From Oxfam, Save The Children, and this week, to Irish rocker Bono’s ONE Campaign, scandal after scandal continue to hit the Non-Govermental Organisations ( NGOs) and the aid sectors – amid reports that the UK’s charities’ watchdog has so far received 80 current and historical cases of safeguarding concerns. Back in 2005, we comprehensively looked at the issue in our bumper Cover Story in which we asked – What Are NGOs Really Doing In Africa? In this analysis – Firoze Manji and Carl O’Coill – trace and dissect the history of the rise of NGOs in Africa. You may need to read this while sitting down.
In many African countries, real per capita GDP has fallen and welfare gains achieved since independence in areas like food consumption, health and education have been reversed. The statistics are disturbing. In sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, per capita incomes dropped by 21% in real terms between 1981 and 1989. Development, it seems, has failed. This has been the context in which there has been explosive growth in the presence of Western as well as local NGOs in Africa.
Today, NGOs form a prominent part of the “development machine”, a vast institutional and disciplinary nexus of official agencies, practitioners, consultants, scholars, and other miscellaneous experts producing and consuming knowledge about the “developing world”.
According to estimates, there are as many as 3,000 NGOs in OECD countries as a whole. In Britain alone, there are well over 100 voluntary groups claiming some specialism in the field.
The evolution of the role of NGOs in Africa means that their role in “development” represents a continuity of the work of their precursors, the missionaries and voluntary organizations that cooperated in Europe’s colonization and control of Africa.
Today their work contributes marginally to the relief of poverty but undermines the struggle of the African people to emancipate themselves from economic, social, and political oppression.
NGOs could, and some do, play a role in supporting an emancipatory agenda in Africa, but that would involve them disengaging from their paternalistic role in development – from missionaries of empire to missionaries of development.
The market and voluntarism have a long association; the first and most celebrated period of “free trade”, from the 1840s to the 1930s, was also a high point of charitable activity throughout the British Empire.
Their work contributes marginally to the relief of poverty, but undermines the struggle of the African people to emancipate themselves from economic, social and political oppression.
In Britain itself, the industrial revolution opened up a great gulf between the bourgeoisie and the swelling ranks of the urban proletariat. In the 1890s, when industrialists were amassing fortunes to rival those of the aristocracy, as much as one third of the population of London were living below the level of bare subsistence, and death from starvation was not unknown. At this time, private philanthropy was the preferred solution to social need and private expenditure far outweighed public provision.
Colonial powers had no desire to finance state welfare programmes for Africans. Government social services for the indigenous population were minimal. Social policy was geared towards ensuring the integrity of the structures of colonial rule.
For the majority of the rural population, it was left to a clutch of charities and missionary groups to exchange their spiritual wares for material support in education, health or other social services.
In short, charity was not only designed to help the poor, it also served to protect the rich. Charitable organisations actively helped to suppress anti-colonial struggles. For example, in Kenya the Women’s Association, Maendeleo Ya Wanawake (MYWO) and the Christian Council of Kenya (CCK) were both involved in government-funded schemes designed to subvert African resistance during the Mau Mau uprising.
Given the extent of involvement of missionary societies and voluntary organizations in the suppression of nationalist struggles in Africa, the question arises as to how such organizations were able to survive and even prosper after independence, as many clearly did?
Charity was not only designed to help the poor, it also served to protect the rich. Charitable organisations actively helped to suppress anti-colonial struggles.
The answer lies in the history of development discourse itself and the emergence of the “development NGO” as an entity in the national and international arena.
While the idea and practice of “community development” existed within the colonial period, voluntary bodies did not represent themselves or their work in terms of “development” until much later when the US government and international agencies began to distinguish half the world as “under-developed” and to describe “development” as a universal goal.
The emerging discourse of development provided a convenient rationale for two distinct groups of voluntary organisations. The first group consisted primarily of overseas missionary societies and charitable bodies, like the CCK and the MYWO in Kenya, that were present in the colonies before independence. Christian Aid evolved out of a network of such bodies.
The second group is typified by organizations like Oxfam, Save the Children and Plan International, who had no direct involvement in the colonies. They were “war charities”, established to deal with the human consequences of conflict in Europe.
The histories of these two groups are often conflated in accounts of the origins of development NGOs. In fact, each group had very different motivations for developing the developmental mantle and, at least originally, had a very different relationship with the official bodies that dominated the field.
With the rise of the anti-colonial missionary societies and charitable organisations were clearly tainted in the eyes of the majority by their association with racist colonial oppression. Colonial rationales of “trusteeship” were no longer acceptable. Faced with their potential demise, they transformed themselves completely.
First they “indigenised” their administrations, gradually replacing white staff, clergy and secular managers with educated Africans.
Organisations like Oxfam, Save the Children and Plan International, who had no direct involvement in the colonies..They were “war charities”, established to deal with the human consequences of conflict in Europe.
Secondly, they changed their ideological outlook, replacing the overt racism of the past, with a new discourse about “development” that was just beginning to take shape in the international arena.
The new discourse provided a solution of sorts. It offered an alternative language and set of practices that, at least on the surface, were free of racial signifiers. And it appeared to imply some connection with emancipation, the prospect of “progress” that would benefit all.
They “discovered” the appeal of expressing concerns about poverty, and they began to condemn the racial prejudice that created this poverty with as much conviction as they had justified racial exclusion in the past. The exigencies of African resistance and international politics had forced them to reconstruct themselves as indigenous “development NGOs”.
Unlike their colonial counterparts, war charities had no undesirable associations with racist regimes. They had a popular base in Europe that was supportive of their goals of internationalist humanitarian relief.
As the post-war reconstruction effort began in earnest in Europe with the implementation of the Marshal Plan in 1948, mass suffering and starvation were no longer a threat in Europe.
The war charities were faced with basic choices. They could either wind down their operations entirely, or they could expand into new areas of activity and new continents. Oxfam, Plan International and Save the Children were among only a handful of organisations that decided to extend their existing humanitarian activities beyond Europe’s boundaries.
Going beyond European borders
So why did they make this choice? In part, they were driven by organisational survival for its own sake, but they were also driven by ideological goals. Religion certainly played a large part in the founding beliefs of most, but it was the idealist tradition of liberal internationalism of their founders that now provided the motivation.
The 1960s marked the turning point in the history of war charities. The “Freedom from Hunger Campaign” and the UN Decade of Development both had profound effects on these organisations. They embraced the new discourse of development with as much enthusiasm as colonial missionary societies and voluntary organisations were doing locally.
They were seduced by arguments about development as a more noble pursuit than humanitarian relief alone, since it was said the former addressed the long-term causes of poverty, whereas the latter merely dealt with short-term symptoms. Oxfam, War on Want and Christian Aid in particular were sympathetic to these views and supported the Food and Agriculture Organisation’s call for the relief of poverty through “self-generating agricultural development.”
Their participation in development discourse helped to solve some serious marketing problems that organisations such as Oxfam experienced in their early overseas ventures.
At first the British public found it very difficult to comprehend the fact that there was widespread poverty and hunger throughout the “glorious Empire”. The public’s vision of Africa was informed alternately by images of exoticism and adventures.
As Maggie Black acknowledges: “Whatever variations were provided in the picture of Her Majesty’s brown and black-skinned subjects, one feature was axiomatic: they were not described in the same terms in political, economic, social – as ‘us’. Comparisons using the same set of criteria were not made because the people were not comparable; they were ‘not like’.”
Development resolved this marketing problem. The discourse offered a confused audience a more palatable perspective of Africans and Asian. It was more palatable because it was similar in many respects to the racist discourses of the past, this time with vocabulary consistent with the new age of modernity.
Whatever variations were provided in the picture of Her Majesty’s brown and black-skinned subjects, one feature was axiomatic: they were not described in the same terms in political, economic, social – as ‘us’.
It was no longer that Africans were “uncivilized”. Instead, they were “underdeveloped”. Either way, the “civilized” or “developed” European has a role to play in “civilizing” or “developing” Africa.
Caught in the torrent of upheavals that characterized the victory over colonialism, it was easy for these Western NGOs to become romantic and blinkered by their own enthusiasm for “bringing development to the people” in the newly independent countries.
But the real problem was that the dominant discourse of development was framed not in the language of emancipation or justice, but with the vocabulary of charity, technical expertise, neutrality and deep paternalism (albeit accompanied by the rhetoric of participatory development) that was in syntax.
But the discourse of development provided a means of subverting popular aspirations for radical change in the context of independence struggles while legitimating the continued marginalisation of non-Western peoples. After independence, development worked to undermine popular mobilisations and to limit an expanding communist ideology, both of which threatened to obstruct the continued growth of Euro-American capitalism in former colonies.
And it achieved all this while providing very little in the way of tangible benefits to non-Western people. There was no Marshall Plan for Africa. The limited assistance Africa received in development aid was usually tied directly to short-term Western interests.
For all its limitations, however, the post-independence African economy did at least sustain a social infrastructure that, while not comparable to conditions in the West, nevertheless served a wide population. It remains one of the most remarkable, and yet least acknowledged, achievements of independence governments that within the space of a few years, access to health services and to education became effectively universal.
It was no longer that Africans were “uncivilised”. Instead, they were “underdeveloped”. Either way, the “civilized” or “developed” European has a role to play in “civilising” or “developing” Africa.
The impact of these interventions was to be reflected in the subsequent dramatic changes in average life expectancy, in infant and child mortality rates, in the improvements in nutritional status of the young, in literacy levels and educational enrolment and achievements.
Substantial improvements in all these parameters were to be observed throughout the continent by the end of the 1970s as a result of these social programmes. These achievements challenge the current, largely ideologically motivated caricature of the state as being “inefficient” and unable to deliver effective service.
The state’s business
Notwithstanding NGOs’ early allegiance to the idea of development and, indeed the scope and breadth of their activities during this period, official development agencies remained largely unenthusiastic about their work. In the imagination of organisations like USAID, the UN, and the World Bank, development was the business of the state and NGOs stood somewhere on the extreme margins of the field.
While international NGOs had a licence to run their projects in Africa, this freedom was conditional, based on an unspoken assumption that they accepted or did not comment on the manner in which the state exercised power. This arrangement suited official agencies on both sides of the West-non-West divide, since the key amongst the implicit goals of development in the Cold War era was the co-optation of post-colonial governments to the economic and military agendas of Western powers.
Consequently, the role of NGOs in the early post independent period remained marginal. While they carried out “projects” providing services in peripheral areas that the state disinclined to reach, the bulk of social services were provided by the state under its social contract with the people.
The work of NGOs was limited to project work where, armed with their manuals and technical tricks, they focused the attention of “the poor” on finding participatory means for coping with the present rather than seeking justice for the past crimes against them. Like their missionary predecessors, they offered the poor blessings in the future (albeit on earth than in heaven)
And in their local offices they established the same racial divisions of labour and how salaries for local staff as had been customary among their missionary predecessors.
But by the late 1970s, events were on the horizon that were to quantitatively transform the “development” arena and lay the basis for the proliferation of NGOs in Africa that rekindled their missionary zeal.
The work of NGOs was limited to project work where, armed with their manuals and technical tricks, they focused the attention of “the poor” on finding participatory means for coping with the present rather than seeking justice for the past crimes against them
The so-called “oil crisis” of the mid-1970s resulted in the creation of a finance capita glut in a world economy already suffering from recession. Europe and America were suddenly awash with capital with few opportunities for high rates of return.
As a result, developing countries were courted to make loans to finance “development”. But this glut of international credit was short-lived. The 1980s saw significant increases in the cost of borrowing. The US government implemented an avowed neo-liberal, monetary policy, which drove up interest rates around the world.
Coincident with this, the emerging technological revolution in microcomputers and in gene technology attracted capital to new fields where the rate of profit was likely to be more substantial.
Debtor countries were suddenly faced with servicing the interest on loans that absorbed the ever-greater proportions of export earnings. Debt had now become the central issue of “concern” in development circles.
This was the period that saw the emergence of “neo-liberalism” and the dominant political-economic ideology in the West, epitomized by the rise to power of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the USA.
Central to this ideology was the concept of minimalist state, which radically altered the landscape of development practice in Africa and throughout the post-colonial world. The indebtedness of African nations gave the multilateral lending agencies the leverage they needed to impose their neo-colonial policy prescriptions, in the spirit of universality, across the board.
The Bretton Woods institutions (with the support of bilateral aid agencies), became the new commanders of post-colonial economies. Through the myriad structural adjustment programmes they initiated throughout the continent, they could determine both the goals of development and the means for which to achieve them.
Adjustment legitimized their direct intervention in political decision-making processes. These institutions soon came to determine the extent of involvement that the state should have in the social sector, and insisted on the state imposing draconian economic and social measures that resulted in a rise in unemployment, and the decline in real incomes of the majority.
Interestingly, statistics show that “about 75% of the money aid agencies collect is spent on the administration of their own organisation”
But popular dissatisfaction with adjustment and its related policies led to spontaneous demonstrations. Such widespread opposition also forced the multilateral and bilateral aid agencies to rethink their approach to development promotion, particularly how to present the same neo-liberal economic and social programmes with a more “human face”.
The outcome of these deliberations was the “good governance” agenda of the 1990s and the decision to co-opt the NGOs and other civil society organisations to a repackaged programme of welfare provision, a social initiative that could be more accurately described as a programme of social control.
So in the 1990s the focus of attention of the international community was placed upon “good governance”, persuading African governments to permit political pluralism in the form of “multipartyism”.
And with multipartyism came welfare initiatives that accompanied the good governance agenda. The bilaterals and multilaterals thus set aside significant volumes of funds aimed at “mitigating” the “social dimensions of adjustment”. The purpose of such programmes was to act as palliatives that might minimize the glaring inequalities that their policies had perpetuated.
Funds were made available to ensure that a so-called “safety net” of social services would be provided for the “vulnerable” – but this time not by the state ( which has after all been forced to “retrench” away from the social sector), but by the ever-willing NGO sector.
The availability of such funds for the NGOs was to have profound impact on the very nature of the sector. This was a period in which the involvement of Western NGOs in Africa grew dramatically.
As a result, the number of international NGOs operating in Kenya, for example, increased almost three-fold to 134 during the period 1978-1988. According to the Overseas Development Institute, NGOs in 1992 distributed somewhere between 10% and 15% of all aid transfers to “developing countries”.
The availability of such funds for the NGOs was to have profound impact on the very nature of the sector. This was a period in which the involvement of Western NGOs in Africa grew dramatically.
While most of this money came from private donations, a significant proportion also came from official sources. Britain’s Department for International Development (DFID) allocates around 8% of its aid budget to NGOs. The US government transfers nearly 40% of its aid programme through NGOs. The scale of official funding has increased considerably over the past two decades.
In the early 1970s, less that 2% of NGO income came from official donors. By the mid-1990s, this figure had risen to 30%. In 10 years between 1984 and 1994, the British government increased its funding of NGOs by almost 400% to £68.7million.
Then, like a balloon, British government funding of UK-based international NGOs swelled as the budget of DFID was increased from £2.33billion in 1998-1999 to £3.22billion in 2001-2002. NGOs in Australia, Finland, Norway and Sweden all saw similar increases in official funding from the early 1980s onwards.
Interestingly, statistics show that “about 75% of the money aid agencies collect is spent on the administration of their own organization”, as Gary Younge reported in the Guardian (28 May 1998).
The percentage may have come down since then, but the number of NGOs active in Africa has grown out of all proportions. Today 40% of NGOs working in Kenya are foreign.
The missionary position
And NGOs are acknowledged as “the preferred channel for service provision in deliberate substitution of the state.” They have taken the “missionary position” – service delivery, running projects that are motivated by charity, pity and doing things for people (implicitly who can’t do it for themselves), albeit with the verbiage of participatory approaches.
It would be wrong to present the relationship of Western NGOs and official aid agencies in the 1980s as the product of some conscious conspiracy, as was clearly the case with colonial organisations like the MYWO. The pre-condition for NGOs; co-optation to neo-liberal cause was merely a coincidence in ideologies rather than a purposeful plan.
The role NGOs have played in expanding and consolidating neo-liberal hegemony in the global context may have been unwitting. It may not have been as director or as underhand as some of the activities willingly taken up by colonial missionary societies and voluntary organisations. But that is not to say it is any less significant. Indeed, one could argue that it has actually been far more effective.
They have taken the “missionary position” – service delivery, running projects that are motivated by charity, pity and doing things for people (implicitly who can’t do it for themselves), albeit with the verbiage of participatory approaches.
And the missionary position is not the only option. Local NGOs have consistently expressed doubts about the lack of attention Western NGOs have paid to areas of activity other than overseas development, and have called upon them to intensify their awareness-raising activities at home.
As far back as 1986, for example, African NGOs felt it necessary to remind their western “partners” of their wider responsibilities in a formal declaration made at the UN General Assembly, which said: “We encourage Northern and International NGOs to recognize the linkages of many policies of their governments, corporations and multilateral institutions which their governments heavily influence and which adversely affect the quality of life and political and economic independence of African countries.”
Today, the NGOs face a stark choice. If they stand in favour of the emancipation of humankind (whether at home or abroad), then the focus of their work has inevitably to be in the political domain, supporting those social movements that seek to challenge a social system that benefits a few and impoverishes the many.
The closing years of apartheid in South Africa were illustrative of the choice that NGOs face today: either they supported the emerging popular movements (in South Africa and internationally) that supported the overthrow of a brutal system of exploitation, or they stayed silent and continued their philanthropic work, and became thereby complicit in the crimes of the system of apartheid.
The challenges that both local and Western NGOs face in making this choice will be that funding – at least from the bilateral and multilateral agencies – will not necessarily be forthcoming to support the struggle for emancipation. But then, one would hardly have expected the apartheid regime in South Africa to have funded the movement that brought about the downfall of the regime.