Putting the Politics Back In

Tomorrow is the Bond annual conference, and by happy coincidence the overview article that I was asked to write on the trajectory of British international development NGOs – including the Progressive Development Forum – has just been published in the Belfast-based development education journal, Policy & Practice. The full article is available online here, but I thought I’d just put up a taster from the concluding section; references mentioned in the text (including the one to Graham Harrison’s important new book) are provided in full in the article itself:

“Despite periodic efforts to redirect it towards the structural failings of the capitalist world system, the dominant NGO discourse on international development is firmly locked in a colonial mindset.  The demand for humanitarian action ‘on behalf of’ the peoples of the majority world draws its inspiration from the same wellspring as the original ‘civilising mission’ that provided justification for nineteenth century colonialism, in which the Other must be effaced or silenced in order to be granted salvation (Said, 1995; Spivak, 1988).  This sacred duty on the part of the colonial subject reflects a particularly British form of narcissism stemming from an imperial history that is yet to be properly deconstructed in the popular imagination, and one which finds its fullest expression in relation to that most potent symbol of indigence in the modern era, the homogenised construct that is ‘Africa’ (Harrison, 2013).  Fundraising images of emaciated African children awaiting rescue by Western donors, already noted above, represent a direct revival of the imperial tradition by way of the ‘colonial gaze’ (Dogra, 2012).  The religious undertones of the project are never far from the surface: while colonial missionaries sought to save souls, today’s aid agencies, according to their own preferred formulation, ‘save lives’.

“Appeals to this tradition have been highly successful in the British context, not only in sustaining the fundraising income of international development NGOs over the years but also in mobilising large numbers of people behind global poverty campaigns, most notably the MPH campaign of 2005.  It is unclear whether such levels of support can be sustained indefinitely: new surveys of public opinion reveal a growing scepticism as to the credibility of NGO messaging on international issues, and in particular the exaggerated claims made by aid agencies for what the ‘transactional’ model of shallow engagement by donation or child sponsorship can achieve in ending world poverty (Glennie, Straw and Wild, 2012).  More importantly, however, the past few years have seen British international development NGOs increasingly distance themselves from any challenges to the power structures or ideologies that cause poverty, inequality and injustice, whether at home or in the majority world.  This abdication of any political agenda ensures that mobilisations on issues of global poverty are not just tolerated by British politicians but actively welcomed as useful distractions, especially when they offer a ready source of positive public relations for an undeserving government, as the IF campaign did.  Driven by the metrics of donor relations, international development NGOs have calculated that it is in their interests to work in active collaboration with the powerful – whether G8 governments or transnational corporations – in order to achieve tangible advocacy ‘wins’ (however illusory) which can then be reported back to supporters as proof of continuing influence.  By contrast, mounting long and difficult challenges to power holds little attraction in such calculations.

“The decisive rupture that needs to be made is political and radical.  International development NGOs must engage once more in political analysis that goes to the heart of the continuing scandals of global poverty, inequality and injustice, articulating a transformative agenda which is consonant with the demands of social movements across the world, not (as at present) in opposition to them.  Action on the basis of such analysis will allow NGOs to reclaim their place as allies in the broader global justice movement, from which they have been largely absent for many years.  Taking on the structural issues of the global economy in turn means building new communities of activists by means of political education programmes that connect the global with the domestic and explore the myriad alternatives to capitalism from across the world. “


About John Hilary

Executive Director at War on Want
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3 Responses to Putting the Politics Back In

  1. Jonathan Glennie says:

    Hmmm, I have downloaded your paper and will read. But I think I would question this summary in 2 quick ways. First, whether the charitable approach is peculiarly western or british – i think it is pretty common the world over. And second, you don’t acknowledge great progress over the last say 50 years, as well as great challenges. And I suppose a third comment would be that I don’t totally buy that INGOs are not tackling power and structures – you could certainly criticise the effectiveness of their work – and argue that another approach would be better – but my experience has been that they are trying to change structures – it is just very very hard! Many NGOs have forgotten that part of their mission in favour of the quick buck, yes, but many haven’t… J

  2. Becks Hickman says:

    Love reading your stuff, John – always so thought-provoking. I wonder though if the issue of how NGOs allow anti-poverty campaigns to be co-opted for political purposes is perhaps separate to the issue of to what degree NGOs should be diverting resources to analysing and challenging political structures that perpetuate injustice. One organisation can’t do everything and the historic mission of NGOs has been to bring relief from suffering. Ultimately, yes, that has to be through systemic change and the replacement of an intrinsically unjust economic system, but I’m not necessarily looking to NGOs to bring that about. I think it’s ok for some of them to serve a different, more immediate role, and for other social movements to focus on the structural transformation that is needed. I’d like to see UK NGOs getting so much better at identifying and capacitating the awesome very, very grassroots projects and nonprofits that are making a lasting difference to their communities – and showing a preparedness to learn from them rather than a desire always to teach… To think we had so many missed opportunities to hammer out these issues in the kitchen at Save the Children….

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