extension of imperialism will rely on Mark Duffield’s analysis found in his book Development, Security and Unending War. Important concepts which will be examined will be that of petty sovereignty, development of self-reliance, and the notion of ‘containment’ of surplus populations. The reliance on Duffield’s analysis of these three concepts will serve to argue that indeed NGO activities can be viewed as serving Western interests, and thus in turn, serving imperialism.

Development of Self-Reliance

The advocating of ‘separate’ development, as alluded to above, surfaced as a result of the growing opposition to neoliberal economic policies, especially in the 1980s and 1990s (Petras, 1997; Petras, 1999). However, this ‘separate development’ which was marketed to those most affected by the neoliberal economic policies, was not so much meant to remedy the growing socio-economic devastation plaguing those in the mal-developed world, but instead as a means to pacify discontent.

Mark Duffield employs the term the ‘development of self-reliance’ to explain this new separate development (Duffield, 2007). To further elaborate, the term ‘development of self-reliance’ has its origins in the related terms of ‘insured’ versus ‘uninsured’ populations. According to Duffield (2007), insured populations represent those in the deemed Global North or Global West. ‘Insured’ implies that a welfare state, to some degree is intact. The concept of being uninsured, reserved for those of the Global South, implies that a social welfare state is virtually non-existent. The non-existence of a social welfare state for the uninsured populations is directly related to the exploitation of the uninsured by the insured populations. This exploitation is further exacerbated by neoliberal policies which encouraged further dismantling of any social welfare state which may have existed in the mal-developed world, in order to make such countries appear more attractive to foreign direct investment and the like in the age of neoliberal globalisation.

Of course, such neoliberal policies which resulted in further exploitation of the uninsured populations and further dismantling of any state-run social welfare system which may have existed were encouraged under the guise that their implementation would indeed result in the economic betterment of the uninsured populations (Harvey, 2005). When the contrasting results were acknowledged by the uninsured populations, growing discontent ensued. Thus, the separate development recipe was concocted as a strategy to divert the growing discontent with neoliberalism to a new, promising economic strategy of ‘self-reliance’ and sustainability (Duffield, 2007).

In truth, according to James Petras, this new, separate development actually equated to nothing more than ‘neoliberalism from below (1999).’ Indeed, this was not so much a new development strategy as it was merely “[redefining previous development goals to accommodate global polarisation]”(Duffield, 1997, p. 529) Therefore self-reliant/sustainable development strategies promoted development for the uninsured, insomuch as it did not conflict with the dominant politico-economic system, and within it, the subordinate relationship of the uninsured to the insured populations. In reality then, this new stylish form of development was not geared towards promoting economic growth per se, but rather “to provide conditions of political stability for the neoliberal world order and a local benign or human face to imperialism” (Veltmeyer, 2005 p. 91). Development in this sense, according to Duffield (2007), suggests that “poor and non-insured communities are expected to live within their own powers of self-reliance” (p. 68).

It is here that non-governmental organisations make their grand debut. Non-governmental organisations became, unconsciously or not, tools of the insured populations to facilitate compliance and deter resistance to these ‘new’ development strategies. According to Petras (1997):

There is a direct relationship between the growth of social movements challenging the neoliberal model and the effort to subvert them by creating alternative forms of social action through the NGO. [As opposition to neoliberal policies grew in the 1980s, U.S. and European governments subsequently increased their funding of NGOs]. In other words, as the neoliberal regimes at the top devastated communities by inundating the country with cheap imports, extracting external debt payment, abolishing labour legislation, and creating a growing mass of low paid and unemployed workers, the NGOs were funded to provide ‘self-help’ projects, popular education, and job training, to temporarily absorb small groups of poor, to co-opt local leaders, and to undermine anti-system struggle. (Petras, 1997, p. 11)

As illustrated here, the demand and subsequent support of NGOs rose with the rise in discontent with neoliberal development policies directed towards the uninsured populations. Equally noteworthy is that the rising discontent from the uninsured populations was met with an attempt by the insured populations through increased funding and support of NGOs, to curtail or reroute this opposition towards support of this modern development strategy which truly in effect served the same purposes of the former development strategy in maintaining the exploitive relationship between the uninsured and insured populations (Petras, 1997). NGOs not only served to curtail resistance to neoliberal economic policies, but they also served in altering expectations (Duffield 2007). In other words, making the uninsured feel ‘empowered’ through their participation in micro-projects and in decision-making as it relates to these projects within the parameters established by NGOs is emphasised, whilst inquiries into the effects of the macro political and economic structures embedded within the global system themselves are discouraged (Veltmeyer, 2005).

Petty Sovereignty of NGOs

The dissipation of the social welfare state for the uninsured population, as required by neoliberal economic policies, left a gaping chasm that required at least partial suturing. The state no longer a candidate, as it was now preoccupied with quenching corporate thirst, the now well-endowed NGO sufficed to fill the vacuum. David Harvey addresses and confirms this assumption of former social responsibilities of the state by NGOs stating that “the NGOs have in many instances stepped into the vacuum in social provision left by the withdrawal of the state from such activities. This amounts to privatization by NGO. In some instances this has helped accelerate further state withdrawal from social provision” (Harvey, 2005, p. 177).

Thus, NGOs have assumed at least in some measure, the role of the former state. According to Mark Duffield (2007), by assuming a ‘state’ role and maintaining an anti-statist stance, NGOs morph into a sovereign power all of their own. It should also be apparent that an inverse relationship exists between the sovereignty of NGOs and the sovereignty of the mal-developed state. As NGOs embrace this new sovereignty bestowed upon them, the state in part due to the preceding phenomena coupled with the neoliberal prescriptions encouraged by the Global North and West, must consequently surrender some of its sovereignty (Duffield, 2007).

Also imperative, this status of NGO sovereignty is contingent upon the condition that the umbilical leash between NGOs and their Western donors not be severed. Duffield refers this type of NGO sovereignty as ‘petty sovereignty.’ He argues that the petty sovereignty of NGOs was governmentalised in the 1990s (Duffield, 2007, p. 25). In other words, governmentalising the petty sovereignty of NGOs can be equated to the harnessing of this nascent sovereignty to serve Western interests in a post-interventionary society (Duffield 2007, p. 25). As such, NGOs constitute a substitute for direct foreign government intervention in the affairs of mal-developed states.

Numerous problems arise in light of NGO petty sovereignty. One such problem concerns the ability of NGO programmes to act as sufficient substitutes for state-led initiatives; whist the other problem addresses the issue of accountability. Both problems are critically interrelated. In reference to the former issue, it could be rightly argued that NGOs are inept to assume such a role. The ineptness stems from issues of resource availability, but even more crucially to the notion of accountability.

It would be inspiring, yet foolish to believe NGOs are to be held accountable to those they serve (assuming that they serve for instance the aid recipients of the mal-developed world). In reality, NGOs are held accountable for the most part to their Western and Northern funders. At the time James Petras wrote his article on NGOs and imperialism in 1999, there were an estimated 50,000 NGOs world wide receiving over 10 billion USD in funding from international financial institutions (including civil society foundations such as the Ford Foundation and Soros Foundation), European, US, and Japanese government agencies, and local governments (to a lesser degree) (Petras, 1999).

Undeniably, the very survival of NGOs as it were, is reliant on their capacity to secure funding. Hence, grant proposals are furnished to solicit funding from predominantly Northern/Western government sources, or international financial institutions which work in close collaboration with Northern and Western governments’ interests (Petras, 1999). It logically follows that the disbursement of funds is contingent upon the very programmes proposed by non-governmental organisations. Thus it hardly merits explanation that NGOs will propose programmes attractive to Western donors, and their financial assets.

The implications of this are numerous and disillusioning. One such implication is that through the competition to secure funding, NGOs increasingly will implement programmes deemed appropriate by the insured populations of the North, rather than those in demand by the uninsured of the South (Petras, 1999). The assessment of NGO performance is also conducted by the donors. Furthermore, if a programme is regarded as suddenly unworthy by the funders, there would be a cessation or withdrawal of funding, causing the subsequent abandonment of the programme and its beneficiaries. Thus, it is not the impoverished recipients of aid who possess the greatest means of influencing NGO programmes and activities, but the donors who represent the most influential stakeholders.

James Petras regards the relationship between NGOs, their Western and Northern donors, and the prospective recipients of their programmes as one laden with imperialist undertones. He summarises this imperialist relationship in what follows:

Projects are designed based on guidelines and priorities of the imperial centers and their instituions. They are then ‘sold’ to the communities. Evaluations are done by and for the imperial institutions. Shifts of funding priorities or bad evaluations result in the dumping groups, communities, farmers, and cooperatives. Everybody is increasingly disciplined to comply with the donor’s demands and their project evaluators. The NGO directors, as the new viceroys, supervise and ensure conformity with the goals, values and ideology of the donors as well as the proper use of funds. (Petras, 1997, p. 434)

Containment of Surplus Populations

The final concept to be examined as it relates to NGOs and imperialism is Duffield’s concept of ‘containment.’ More explicitly, Duffield refers to containment as a liberal technology of security employed by the insured populations of the developed world to contain the ‘underdevelopment’ of the surplus populations, being synonymous with the uninsured populations of the mal-developed world (Duffield, 2007). The strategy of containment can be seen as seeking to fulfil a dual purpose: on the one hand, containment serves to secure the politico-economic status and hegemonic position of the Global North and West, whilst respectively serving to maintain the socio-economic conditions and subordinate position of the Global South (Duffield, 2007).

NGOs, albeit it may be unintentionally, thus serve this strategy of containing the uninsured populations at the behest of the insured populations. To explicate further, NGOs through funding from Northern and Western donors, will implement programmes favourable to the insured population’s continued politico-economic dominance in the global sphere. Following this, the programmes and activities of NGOs will not seek to dismantle the neoliberal politico-economic system perpetuated by globalisation. This thus secures conditions for the continuance of a specific lifestyle for the insured populations, whereby consumptive patterns are not threatened by macro redistributive policies advocated by mass social movements.

In contrast, NGOs purport to contain the surplus or uninsured life of the mal-developed world by encouraging participation in micro-projects complimentary to development strategies of self-reliance. These programmes and activities are in turn supervised by the primary stakeholders (being predominantly the Western and Northern donors), and subject to their discretion (Petras, 1999; Petras, 1997). There is a tendency that emerges, in part due to the relationship between the donors and the NGOs, to support those projects which do not present a challenge to the subordinate position of the uninsured populations to the insured populations. In addition, NGOs serve to undermine any modicum of solidarity which may develop and mature through mass social movements challenging macro social, economic, and political structures which maintain the respective dominant and subordinate positions of the Global North and Global South in the international system (Petras, 1999; Petras, 1997).

Moreover, development programmes administered by NGOs in an effort to contain surplus populations, often contribute to greater societal fragmentation and the undermining of mass movements for social change. For instance, by tailoring programmes to focus on identity politics, aid recipients may subconsciously trade deeper issues of concern for superficial ones (Petras, 1999, p. 436). Focusing on empowerment of a particular race or ethnicity for example, may divert attention away more pertinent issues of socio-economic class.

Additionally, NGOs serve to placate uninsured discontent by redirecting their attention towards supposed grass-roots initiatives. Their claim of non-partisanship also serves, according to Petras, to depoliticise and demobilise the poor. “It is no coincidence that as NGOs have become dominant in certain regions, independent class political action has declined, and neo-liberalism goes uncontested” (Petras, 1999, p. 435). In fact, as alluded to earlier in this analysis, NGOs serve in a sense to paint a human face on neo-liberal globalisation, contributing to growing acceptance or at the very least complacency towards this politico-economic systems. The sum of societal fragmentation, political complacency, and acceptance of the politico-economic system facilitate the containment of the surplus, uninsured populations by the insured populations by preventing the maturation of any challenge by the uninsured to the international status quo.

NGOs: Petty Sovereignty, Development of Self-Reliance, Containment of Surplus populations

The three terms above, used by Mark Duffield in his book Development, Security and Unending War, have been incorporated into this analysis to provide in a sense a basic structure to which the argument as to whether there exists an imperial-NGO link would come to fruition. It will useful here to briefly recapitulate the findings above as they relate to the role of NGOs and their respective Western and Northern donors.

NGOs emerged as petty sovereign powers to fill the chasm left by the dissipation of the social welfare state for the uninsured populations in the Global South. The dissipation of the social welfare state occurred due to neoliberal politico-economic policies encouraged by the Global North/West under that guise that the implementation of such policies would serve a remedial function to socio-economic ills plaguing the uninsured populations. Dispelling myths of eventual social convergence, the opposite reality surfaced, causing rising mass discontent on behalf of the uninsured populations.

Through funding by predominantly Western and Northern donors, NGOs promoted a development agenda favourable to securing the politico-economic conditions and hegemonic position of the insured populations of the Global North and West, whilst attempting to mollify resistance to the macro political and economic structures which reinforced the subordinate position of the Global South. Additionally, NGOs served to contain the underdevelopment of surplus and uninsured life through advocating a development of self-reliance and sustainability.

The Imperial Link

Employing the concept of imperialism as defined in the introduction of this analysis as “the subordination of some territories or nation-states to other territories, [arising] out of the uneven development of international capitalist accumulation and the associated hierarchies of the international nation-state system” (Kiely, 2007, p. 7); “a process whereby the dominant politico-economic interests of one nation expropriate for their own enrichment the land, labor, raw materials, and markets of another people” (Parenti, 1997, p. 5), it can now be deemed appropriate to apply Duffield’s concepts of development of self-reliance, petty sovereignty, and containment as they pertain to NGO activities to imperialism.

From the recapitulation of the three terms sketched out above, it is not difficult to ascertain that there does indeed materialise a plausible marriage between NGOs and imperialism. If imperialism is to be considered a form of indirect rule whereby one nation or state necessarily must exploit another for its own enrichment and to secure its politico-economic dominance in the international system, it is not difficult then to see how the petty sovereignty of NGOs can be harnessed to serve the imperial interests of the Northern and Western donors.

It was argued above that NGOs constitute a petty sovereign power; however that such sovereignty is contingent upon the financial link between NGOs and their predominantly Northern and Western donors. Thus the puppeteers, not the puppets, are the ones truly possessing any form of concrete sovereignty and subsequently are the ones whose interests are ultimately being served. The development of self-reliance encouraged through NGO programmes also serves to ‘contain’ or manage the underdevelopment of surplus life. This also is to the benefit of the imperial centre; whereby control, even containment, of the periphery is required to maintain their hegemonic position in the international system.

Concluding Remarks

The above analysis does not pretend to be an exhaustive examination of the relationship between NGOs and imperialism. Rather it intends to suffice as a stimulant for a more scrutinous investigation into the activities of NGOs and the Northern and Western interests they may serve. It is however the contention of this paper, that there indeed exists a relationship between imperialism and NGOs, and that such a relationship shall continue as long as funding from the insured populations ensures the safety of their imperial interests. Severance of this umbilical link between Western and Northern governments to their complicit non-governmental counter parts would indeed constitute a possible divorce between NGO activities and imperialism. However, the occurrence of this divorce seems a rather distant possibility. Even so, it is the hope of this humble analysis that the formerly complacent reader will at least have been provoked to see past the benevolent façade of non-governmental organisations, and consider the argument that an imperial-NGO marriage, to some extent does indeed exist.