NGO’s and the Neoliberal Complex
While listening to Africa Today (the Sept. 13th edition) on KPFA a few days ago I was struck by an interview with Rick Rowden which touched upon a lot of the themes of why I tend to be quite dismissive and critical of many NGOs in the Third World and their role in helping to prop up (and sometimes propagate) the capitalistic globalization of the world. Rowden has recently written a book titled The Deadly Ideas of Neoliberalism: How the IMF Has Undermined Public Health and the Fight Against AIDS so much of the interview was on IMF policies and how they’ve harmed public health in many countries all over Africa.
The book looks quite good and from the interview Rowden comes off as quite knowledgeable on this massive subject and has a sharp critique of the neoliberal capitalist model. An excerpt about the book states:
‘The Deadly Ideas of Neoliberalism’ explores the history of and current collision between two of the major global phenomena that have characterized the last 30 years: the spread of HIV/AIDS and other diseases of poverty and the ascendancy of neoliberal economic ideas. The book explains not only how IMF policies of restrictive spending have exacerbated public health problems in developing countries, in particular the HIV/AIDS crisis, but also how such issues cannot be resolved under these economic policies. It also suggests how mounting global frustration about this inability to adequately address HIV/AIDS will ultimately lead to challenges to the dominant neoliberal ideas, as other more effective economic ideas for increasing public spending are sought.
In stark, powerful terms, Rowden offers a unique and in-depth critique of development economics, the political economy dynamics of global foreign aid and health institutions, and how these seemingly abstract factors play out in the real world – from the highest levels of global institutions to African finance and health ministries to rural health outposts in the countryside of developing nations, and back again.
While the book is specifically about public health Rowden argues that the public health picture must encompass the broader picture of capitalism, neoliberalism, and neocolonialism on a global scale.
The specific issue that caught my attention was Rowden’s conversation with the host of the show, Walter Turner, about NGOs in the African context (which is applicable to what I’ve seen in the Philippines). Rowden states that while many NGOs do great work, especially when it comes to public health and the fight against HIV/AIDS the NGOs are hopelessly caught up (how could they not) in the neoliberal complex (or, more precisely, the nexus of globalized capitalism which is merged with Western oriented foreign policy).
The West, along with the global institutions of the IMF and the World Bank, push hard for developing countries to (needlessly) open up their boarders to global capitalism and Western investment. In turn these developing countries (such as Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Africa, etc.) are coerced and forced into taking on neoliberal policies such as slashing their state employees pensions, salaries, cutting education and health costs, etc.
As these governments drop the ball on issues such as public health (and many other issues that they should be responsible for, such as providing fresh water, an accessible education, etc.) the (mostly) Western oriented NGOs come in and pick up the slack. While it is a good idea to have a safety net these NGOs are serving the overall strategy of the West to fully incorporate the Third World into the global capitalist nexus. Specifically these NGOs are the safety net in order for these countries to fully impliment their neoliberal policies.
Rowden spoke about how many of those staffing these NGOs (which are funded by pro-capitalist Western institutions such as the Ford Foundation, U.S. A.I.D., etc.) have essentially accepted the capitalist neoliberal world view: they accept globalization and its neoliberal policies as basically the only path to development.
These NGOs come in and implement (mostly) short-term oriented goals which are used to offset the damages of the neoliberal policies these governments implement. They never question the neoliberal model in a forceful way nor do they actively try to fight against these models and try and build up the local population to actively fight against these policies (and their mostly corrupt governments) in a unified political way. Mostly, those organizations that do have no where near the funding these Western based NGOs do but the one thing they do have is a grass-roots based movement that’s for the people and by the people and not afraid to speak truth to power (South Africa’s Abahlali baseMjondolo and the Philippines’ Bagong Alyansang Makabayan for example). Often times, however, the NGOs try to undercut their political power (actively or passively) through their non-politicized social roles in the local society and in their (very targeted and limited) programs.