National Sections of the L5I:

Charities against capital

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Non-Governmental Organisations, NGOs, have played an important but highly contradictory role in the anti-capitalist movement. They have often been to the fore in opposing the G8 and IMF policies for the Third World and have been crucial in alerting the world to the consequences of those policies. At the same time, as we shall see, they have themselves flourished as a result of those policies and have developed into the most systematically right wing trend in the movement.

The term “non-governmental organisation” originates in the United Nations. The UN itself accredits some 1,500 NGOs. At one pole, are groups like Oxfam, Greenpeace, Médecins sans Frontieres, Save the Children, Amnesty International, Christian Aid and the World Wildlife Fund, which are huge global organisations with large professional staffs as well as extensive networks of volunteers. Amnesty International has more than one million subscription payers in 140 countries. Friends of the Earth also has more than one million members and 5,000 local groups.

By contrast, tiny groups of anti-globalisation vigilantes, like Corporate Watch, run web sites and dog the actions of corporations, international finance institutions and governments and the most they are likely to get are a few tax breaks and donations from the occasional radical wealthy benefactor. While they certainly contribute to the overall image of the NGO’s, they carry little weight at the international level.

Despite the independence from government implied by the name, NGO’s are no longer the entirely autonomous, donation-financed organisations that some originally were. According to Global Civil Society, 2003, there are now some 48,000 international NGO’s and, on average, only 29% of their income comes from membership subscriptions or fees for their services. The rest, the overwhelmingly greater part, comes from national and international government sources (35%) or from donations from individuals or “foundations” such as Bill Gates’ or the Carnegie (36%).

Although they would argue that their constitutions make them strictly “independent” of their donors, that they create packages of financing that allow no single source to control their actions, in reality, they have to bear in mind the outlook of these donors, avoid political involvement and even perform services for (neoliberal) capitalist governments.

Of course, NGO’s, or charities and voluntary organisations as they used to be known, are by no means a new phenomenon. Many nineteenth century charities, as well as distributing relief to the poor and needy, also took it upon themselves to teach them how to cope and even “better themselves” by thrift, hard work, sobriety and education so that they could find a place in capitalist society. These bodies, and their wealthy patrons, were generally hostile to the trade unions and the class-based political organisations which argued for restructuring the whole of society to eradicate inequality, rather than patching up a small proportion of capitalism’s victims.

Today’s NGO’s, in their practice and their philosophy, continue this tradition. The scope of their activities on the world stage has expanded dramatically in the last twenty years. As the neo-liberal policies of the IMF, the World Bank and the G7 were imposed on the countries of the “global south” what little state provision of social services, health, education and employment had previously existed was withdrawn. Charities already working in those countries brought the plight of the dispossessed to the attention of the world and became the channel through which aid could be brought directly to the grass roots.

This work, which was necessarily small scale and local, reinforced a hostility to involvement by state institutions, seen, often justifiably, as corrupt and inefficient. Out of this combination, the NGO’s and their academic champions elaborated a model for development based on the creation of “civil society”. The concept itself originated in eighteenth century Enlightenment Europe where it referred to that part of society dominated by private interests, as opposed to the state which, supposedly, represented society’s interests as a whole.

Since then, although not much used in Britain, the term has been a central concept within liberalism in Europe and the US and is used to describe a society in which citizens pursue their interests, where necessary, through a variety of groups and common interest alliances; community groups, parent associations, professional associations, women’s groups and so on whose memberships are not exclusive so that one individual may have multiple memberships, reflecting their many interests.

This image of society, essentially an extension of liberal individualism, was given a new lease of life when it was used to describe the developing networks of opponents of the Stalinist regimes of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the Eighties. American cold warriors, in particular, began to use it in their crusade against state provision of social services, welfare, education and, in short, as the goal of the neo-liberal offensive associated with Reagan.

Ironically, then, the NGO’s, whose international profile was rising rapidly as they highlighted the consequences of that same offensive, identified very closely with the ideology of their principal opponents. In effect, this only served to confirm them in their accusations of hypocrisy against the IMF and its partners, they said they were in favour of fair trade, just as the NGO’s were, but in reality they stacked the odds against the global south.

Within the countries where they operated, the concept of civil society continued to guide the NGO’s. Using their resources they, typically, set up funded organisations based on what they referred to as “identities”. In India, for example, this included, setting up funded adivasi organisations, dalit organisations, women’s organisations, ‘human rights’ organisations, cultural organisations, and organisations of unorganised labour.

While there is no reason to doubt the good intentions of the architects of such organisations, their role in fragmenting what might otherwise have been a concerted social movement against privatisation and the cuts in public spending is not difficult to see. The World Bank certainly understands it. In its “Report on Development, 2000-01” it explained its political reasons for promoting NGOs. It says: “Social tensions and divisions can be eased by bringing political opponents together within the framework of formal and informal forums and by channelling their energies through political processes, rather than leaving confrontation as the only form of release.”

The new role and importance of the NGO’s first became really apparent at the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Representatives of more than 1,000 NGOs, approximately one-third of them from the Third World, attended the summit itself and even more attended a parallel NGO summit – the Global Forum – which took place simultaneously with around 9,000 organisations. These gatherings produced thirty-nine “alternative treaties” to the official agreements on a wide range of environmental, developmental, social and human rights issues. Thus, Rio marked the advent of NGOs as powerful players in international negotiations.

In addition to the alternative treaties, the Forum also issued a Declaration:

“We, the participants of the International NGO Forum at the Global Forum ‘92, have met in Rio de Janeiro as citizens of planet earth to share our concerns, our dreams and our plans for creating a new future for our world. We emerge from these deliberations with a profound sense that in the richness of our diversity, we share a common vision of a human society grounded in the values of simplicity, love, peace and reverence for life. We now go forth in solidarity to mobilise the moral and human resources of all nations in a unified social movement committed to the realization of this vision.

“In so doing, we wish to remind the world’s political and corporate leaders that the authority of the state and the powers of the private corporation are grants extended to these institutions by the sovereign people, by civil society, to serve the collective human interest. (...) Yet through a process of global economic integration pressed on the world’s people by the Group of 7 (G7) governments, the Bretton Woods institutions, the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and transnational corporations, the sovereign right and ability of the world’s people to protect their economic, social, cultural and environmental interests against the growing power of transnational capital is being seriously and rapidly eroded.”

The declaration went on to argue that adopting a goal of “organising economic life around decentralised, relatively self-reliant, local economies that control and manage their own productive resources and have the right to safeguard their own environmental and social standards” was “essential to sustainability”.

The religious origins of many NGOs are clear from the tone of the whole document and the statement that, “We recognise the central place of spiritual values and spiritual development in the society we seek to create. We commit ourselves to live by the values of simplicity, love, peace and reverence for life shared by all religious traditions.

“We invite the leaders of business and government to join us in this act of global citizenship. They must, however, know that we no longer wait for them to lead us in dealing with a global reality they have so far chosen to ignore.”

A decade and more later, the NGO’s can certainly point to a number of important victories over their opponents in the international institutions and corporations, notably the collapse of the US-led attempt to introduce and implement the Multilateral Agreement on Investment which would have opened up countries to unrestricted exploitation with no protection for either environmental or social consequences. In many respects, too, it was the concerted efforts of NGO’s which stiffened the resistance of many Third World delegations at Seattle and forced the abandonment of the ministerial conference.

Nonetheless, the fact that they now have to be listened to has opened the way to their integration and absorption by their opponents. Because there is no fundamental conflict between their ideology and that of the neo-liberals it is even possible for them to be found a role in taking forward the development of “civil society” in countries devastated by structural adjustment packages. Meanwhile, within the anti-capitalist movement, they presume to act as if they were the representatives of those who receive their charity and add their weight to arguments against accountable political representation and the development of a global organisation to fight not just to mitigate the effects of capitalism but to uproot it entirely. To create a society in which charities are not needed was never on the agenda of any charity.