NGO's - the Guise
Men are sentient beings; they feel the pain of others and harbor the urge to help out. The power of empathy binds one man with another, stranger to him, living thousands of miles away. But the fact is that however universal this trait of human nature may be, people who commit their lives for the purpose of others are scarce to find and surely the noblest. To rise from personal needs and fulfillment and to reach the wretched hand of a sufferer is truly a tedious journey on the part of man; a journey the majority among us would not resolve to make.
Yet, is it possible that empathy may belong to a special group of people, maybe the ones profuse in riches, as they are the only ones who might have respite from normal human toil and the excess to spend lavishly upon others? That would be the same as saying that nobility is concurrent to wealth. Such a notion would make the pursuit of economic wealth the noblest path to tread; exactly the phenomenon entrapping the Western thought in its neoliberal age. Only a belief such as that can allow the institution of the NGOs to prevail as brokers of the ‘love of humanity’ in the length and breadth of the world.
Non-Governmental Organizations are a network laid throughout the grid of humanity that claim to be the ‘noble ones’; they pose to be cross-border crusades of altruistic people, yearning to bring food, health and human rights to a suffering humanity. But the dilemma of the NGOs is that in order for ‘sympathy’ to operate at continental levels, it has to be broken down into innumerable manageable bits.
For any faculty to work cross-borders, it has to be institutionalized; and institutionalization means the breaking down of a system, for inquiry, into linear and deterministic formations, so that it can become eligible to those seated at the two remote ends of the institute. Therefore, when one has to define a feeling like love, nobility or sympathy for a people living in the deserts of Africa to a think tank placed in the Western capitals, one has to jot it down in ‘catchwords’ and ‘numbers’ which would have the ability to pass across the multilayered sieve of the institution and reach the donor end in eligible ways, filtering out real life entities through pre-constructed procedure maps. Once it has reached the donor end, the requirement is not of tears and hugs, but what is required is for empathy to be translated into dollar bills. So we end up in three unique paradigms; one of the poverty stricken, unlettered humanity that has no say in what is to be said about it; another one of the institution of the NGOs that have to make for the survival of the institute as well as the sustained wretchedness of the communities, which has made their existence legitimate in the first place; and yet another one of the super-rich class who feels this urge to sympathize with a world whose resources, for centuries, it has selfishly grabbed as its own.
In such a scenario, the discourse of the NGOs, that started out to wipe the tears of a sobbing humanity, has chances of quickly turning into a machine for the creation of empirical data meant to extract easy money in the loads. And the donors that started with unbearable sighs of altruism do not, therefore, take long to see world-wide power and manipulation under this guise of ‘returning to the poor’.
More presence and more connection are the tool for change; change can be a word, an idea, an inclination that could churn the wheels of produce to channels that deliver back to the donor’s end; just being stationed in the midst of a people gives the NGOs the legitimacy of showing them the light, correcting them and hence governing them.
So much said, let us give a little sight to how much the NGOs have performed all around the world. While most African countries swarm with the presence of NGOs, hunger, poverty and disease are on the rise; only in sub-Saharan Africa, 388 million out of a 763 million population lives in abject poverty. India is estimated to have around 3.3 million NGOs, which is one NGO per less than 400 Indians, many times more than the number of primary schools and primary health centers in India; Bangladesh has the NGO density of 3.5 foreign NGOs per square mile, yet both these countries have the highest numbers of poverty and hunger stricken people around the world, about 650 million people (53.7% of population) living in poverty in India and about 56 million (40% of population) of Bangladeshis living below the national poverty line.
It is also interesting to find how the NGOs actually work; most NGO projects are short term sections comprising of isolated issues to be dealt with in 3 to 5 years periods, reports submitted at the end of these projects are mostly of targets ‘not achieved’. There is no obligation on the NGOs to fulfill their targets, as they are in their self-perception: non-political, non-partisan, non-ideological, non-academic, non-theoretical, non-profit associations, of well-intentioned individuals, dedicated to changing the world to make it a better place for the poor, the marginalized and the downcast; so we can only be thankful for what they have done for us, or what they have failed to do. And it would be a shame if we were to criticize these few, hard-to-find, well-intentioned people of the world; ONLY if they were few!!
So what are the factors that hinder the NGOs’ performance, when they were so organized and well-to-do? Well, the NGOs would have as many sets of answers to such questions as there are inquires. The NGOs allege that the ‘fundamentalists’ oppose them in countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh; for Africa and India their answers are: strong affiliation to status-co, illiteracy, unsustainability, non-compliance of people to their instructions, shortage of funds and limitations of their projects.
These are actually non-excuses and indicate only the incomprehensiveness of the NGO program; it is equal to saying that ‘their poverty is hindering them from getting rich’ or that ‘their illiteracy is coming in the way of their literacy’.
Closer inspection tells us that the NGO projects are designed not to be sustainable, they focus on providing commodities or services but only under their own supervision. Once the NGO packs up from the place of its operation, the residents are unable to sustain the school, the medical center or the business that ran under the NGO. The micro-credit availed to the poor community is only enough to engage them in a bonding with the bank that has landed on their doorstep, and is designed in such ways that once you stop drawing from the bank, you cannot continue with whatever venture you engaged in.
All in all, what the NGO does sustain is ‘its presence’, and practically speaking, it sustains the economic misery of the people so as to ensure its prolonged presence.
Moreover, the NGOs have an inherent problem – though they have come to deliver people into a better, happier state, but since happiness cannot be measured as such, they are bound to measure happiness and human progress only in empirical terms, in terms of economic growth and technological change. Therefore, what goes into their reports is the number of tube-wells or schools constructed, number of children enrolled, number of pills distributed and not in terms of harmony, trust or positive change in the state of the heart or the mind; the NGO has no tools to measure humanity in human terms.
So! if the NGOs bring no practical change, not even in terms of monetary status, health or literacy indexes, malnutrition or famine reduction, then what happens with the billions of dollars they receive as funds? Are they the mere cost of maintaining this hefty machine of dysfunction as a burden of gratitude over the already bent shoulders of the miserable? No, but it does bring change; in terms of awareness, in terms of beliefs and in terms of political awakening.
As it has occurred, the NGOs, who proclaim to be non-political and tend to depoliticize any issue they are to take up, have ended up being a strong political agent advocating the beliefs of their donors as the ultimate dogma for progress (which are of course time-relative); and are able to depoliticize only the real-life concerns of the target populations. Therefore, according to Issa Shivji, in the African countries, the slogan of the NGOs was ‘structural adjustment programs’, which meant that ‘the African states’ bureaucracies were corrupt, incapable and unable to learn’, therefore, the NGOs were required as ‘globalized foreign advisors and consultants, now termed development practitioners, to mentor, monitor and oversee them’, so that ‘the chronically poor, the diseased, the disabled, the AIDS-infected, the ignorant, the marginalized’ were to be the constant ‘recipients of humanitarian aid provided by ‘true friends’, and the populace were to be labeled as cases for ‘right-based development’ rather than cases of ‘nation-based development’ in the ‘strategy papers, authored by consultants, and discussed at stakeholder workshops in which the ‘poor’ are represented by the NGOs’.
Right-based development meant projects that would ensure the very basic rights such as food and medics, in contrast to nation-based development meaning building infrastructure and multiplication of growth. Therefore, in Africa, the NGOs were able to marginalize the masses as the ‘poor/unaware wealth creators’ and not as ‘the producers/appropriators of wealth’ at the demise of their funders; these funders were to create the policies that the incapable machine of the state had now only to supervise, so that the NGOs, who were really driving all the processes, would function smoothly. Thus were most of the African countries robbed of their independence and sovereignty, just as they were being freed from the clutches of the colonists after WW2, and like that, the West could keep on ruling them in complete essence, as absentee.
In Bangladesh, according to the PhD paper of Ainoon Naher, the slogan of the NGOs has been ‘literacy’ and ‘empowerment of the women’ through microcredit. The allegations on them is that under the guise of providing literacy, their schools are converting the populace to Christianity, coupled with the microcredit program that specifically targets the women; this program not only binds the women in a discipline mentored by the ‘Sirs’ of the NGOs, but preaches in them the air of self-empowerment and independence from the rule of their husbands, thus damaging the cultural and religious norms of the society. According to one estimate, in the period between 1971 and 1991, the number of Christian converts in Bangladesh has risen from 200,000 to 400,000; therefore, the fundamentalists, in presence of the simple fact that the converted get preference in microcredits and school enrollment, have some weight in their fears when they say that the West wants to make Bangladesh their future New World Colony.
In the case of Pakistan, where the civil society is comparatively broader, the scope for advocacy-NGOs is larger; these can act in the domain of the Begum-culture as these types of NGOs are supposed to be more present in the media and to be putting pressure on the policy makers rather than to be in the field. Pakistani NGOs have entrenched themselves not only in the rural settings, but on account of their self-perceived higher moral, they are easily able to portray themselves as the voice of the poor, oppressed classes and to become the political voice of the depoliticized masses – a voice that can not only put civil pressure on the political structure of the country but slowly become the broadened bureaucratic state power. The domestic violence bill, floated in the parliament, is a perfect example, which will empower the NGOs with an extra-state policing authority that will not govern by the Constitution or the religion but only upon the good intention of the NGO.
The issues advocated by the NGOs in Pakistan are not very different; empowerment of women, her right upon her body, abolishment of child labor, literacy elevation, microcredit for women, family planning and infant health. The catchword for all these issues is ‘awareness’. These issues are cherry picked by the think-tanks behind the donors, treating them as the roots to all evil;, leaving untouched hundreds of other issues that may be devastating the human society in and outside the country, like the feudal down-casting of the peasants, like water-shortage caused by Indian dams affecting the poor farmers, like suppression of whole nations by imperialists, like the degeneration of morals through the Media, like the mass unemployment of men in the country; they have no empathy in such issues, their independent voices are limited to selected issues, they are not allowed to sway away.
So why the specific issues, why so much credit for the women when most men are unemployed too, why so much awareness for the wife and the mother and no awareness for the husband and the father? Why tell the woman she is being oppressed, when she is leisurely at home and all the economic stress is being taken by the man alone? Why so much against child labor, when the NGO manifesto in Bangladesh (16 decisions) preaches that the each child should work to pay for its own education? Is that not labor?
No doubt the issues picked up by the NGOs have weight, but can these issues be sliced out of the whole fabric of the society and dealt with in isolation, on the drawing-boards of the stakeholders? Can we ask the child to stop working without giving him/her sustainable alternatives? Can we ask the home-servants to sit at home and starve? Can we ask the woman to leave her husband and start her own business or at least start hating him? Should the NGOs not be advocating love and harmony in the family, should they not be in the fields to improve the literacy standards in the existing government schools where thousands are already enrolled but absent? Should they not be in the state-run hospitals, making sure that so much government fund is put into good use? Why do they have to stand against and not with the clergy, why can they not find common grounds, why do they need a state within the state and not work with the existing machinery, however weak it may be, why is confrontation their backbone?
It is complained against the NGOs in Pakistan that they give too much pooh-poohing to ‘male domination’ and ‘female subordination’, ignoring the women as active agents and the fact that they show some power in shaping their lives, at least by resistance and accommodation, even with the most meager resources. It is complained against them that in the stance of giving ‘awareness’, the youth has generally become more aware of all the possibilities of experimenting with what was previously hidden in the dark-room of sin, hence promoting all sorts of vulgarism and baseness in society and moving the nation towards the secularization of religion; that the NGOs never show empathy when it sees nakedness, adultery and desire being flushed into society through all channels of information and only yell their throats out when the same has been attempted on an innocent and then they turn out to blame religion for that. These specific priorities signify the agenda they work for or help to implement, maybe without being aware of it, as they themselves are just one link in the multilayered industry of philanthropy.
This agenda is clearly seen in the overview as the Feminist agenda, it aims at destroying the family system and converting the individuals into a manageable workforce; when the individual will have no loyalty with their loved ones they will make loyalty with the organization; when the family will not act as a unity, committed to each other’s welfare, united under the instruction of God, unto Whom all things unite, then the only religion left for the previously family-person now converted-into-worker, will be the manifesto of the organization.
Such split standards and inability to bring visible change and their persistent presence on the political front, the articulate medium and the mainstream Media converts the NGOs from non-political, good-hearted, committed-to-service people into a contingent of lowly paid brokers of faith and ideology. Yes, lowly paid! Because what the imperialists used to do with elaborate cavalry maintained at exuberant costs, now they can do with unarmed foot-soldiers, funded with beggar-money, who will parasitically stick to the hosts and make them believe that they are the real them; who will, as they inject the cancer of secular-feminist-individuality into a previously religious community filled with love and respect, insist that this is the cure of their disease, that they should be thankful to them, that they have brought the high morals to our immoral ways of life.
Unaware, perhaps, that in their guise, their donors have accomplished many fronts with no-boots-on-ground. Pity on us, how we will soon be seeing the rotting body of our nation, dying a painful cancerous death, which is the right fate of a nation weary of doing its own chores and relying on aid from others: the dependent can never be the rulers.